The Making of BBC Radio's
The Lord of the Rings

It all felt rather familiar! Ian Holm was in London, reading a movie-script for The Fellowship of the Ring that was soon to begin shooting in New Zealand. It was to be the first picture in a film-trilogy based on J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and Ian was to play the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins. As the actor turned the pages of the script, however, there was no denying that he began to feel a strange sense of déjà vu...

At the other end of the world - in Wellington, New Zealand - a young prosthetic make-up artist was putting the finishing touches to a sculpture of Bilbo in old age. It would be used to create a latex mask for Ian to wear in the final film of the trilogy.

As the artist sculpted, a radio cassette player on his workbench surrounded him with voices from Tolkien's Middle-earth. The audio version of The Lord of the Rings to which he was listening had originally been broadcast by the BBC some twenty years earlier, and the role of Bilbo's nephew, Frodo, had been played by --- Ian Holm!

I, too, would eventually find myself in New Zealand, researching a series of books on the making of The Lord of the Rings films where, again and again, I met people - like the make-up artist, like the film's director Peter Jackson - who were fans of that radio dramatisation with which I had also been involved so many years before.

So, how did this extraordinary piece of radio, that has so resolutely survived the test of time, come to be made? Well, that story begins - even longer ago - with another adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Early Explorations

In November 1955, just one month after the publication of The Return of the King, the third and final volume of The Lord of the Rings, the BBC Third Programme (now Radio 3) embarked on a series of dramatised readings from the complete novel.

Whilst Tolkien was flattered that his book should have merited this attention, he was not pleased with the results and came to the conclusion that The Lord of the Rings was, as he put it, 'very unsuitable for dramatic representation'. In fact, he subsequently referred to the BBC's efforts, not as a dramatisation, but as a sillification!

Two years later, Tolkien was having discussions with a group of American filmmakers who wanted to produce "a cartoon film" based on the book. Tolkien admitted that he found the "glint of money" alluring and was, initially, prepared to think that "vulgarization" might even be "less painful than sillification"!

On reading the proposed storyline, however, he found so many errors, omissions and changes (such as the transformation of Lothlórien into a "fairy-tale castle" and an irritating tendency to have characters "gallop about on Eagles at the least provocation") that it only confirmed his view that there was no way in which his book could successfully be translated into another medium.

Although Tolkien finally relinquished the film-rights to both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, he did not live to see either book visualised on film. The author died in 1973, four years before the initial foray of cameras into Middle-earth that resulted in an animated version of The Hobbit for American television.

This was followed, in 1978, by the first of two planned animated cinema movies based on The Lord of the Rings. Directed by Ralph Bakshi (who had achieved considerable notoriety with his X-rated cartoon feature, Fritz the Cat), the film was not a success, and the promised sequel never materialised, although the conclusion to the story was later made - in a different style and by other hands - and televised as The Return of the King.

A year after the release of the Bakshi film, the BBC began discussions with the film's producers for permission to broadcast a new radio version of Tolkien's book. The negotiations were protracted and, as it transpired, completely unnecessary since the radio rights had never passed to the film company and were still controlled by the Tolkien estate.

That the radio dramatisation exists at all is a testament to the vision of one man: the late Richard Imison. Then head of the BBC's Script Unit, Richard was determined to bring The Lord of the Rings to radio and to see it done with flair and commitment.

Vision and Chance

My own involvement came about by pure happenstance. Having turned down a proposal from me to adapt a book by E M Forster, Richard Imison asked - probably as no more than a courtesy - if there was anything else that I would like to dramatise. So I said that there was --- The Lord of the Rings!

I had read The Hobbit at school and later enjoyed Tolkien's short fantasy tales such as Farmer Giles of Ham and the book of verses about Tom Bombadil.

I even sent the latter to Professor Tolkien asking him to autograph it for me, which he did - as well as correcting a typographical error on one of the pages.

Years later, when the book's illustrator, Pauline Baynes, became a friend, she added her autograph to that of Master Bombadil's creator.

