Thursday, 4 March 2021

COVER STORY: 'THE LORD OF THE RINGS' ON RADIO

It was forty years ago this very week and it was one of the most exciting days of my life.

A Thursday morning in the first week of March 1981: I was on my way to the local corner-shop to collect the latest copy of Radio Times, the weekly BBC TV-and-radio-guide. The excitement was generated by the fact that a project on which I'd been working for almost a year was to be featured on the magazine's front cover.

I remember standing in the shop, holding it (well, them, actually, because, of course, I bought six copies!) almost unable to focus on the image. 

I knew it was – or would become – iconic!

And so it has remained...



The artist responsible for that cover was this man –– Eric Fraser...


 

I first became aware of Eric Fraser's work when I was still a young lad. Prior to WWII, my father had worked as a commercial artist and – while, on leaving the forces, he had chosen a new career as an architectural draughtsman – he never lost his passion for fine graphic art, making a point of bringing to my youthful attention the work of artists he especially admired. 

One such was Eric George Fraser (1902-1983), who not only shared my father's forenames but was, arguably, one of the greatest British illustrators and graphic artists of the twentieth century. In the public awareness, Fraser was best known for his prolific output for Radio Times, which is where (at my Dad's prompting) I began regularly seeking out his latest pieces of work: immaculately crafted illustrations deigned to fit the rigorous demands – and restrictions – of the programme columns in the magazine's pages. 

Here are just three of Fraser's illustrations: for the Hippolytus of Euripedes (28 September 1945); Silence in Heaven (11 March 1949) and Faust (7 April 1950) and...

 


 
 

In those far-off days before photography brought about the demise of magazine cover-art, Fraser would also occasionally produce stunning Radio Times cover designs such as his celebrated 1953 Coronation Issue and this 1962 Christmas Number...

 

 


Eric Fraser was also famous for having created 'Mr Therm', an  anthropomorphic sun-man character who appeared in adverts for the Gas Light and Coke Company (later British Gas) and that, in various forms, remained a busy company logo for forty years.

 



I would add that my copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare was enhanced by Fraser's fabulously dramatic illustrations...

 


Radio Times' choice of Fraser to illustrate our radio drama was hardly random: he was already an experienced chronicler of Middle-earth history, having redrawn decorations to the 1977 Folio Society's The Lord of the Rings that had been originally designed by the then Crown Princess Margrethe of Denmark, now Queen Margrethe II... 

 




Two years later, in 1979, Fraser had illustrated the Folio Society's companion volume of The Hobbit


 

  

When, in January 1981, I had heard the news that Eric Fraser – the Eric Fraser! – was going to be creating the Radio Times cover for The Lord of the Rings, I knew what I had to do. It just had to be done, and it had it be done immediately! If it was remotely possible, I simply had to own the original artwork for that cover. 

The decision made, I wrote a letter to Eric Fraser, care of the magazine's art editor, introducing myself as dramatist of the forthcoming radio production he was about to illustrate and expressing an interest in acquiring the art. 

Fraser's answer was interesting because he highlights a perennial problem faced by all free-lance illustrators – will the artist ever get the original art back from the publisher?

 

 

My memory is vague about how I used my 'influence' to persuade Radio Times to return Fraser's art after use – I mean, I was such a newcomer with no standing at the BBC and absolute zero influence! I assume I told the magazine's art editor that Mr Fraser and I were wanting to 'do a deal' and that sorted it; in any event, the art was returned and the deal was done: 40 guineas (note: guineas!) which, in 1981, felt like – and, I guess, was – both quite a chunk of dosh and, at the same time, a pretty good price.

Eventually, in the fullness of time, the original art was mine...



My perspicacity was rewarded because, the moment this issue of Radio Times appeared, the artist was inundated by offers to purchase the cover-art from a slew of BBC personnel from the series' producer, via the Head of Radio Drama and the Controller of BBC Radio 4 up to the Director General himself! There were some very grumpy people as a result of Sibley having had the wit to approach the artist before he had even finished drawing it!


Eric Fraser additionally made some small colour decorations for the feature article inside the magazine – one of which appeared on a page in which I was photographed addressing the Tolkien Society's Northfarthing Smial about the forthcoming dramatisation...


 

The artist also drew 26 small illustrations for the Sunday Radio 4 programme page in Radio Times depicting a story-aspect of each of the weekly broadcasts; due to industrial action at the printing works across several weeks during the series' six month run, the magazine was forced to produce a slimmed-down emergency issue and three of these illustrations never made it into print. However, here is the debut episode..


 
I couldn't have afforded to buy any of these additional illustrations,  but I was content to have acquired what swiftly became a celebrated example of Radio Times art and it was Eric Fraser's penultimate cover for the magazine, drawn just two years before his death in 1983.

Almost immediately, and continuing over the next few years, the image began appearing on posters, gramophone record-sleeves, cassette cases and sheet music... 


 




...and, even as late as  2002, a hacked-down version was used on a postcard advertising the series' thirteen-episode repeat...



Over the years I treasured the original (occasionally loaning it for exhibition) and then, in 2019, I learned that Sotheby's were to offer, at auction, the remaining Lord of the Rings art that
Eric Fraser had made for Radio Times.  

Once again, I knew what had to be done... 

And so I bid...

And bid again... 

And increased my bid... 

And increased it again... 

And again...  

And when the hammer came down (much more than 40 guineas later) I was the successful bidder and could now reunite the rest of Fraser's Rings art with the original Radio Times cover purchased thirty-eight years earlier! 

Well, almost reunite...

True, I had another a legendary image, used on the reverse of the BBC's poster and on boxed set of audio cassettes when it was issued...



(Interestingly, I've never met anyone who's mentioned that the illustration is, actually, 'wrong' in that Fraser depicts Gandalf holding the One Ring!)

And I also had that delightful decorative border...


Yes, and the artist's 'rough' colour-sketch for the cover...

 


BUT I only had twenty-five of the original twenty-six episode illustrations, the art for Episode 2, 'The Shadow of the Past', not being among the collection. This is what the drawing looks like, as printed in Radio Times...

 


...and whilst I have no exception of ever now owning the full set, I would dearly love know who, if anyone, holds that fiery Ring! 

On the upside, however, I did have all those episode illustrations that, due to industrial action, had never appeared in Radio Times and so were there to be seen for the very first time: Episode 15: 'The Voice of Saruman', Episode 16: 'The Black Gate is Closed' and Episode 17: 'The Window on the West'...


 


So, that's the forty-year-old story behind one – quite particular – Radio Times cover!



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