Sunday, 13 March 2011

RING BACK

I knew the anniversary was coming up, but when it arrived, I almost missed it! Thirty years ago last Sunday (8 March 1981) at 12 noon, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first episode of a 26-part serialisation of J R R Tolkien's epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings...

LOTR: 30 YEARS ON!

For me – as the person who dissected and restructured the story in a form to be told in 30-minute chunks (nearly always culminating with a cliffhanger ending) and as the writer for half of the episodes – it was, and remains, the most significant landmark in my career.

If you've never read the story of how this radio classic (and, after thirty years, I don't need to offer any apology for that description) was embarked upon and accomplished you can do so in my article The Ring Goes Ever On.

As for the Radio Times cover (above) by illustrator Eric Fraser (a legendary embellisher of the magazine), I had, long before, been encouraged in identifying and appreciating Fraser's work by my father (a former commercial artist), so the moment I learned that he was going to create the cover art for the week in which TLotR would begin transmission, I wrote to him care of the Radio Times' Art Editor and asked if I could buy the original art.

Mr Fraser replied in rather mystified terms because he had not yet carried out the commission and couldn't imagine why anyone would want to purchase a piece of his art sight-unseen. I responded that I wanted to buy the painting whatever it looked like because it was my first production to be given a Radio Times cover (there was a later one) and because I was such an ardent admirer of his work. The artist's next letter told me that, if I still wished to buy it when I saw it, it could be mine for 40 guineas.

Thirty years ago, this was a not an inconsiderable sum, but my perspicacity in snapping up his offer was fully justified when, come March, the magazine appeared and the senior, producer on the series, the Head of Radio Drama, the Controller of Radio 4 and the Managing Director of Radio were all competing with one another to buy the original – only to find that it had already been sold!

It now hangs on my wall and is, without question, one of my most treasured possessions.

Here's a reminder of opening theme composed for the series by Stephen Oliver that, for six months of 1981, became part of Britain's Sunday lunchtime routine...



Special thanks to Jen Miller for unearthing and sending me this vintage edition edition of Radio Times!

21 comments:

Susan D-L said...

THis was a magnificent production. i first heard it around 1985-6 on the local public radio station, and as I was already a fervent Tolkienista, it was love at first listen. I bought the series on cassette tape and listened to it every couple of years. Just recently I popped them in to my ancient tape deck and was sad but not surprised to realized they had reached a point of unplayability. Looks like a new purchase--MP3 this time--is in order.

Thank you, Mr. S, for your fine work on this project.

Lo said...

Congratulations on this anniversary......of your first-born, so to speak.

What grand memories you must have.

Wendy said...

Oh my gosh! We had these recordings on tape. Hearing the music brings me back to hours of listening with our kids on long road trips! :)
I had no idea you were involved with that project - you never cease to amaze me, Brian!

Phil said...

Thirty years ago? Now THAT makes me feel old, as I remember listening at the time and it seems like only yesterday. (Well, last week maybe.)

What is curious is that it was on at 12 noon. I have absolutely no recollection of that - but in those days I had cultivated the habit of recording shows I thought I might like, so I could savour them again later. Time-shifting! Who knew, back then, that Radio 7 would one day exist.

It seems odd to have drama at 12 noon. I've become so used to that being a comedy-quiz spot, that it's hard to conceive of it as anything else.

moromyc: lesser known creature from the fringes of Tolkien's world.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for the kind compliments, folks.

In answer to Phil's question about the 12 noon broadcast time: I think it was quite revolutionary to have a drama at a time of day that, for untold years had been (and, as you say, still is) reserved for comedy.

As a result, it made the series a 'family' experience. Today, of course, when families rarely eat, let alone listen to the radio, together it may seem unlikely but, thirty years ago, it worked hugely in its favour.

The series was repeated (and maybe this is when Phil heard it) at 10:30 pm on Wednesday nights. Of course, true devotees listened to both broadcasts!

Boll Weavil said...