Being, as a youngster, an inordinately slow reader, I was repeatedly deterred by the the length of The Lord of the Rings. Six weeks in hospital with a stomach ulcer finally provided me with the ideal opportunity to get dug-into Middle-earth.

Along with my pyjamas and toothbrush I packed the one volume paperback edition with Pauline Baynes' enticing cover art...

...and by the time I had read fifty-something pages, I was hooked - for life!

Anyway, I made the suggestion to the BBC without the slightest expectation that it would come to pass. Unbeknownst to me, negotiations were still going on and, therefore, 'top-secret' so Richard took some convincing that I hadn't been fed inside information by a 'mole' in the Drama Department.

"How did you know?" he asked.

"How did I know what?" I replied.

"How did you know that we were trying to obtain the radio rights to The Lord of the Rings?"

Well, of course I didn't, but they were and, when they had, I was offered the dramatisation.

Looking back, Richard's decision to involve me in the project was astonishing: the series was planned to run across half a year, in twenty-six weekly episodes.

It was a formidable undertaking and I was a young and, frankly, very inexperienced radio writer. No doubt Richard saw that I had the enthusiasm and confidence of youth, as well as a passion for Tolkien's books, but it was a courageous commitment to an unproved talent for which I shall always be grateful.

As a safeguard, I was to be partnered by Michael Bakewell, a highly experienced dramatist with a distinguished career in writing and producing plays and adaptations - including a serialsation of another vast book, Tolstoy's War and Peace. We were to write thirteen episodes a-piece and it was my job, initially, to produce a coherent synopsis for those episodes.

The Breaking of the Ring

Two months were spent in breaking down and rationalising the various strands of the story into thirty-minute scenarios which balanced the various moods, kept the many plots on the boil, involved all the central characters and concluded with a suitable 'tune-in-next-week' cliff-hanger!

I was briefly burdened by the knowledge that, when discussing a possible film version, Tolkien had been adamant that the two main threads to his tale (that of the Ring-bearer and that of the other members of the Fellowship) should not be interwoven, but should follow their own individual chronology, as they do in the book. I concluded - as did filmmaker, Peter Jackson - that there is no way in which such an approach could successfully be applied to a dramatic presentation of the story.

Even with thirteen hours of radio time, it soon became clear that cuts and compressions would have to be made. As a result, a handful of events and one or two characters (including, to the disgust of many Tolkien fans, Tom Bombadil) were eliminated from the story.

In the case of Tom Bombadil, I knew that Tolkien had created the character independently of The Lord of the Rings and had, on his own admission, found it difficult to work Bombadil into the matter of the Ring. So, to the anger of many listeners, we said goodbye to poor Tom!

Several years later, I attempted to make restitution for the assassination of Tom Bombadil when I dramatised the omitted chapters from the book in the radio series, Tales of the Perilous Realm.

The script-writing took several months, after which the completed scripts were sent to France to be read and approved by the author's son, Christopher Tolkien. His help with the project was unstinting and included recording an audiocassette of the acceptable pronunciation of Middle-earth words and names.

As senior producer for the series, the BBC chose one of its most practised directors, Jane Morgan, who had an outstanding knack for getting actors to give unforgettable performances and who was committed to creating a realistic world rather than that of an airy-fairy fantasy.

Since the timetable set for the recordings was a daunting one (rehearsing and recording every day for almost two months), a talented young director, Penny Leicester, was brought onto the project to work with Jane and direct several episodes.

After three or four months writing, twenty-six scripts were finally finished and Jane, Penny, Michael and I applied our minds to the challenging task of putting voices to the characters.

Voices and Music of Middle-earth

The casting of Ian Holm as Frodo (seen, right, with Michael Hordern and John Le Mesurier) was simply inspired. Ian's thoroughness in preparing for a role and the single-minded dedication that he brings to the creation of any character made him the ideal choice for this complex personality who - whilst only small - faces a superhuman task and, somehow, survives. The eventual performance proved to be one of unswerving determination, tempered always with humour and vulnerability.

