The Lord of the Rings (1981 radio series)

In 1981 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 26 half-hour stereo instalments. (There had been a previous 13-part BBC Radio version in 1956, but no recordings are known to have survived.) There was also a slightly expanded 13-episode version and later a 3-part home audio compilation; see below for details.

Cast and Credits

Woodthorpe and Cox reprised their roles from Ralph Bakshi's animated version, and Holm went on to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy, a role played by John Le Mesurier in the BBC version.

Each of the original 26 episodes received two broadcasts per week - standard practice for many BBC radio serials even today. The first broadcast of Episode 2 was blacked out across a large part of south east England because of a transmitter failure - a very rare occurrence even then.

The series was also broadcast in the US on NPR with a new synopsis preceding each episode.

A soundtrack album featuring a completely re-recorded and in some cases expanded, suite of Stephen Oliver's music was released in 1981.

The 26-part series was subsequently edited into 13 hour-long episodes, restoring some dialogue originally cut for timing (since each hour-long episode is actually around 57 minutes, as opposed to 54 minutes for two half-hour episodes), rearranging some scenes for dramatic impact and adding linking narration and music cues. This version was released on both tape and CD sets which also included the soundtrack album (noticeably taken from a vinyl copy).

In 2002, to cash in on the success of Jackson's movies, the BBC reissued the series in three sets corresponding to the three original volumes (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King), omitting the original episode divisions, and with Ian Holm providing a new opening and closing narration for the first two sets, and an opening narration only for the last. The re-edited version also included some additional music cues, which had to be taken from the soundtrack album because the original master tapes for the series music had been lost. The soundtrack, now digitally remastered, was also included with The Return of the King set, with a demo of John Le Mesurier singing Bilbo's Last Song included as a bonus track.

The 13-episode series was also rerun on Radio 4 in 2002. The series has not been heard on the digital BBC archive station BBC 7, despite frequent requests, reportedly because of copyright issues.

The script by Sibley and Bakewell attempts to be as faithful as possible to the original novels, but there are some errors and alterations. Examples:

  • At one point, Minas Anor and Minas Tirith are referred to as though they were separate cities; these are merely alternate names for the same fictional city.
  • Aragorn receives a black standard from Arwen as a sign that he should rouse the army of the dead. In a later scene in the book the standard is no longer black but bears the White Tree of Gondor; there is no reference to this apparent transformation in the radio series.
  • Part of the Riders of Rohan sequence is described in song by an opera-style vocalist rather than acted, which tends to distance the listeners from the action.

Even so, the series is undeniably ambitious; the BBC has seldom attempted anything of this scale for a radio series.

Note: There is also another dramatisation by The Mind's Eye, with a different cast, which is still being sold. See for more details. (If anyone wants to write an article on this, please do so.)

The Lord of the Rings

Volumes of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings book
The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers | The Return of the King

Movies in Peter Jackson's LotR movie trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring | The Two Towers | The Return of the King

Animated movies
The Hobbit animated movie | Lord of the Rings animated movie | Return of the King animated movie

The History of The Lord of the Rings | Lord of the Rings radio series


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