We forget, in these days of 24 hour television, just how significant radio was 30 years ago. Without the capacity to generate cost-effective special visual effects and produce a believable performance of the big fantasy novels,the BBC were obliged to rely on its poor relation for such interpretations. Whilst 'The Hobbit' was a passable attempt, LOTR was their first really big 'modern'epic.For me, the reason for that is not just the realistic audio effects,overall sound quality and music score.It's down to Brian's dialogue. I noticed this most, later, on in the BBC's Narnian Chronicles but it's evident in LOTR for the first time. The characters really do 'live'. The words really do capture the spirit and the emotions of Tolkien's original. Obviously we can't compare it with any other version but if you listen to the Beebs Narnian Chronicles, they are vastly superior to the larger-budget American versions which followed but sound much simpler and flatter.I think this is primarily because Brian is a fan of the works he dramatises and to approach them with a fans enthusiasm and the discernment to know what made them so good in the first place is the first step to producing a classic. I believe that BBC Radio's modern sense of adventure started first in 1978 when they commissioned 'The Hitch Hikers Guide To the Galaxy. It surely reached its height three years later with 'Lord of the Rings'. These two triumphs gave them the imagination and the self-belief to take more and greater risks.I'm sure anyone of around my age would put one or both of those titles as a major high point in their appreciation of the genre and radio drama history.

Anonymous said...

I have the entire series on tape in a nice boxed set and have not played it for a very long time. I do have a tape deck to play them on, but wonder if age may not have taken its toll now.

There were some great people in it who are sadly no longer around, but this was the first time the excellent Bill (or William as he was then) Nighy came to my attention. He has remained a favourite actor of mine.

Thirty years eh? No wonder the policemen (and politicians for that matter) are looking younger now ......... ;-)

Janet

Brian Sibley said...

* Blush! *

Good Dog said...

Is it really that long ago? I remember the Radio Times cover and the theme music very well - listening to it Sundays on my radio because the one in the kitchen was tuned to Radio 2, hoping that the roast dinner wouldn't be ready earlier than usual, meaning that I'd be called to lay the table before the episode was over.

1981 was my O-level exam year and the day after I sat the last exam we were up and gone, so I heard the first half of the serialisation down on the Devon coast and the rest on the edge of Dartmoor where, instead of getting the table set, I was probably hurrying back through the fields to the farmhouse having been sent out to count the cattle.

It has been a good while since I've listened to it but I was humming Stephen Oliver's theme before I hit the play button. And I remember The Battle Of Pelennor Fields being an instrumental piece rather than the bashing and crashing of swords and horses, allowing the listener to imagine it in their head. I hope I've got that right and haven't mixed it up with something else.

It was a remarkable piece of work, Brian. Thanks for that.

Eudora said...

Congratulations for the anniversary. That music is beautiful... very british.

Geno said...

One day I hope to find a copy of this so that I may finally listen to it!

Brian Sibley said...

Well remembered, Good Dog! And many thanks Eudora and Geno. Without (hopefully) sounding too much like a commercial, the CD recordings are widely available in the UK and USA.

Geno said...

There we go. Just put it in my wish list! Now when I have a bit of extra cash I shall begin enjoying this!

Brian Sibley said...

Sorry, Geno, that was blatant plug, wasn't it? But you really don't have to ever BUY it: it's enough that you have it on your Wish List, since the thought (or in this case the wish) partakes of the deed...

Anonymous said...

It remains the finest adaptation of Tolkien's work. I admire the look of the Peter Jackson films, and there are lots of things in those movie versions that I admire, but the films can't touch the pictures I used to have in my head when listening to the radio adaptation. The cast were magnificent (even if the actor playing Aragorn did take a bit of getting used to), the scripts sacrificed much less of the beauty of Tolkien's words than we've seen elsewhere, and changed far fewer of the important bits, and the fact that you managed to evoke an epic journey, with so many changes of landscape and peoples, through what is mostly dialogue is a miracle in itself. I have never forgotten the song Sam sings, that haunting Gil Galad tune. Think I'll revist my old cassette box set too, if the tapes still work.

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you, Anon! :)

Hemulen said...

Ah Brian, one of the cornerstones of my childhood, I am listening to it right now (Disc 8) as I write!

A truly monumental piece of radio drama, I once again cannot thank you enough for your work.

Tom Poynton

Brian Sibley said...

Dear Hemulen, Thank you! I'm very proud to be a cornerstone

Miles said...

I readily concur with the previous anonymous poster. This radio play is certainly one of the best, most respectful and authentic adaptations of the good professor's work. It is far superior to what jackson and bakshi brought to the screen (though bakshi did have the good sense to employ Peter Beagle to do the screenplay).

Brian Sibley said...

Miles – Many thanks. And I totally agree about Bakshi's use of Peter S Beagle as screenwriter. Indeed, I greatly admire PSB as a novelist. For all its (not inconsiderable) failings I would have liked to have seen the film completed by Bakshi rather than by other (far inferior) hands...

Brian Sibley said...

PS (To Miles): And, of course, I should say that I tip my hat to Bakshi and Beagle as the inspiration for my 'History of the Ring' prologue to the radio series.