As for Gandalf, Michael Hordern - if the truth were told - never entirely understood what was going on! He was, for example, genuinely perplexed by the wizard's seeming demise in Moria during Episode 8, and asked Jane Morgan whether his agent had been wrong about the number of episodes for which he was required! When told that he would be resurrected in Episode 12, he simply grunted: "Splendid! Splendid!" and shambled away.

Nevertheless, by intuition or some other theatrical magic, he became Gandalf: by turn wise, stern and compassionate, a force for good, a constant light in an ever-darkening storm.

John Le Mesurier (who had endeared himself to millions as Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army) played Bilbo with a weary melancholy. Robert Stephens, as Aragorn, gave a mercurial performance, combining nobility and humanity in his portrayal of the returning king whose fate, along with that of all Middle-earth, hangs on the success or failure of Frodo's quest.

As for Peter Woodthorpe (right), well, he was born to play Gollum - and, indeed, had already done so, having provided the slimy creature's hissing voice in Ralph Bakshi's animated film.

An actor with a vast theatrical experience (he was i the first London productions of Waiting for Godot and The caretaker) Peter captured Gollum's every mood: cunning and tricksy, doomed and tragic, hateful and pathetic.

Woodthorpe's voice was familiar to British TV audiences for having dubbed Pigsy's lines in the popular Japanese show, Monkey, the title character of which was voiced by David Collings (left) who joined the Fellowship in the role of Legolas in the Rings.

Michael Graham Cox who portrayed Boromir (like Woodthorpe reprising his Bakshi film role) was a regular cast member of Jane Morgan's radio productions as were Douglas Livingstone and Richard O'Callaghan who played Gimli and Merry.

I had worked on several occasions with Stephen Thorne (right) and suggested he would make a great Treebeard (which he did) and we continued working together on several later projects including the seven 'Chronicles of Narnia', in which he spoke for Aslan the Lion and Tolkien's Tales of the Perilous Realm in which he played Chrysophylax the dragon confronted by Farmer Giles of Ham.

Some of my favourite performances were those by actors who seized the samller - often incidental roles - and made of them something enduringly memorable: Peter Howell's silver-tongued Saruman, John Bott's homely Farmer Maggot and James Grout's blissful bumbling and befuddled Barliman Butterbur.

Although the cast featured many radio veterans - including Peter Vaughan (left) as Denethor and Jack May as Théoden - there was also a younger, up-and-coming generation of actors, among them Gerard Murphy, who gave the series its strong narrative voice, John McAndrew as the ever-inquisitive Pippin; Andrew Seear as Faramir; Anthony Hyde and Elin Jenkins as Éomer and Éowyn and Bill (William) Nighy who, in the role of Sam, created a character of such warmth and good-heartedness that - alongside Ian Holm's driven Frodo - provided the story's emotional core.

Here are Bill and Ian recording a scene with Peter Woodthorpe...

Everyone realised that the music would play an important part in the serialisation and, since we all agreed that it must sound essentially English, a number of distinguished composers - popular and classical - were considered. The elderly Sir Malcolm Arnold was approached, but declined. However, Sir Malcolm's agent suggested another possible composer...

Co-incidentally, I had a recording of some music written, years earlier, for an open-air performance of Alice Through the Looking-glass. I thought it had a pleasing, English-pastoral quality, a view endorsed by Jane Morgan when she heard it.

The composer of that Looking-glass score and the Arnold-agent recommendation turned out to be one and the same: Stephen Oliver.

By the time Stephen (right, photograph © Christopher Lloyd) agreed to write the music for The Lord of the Rings, he was already receiving great acclaim for his music to the RSC's epic production of Nicholas Nickleby.

Stephen's Rings music was both majestic and magical: the sinuous, relentlessly driving opening-theme becoming, for millions of listeners, a weekly siren-call into another realm.

