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The BBC's Lord of the Rings

Over the last few weeks I've been listening to the BBC's 1981 audio version of The Lord of the Rings, having run out of Who audios to listen to. It is very very good, and I strongly recommend it. Ian Holm as Frodo, Bill Nighy as Sam, Michael Hordern as Gandalf, and John Le Mesurier as Bilbo are excellent in their roles. (Shout out also to Stephen Thorne as Treebeard and Jack May as Théoden.) But the two key performers, in my view, are Robert Stephens as Aragorn and Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum/Sméagol.

I would say the biggest performance gap between the audio and the Peter Jackson movies is that between Stephens and Viggo Mortensen. Stephens' Aragorn is tough, damaged, wise, and (as far as we can tell) not even particularly good-looking. He carries every scene he is in, and invests dignity and authority in every line, be it Tolkien's original words or new material from Bakewell and Sibley. (And unlike the Peter Jackson films, Aragorn's story is left pretty much intact.)

The gap between Peter Woodthorpe and Andy Serkis is smaller but it is still in Woodthorpe's favour. Gollum's internal dialogue (ie his habit of talking to himself) works well for audio, and indeed here we get a number of extra scenes with Gollum's adventures away from the main storyline. In his penultimate scene, told by Frodo that he can never have the Ring back, he complains bitterly that "nassty hobbitses doesn't realise how long 'never' is", a moment where he almost engages our sympathy. His final moments shortly afterwards are gorgeously manic and rightly expanded considerably from the few lines Gollum's demise gets in the original text.

I remember a few years back seeing an archive interview with Tolkien where he stated with an air of elderly innocence that the books were all about Death. I wondered about this at the time, since to an extent I still read the book through my own nine-year-old eyes, and it's not such an obvious concern of the Peter Jackson films. But it's clearly a theme of the audio. Boromir's funeral, to a minor key variation of the theme tune; Denethor's suicide; Frodo and Sam facing up to death in Mordor (rather than bickering); Bilbo gradually slipping into old age; not to mention the various actual battles; these are all real and awful events in the BBC version. And the music is good, too. It is truly gripping. Get it if you can.

(The Jackson movies do score over the BBC in some respects, of course. New Zealand is a major star of the screen version; also the other members of the Fellowship not mentioned above are given more characterisation and a bit more to do. Though that is sometimes at the expense of the integrity of the story.)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 31st, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
I presume it was this version of LotR that Ted and I listened to on a cross-country trip some years ago. I was utterly crushed when Gollum didn't say, "Don't want fishes!" in the movie. :)
May. 31st, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
I used to have all of those episodes on cassette tape, recorded at the time. I can't remember many details but I do recall thinking that Giollum was about the best voice characterization in it and also loving Ian Holm's Frodo and not being able to listen to any of the early Black Riders episodes while by myself because they were much too frightening. The last few broadcasts I had to get relatives to tape for me because we were moving to the radio black hole zone that was our house in West Cork.

At the time I could not stand Robert Stephens's voice performance. I just grated and jarred at every line. I wonder how I would feel now though as I have met Stephens in many other performances, notably his tour de force as Pistol in Branagh's Henry V. I would be glad to try if those cassettes had not turned to sticky goo many years ago.
May. 31st, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
mraltariel and I have been listening to this the past few weeks too. I first heard it back on original transmission back in 1981, when I was 9 years old. I must have been reading the book around the same time, or slightly afterwards: both are entirely bound up together in my mind. I listened to it with my brother, who recorded (some) of the 26 episodes, and my dad, who died not long afterwards, but thankfully not before giving me Tolkien.

That set of tapes lasted me until the series was repeated (in 13 episodes) in, I think, 1987 or 1988. Much played! Another brother gave me a boxed set of (official!) tapes for passing my A-levels (1990).

Edited at 2009-05-31 05:47 pm (UTC)
May. 31st, 2009 06:49 pm (UTC)
Dramatising a widely-admired book is famously fraught with difficulty. This is the best example I know of how to do it.
May. 31st, 2009 07:01 pm (UTC)
Oh, the BBC adaptation of The Hobbit is rather wonderful, if you haven't heard it. (Spot the Doctor Who interest fact in that link!)
May. 31st, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC)
I love the BBC LotR, too. For me, Ian Holm's Frodo was at the core of it - one of the best voice performances ever, giving Frodo a lot more power than the film whilst still maintaining his youth and inexperience.
Jun. 1st, 2009 12:34 pm (UTC)
I'd just like to add my voice to the general adoration of this version of LOTR!

I think Ian Holm as Frodo is quite wonderful, and it was a stroke of genius to cast him as Bilbo in the movies.

I'm surprised, though, you didn't mention Gimli: his characterisation as a comedy beard-freak is one of the few things I found really objectionable about the movies. I thought Douglas Livingstone's performance was excellent; gruff yet tender, melancholic yet determined. The nobility of the character seemed completely lost in the movies -- though to be fair John Rhys-Davies's performance was fine, it was just that his lines and the style of direction he received seemed to be all in the direction of making him the comic relief. And that's what Pippin's for!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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