Forging the Ring

First, however, there were those two months in studio that were to prove a time of mixed emotions: there was excitement - actually, elation - as, day-by-day, we lived Frodo's journey from the rural peace of the Shire to the grim terrors of Mount Doom. There was the frustration of fighting against the restraints of time and the sheer physical and mental exhaustion of so demanding a schedule.

But there was also the thrill at hearing pure magic produced, literally, out of thin air - whether through the technical wizardry of Elizabeth Parker and the Radiophonic Workshop or the simple creation of Gollum's flapping footsteps by a technician slapping her bare thighs. All told, there was a lot of laughter, quite a few tears and a number of frazzled tempers before all twenty-six episodes were recorded and edited for transmission.

The first episode of The Lord of the Rings was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at lunchtime on Sunday 8 March 1981. Radio Times marked the event with a special cover by that master illustrator, Eric Fraser.

The critics were divided - with several dismissing it and many ignoring it - but that scarcely mattered since it quickly became clear that the dramatisation was establishing a cult following, epitomised by a postcard which I noticed stuck up in the window of my local newsagents with the plea: "Will trade copies of any episodes of The Lord of the Rings for episode 10 which I missed!"

Fans eagerly snapped up giveaways such as buttons with the slogan Radio is Hobbit 4-ming and bought posters reproducing the Radio Times cover, while I managed to annoy most senior BBC management by buying the original artwork from Eric Fraser before they thought of trying to do so!

Amazingly, The Tolkien Society graciously forgave me for whatever shortcomings the series contained and awarded me their silver badge.

One dedicated fan of the series, Ian Smith , compiled and privately printed a dossier on the series with reviews of all the episodes and interviews with the cast, writers and directors. It was called Microphones in Middle-earth and cost the princely sum of £2.90! Its value today, as a collector's item, is inestimable!

Ian became and has remained one of my closest friends and, as an enduringly dedicated fan (not just of the radio series, but also the book and films), has written about, and photographed, many Rings events for his lively, often provocative and invariably irascible web site.

The year following the first broadcast, the series was repeated, this time in thirteen one-hour episodes and then issued first on audio cassette and then, later (with various tinkerings and remasterings) on compact disc in Britain and (below) America...

Return to Middle-earth

Thirty years on, several of our original travelling companions from that first radio journey have passed beyond the Sundering Sea, but others of us remain and, from time to time, retrace our steps through Middle-earth.

Take Frodo for example: he eventually went off to New Zealand and turned into Bilbo! I, too, went South, to follow the making of the Rings movies and, in so doing, made friends with many of those working on the film trilogy (on both sides of the camera) as well as with fellow Tolkien writer and superb fantasy novelist Jane Johnson - aka Jude Fisher - shown here with myself and Andy (Gollum) Serkis.

As for Bilbo, in 2001 he found his old self once more and came back home to Bag End - as Frodo.

Let me explain...

To coincide with the release of the first of Peter Jackson's films, the radio series was restructured, as far as possible, in line with Tolkien's original three volumes: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.

Since the series was never designed to exist in such stand-alone chunks, it was decided that we would record newly-written prologues and epilogues in which Ian Holm would play Frodo during his last days on Middle-earth as he settled to the task of recording the history of the War of the Ring.

Listening to him at the microphone, it truly seemed as if the intervening years had vanished away and that here was proof indeed that the Ring - like the road in Bilbo's song - really does go ever on and on...


A Masterpiece Worthy of the Masterpiece by Ellen Brundige

In Middle Earth by Sue Arnold

The series is currently under discussion on The Barrow-Downs Discussion Forum

Available recordings of BBC Radio's
The Lord of the Rings...

Compact Discs

Audio Cassettes

Audio Cassettes 'Children's Collection'

Tales of the Perlious Realm...

Compact Discs and Cassettes

And J R R Tolkien: An Audio Portrait...

Compact Discs and Cassettes

READ an SFX interview with Brian about TLOTR