Sunday 23 June 2019

One Ring To Rule Them All by Steve Gladwin

Rather than make comparisons between the radio version and the 2001 film franchise, in the spirit of the fellowship of nine, I'm going to give you nine reasons to listen to or buy the BBC radio version of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, especially - for god's sake, if you haven't heard it. So here goes.

Sir Ian in signing mode.

A Tale of Two Sir Ians

Long before his moving film portrayal of a confused Bilbo, Sir Ian Holm really was Frodo in the BBC radio adaptation and I mean was. I could enthuse about his performance forever but I'd better not. But he's the lynch pin of the radio adaptation and does everything that's required not only with consummate ease but with subtlety, pacing and intelligence to spare. His relationship with Sam with all its ups and downs is just wonderful, and almost unbearably moving in the Shelob and Dark Tower scenes. Sam sounds the right age to Bilbo as well, which is not of course so in the film where Sean Astin's Sam often seems more like an uncle, (or maybe Tolkien's batman!)

Bilbo muses.

Two more Great Theatrical Knights

Gandalf played by Sir Michael Hordern

Long before twinkling, absent-minded Ian McKellen came the arch harrumpher and friend of Paddington Bear, Sir Michael Hordern, now perhaps forgotten as he never, ever should be. For those who only remember him as befuddled dons, stuff upper-lipped admirals and  grumpy old men, listen when his Gandalf gets loses his patience, when its a wonder Pippin doesn't jump straight down the well. He can also do absent minded as convincingly as if Paddington has suddenly taken on a rather odd adventure. And of course he has real gravitas, the voice thrills and tugs at the heart. Above all Gandalf must be a great storyteller and Michael Hordern certainly is, (see Paddington!)

Sir Michael troubled by a haunted bed sheet in M.R. James 'Whistle and I'll come to you.' for the Beeb

Aragorn played by Sir Robert Stephens

Private life with violin.

In the light of the 'best in show' turn by Viggo Mortensen in the film franchise, it's maybe less easy to appreciate the wonderful oak preserved, tanned leather voice of Sir Robert Stephens as Aragorn and I have friends who think he is completely miscast and works far better as Abner Brown in The Box of Delights. For me he'll always be a much under-rated Sherlock Holmes' in Billy Wilder's odd, quirky, at times frankly barking, but deeply moving The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, but as the never seen version of Aragorn he's got everything. It's that same seasoned voice that makes him both perfect ageless king elect and a convincing ranger. You can imagine him pulling off his boots after a days's trudge and lighting up his pipe, and because the king is incognito for a lot of the time, it gives him all the more eventual gravitas. Plus we have none of that pesky added on romance stuff with Awen to guarantee box office.

Robert Stephen's Falstaff with Joanne Pearce as Doll.

A chilling Hades in Jim Henson's Greek Myths
As Abner Brown in The Box of Delights

Max from Inspector Morse

Peter Woodthorpe, who offered to make it three times in a row with Gollum.

With Peter Woodthorpe as Gollum. Those five words alone are a reason to listen . And yes, Peter Woodthorpe did play Max, the hunchbacked police surgeon and Morse's only real mate in the eponymous TV series, but he also appeared as Estragon in the very first production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and there's an awful lot of Beckett still to be found in his Gollum.

Towards the end of his life Peter Woodthorpe related how he wrote to Peter Jackson to offer his services as Gollum for the third time, (having first played it in the Ralph Bakshi animated half ring version!. As we all know, Peter Jackson already had intriguing plans involving actor - and soon to be groundbreaking motion capture artist Andy Serkis, but as Jackson is a huge fan of the BBC adaptation and of Peter Woodthorpes's Gollum, he was glad of the chance to let him down gently.

Gollum is of course a complex character - not to say a schizophrenic one- and Peter Woodthorpe captures every nuance of the tormented hobbit's complex personality morals and loyalties. During his many scenes with Frodo and Sam, Peter Woodthorpe shows the full heart-breaking depth of the character's deception, his calumny, the loyalties of Smeagol driven friendship struggling against his evil Gollum soured opportunism. Listen to the scene where the two parts are first vying for control after Frodo releases the suppressed Smeagol half in the Dead Marshes. Peter Woodthorpe does every part of it through voice alone - and it's the moves from one to the other which really display his unique vocal skills.

Bill long after he was Sam Gamgee as washed out rocker Ray in Still Crazy

One Sam To Rule Them All

Believe it or not, but long before Bill Nighy displayed the power of his pipes as Ray the washed up prog rocker in Brian Gibson's Clement and Le Frenais scripted Still Crazy he had given us his voice in unaccompanied and far more plaintive mood. The moment before the attack on Weathertop when he sings 'Gil galad was an Elven King' is a true pin-drop moment.

His Sam is simply wonderful and has all the youth that Sean Astin, (by far the oldest of the film hobbit company) lacks. This Sam will lay down his life for his master without thinking and there is real loyalty and love between the two, (as to be fair there is between Sean Astin and Elijah Wood's Sam and Frodo). But something special happens when Sir Ian and Bill get together. And then when you add Peter Woodthorpe to the mix?. At best Bill Nighy's Sam can be wrenching and heart-breaking. But like his master he is always 100% believable.

Stephen Oliver

The multi-talented Stephen Oliver

Stephen Oliver was a multi talented musician and composer of 40 operas and early music specialist who died far too young of an AIDS related illness in 1992. He was commissioned to write the music for the radio series of The Lord of the Rings. He was no stranger to huge undertakings but this truly was a huge canvas to control and master.

A couple of years ago an elderly neighbour of ours described going to see the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring., He had to leave the cinema because very quickly he found the constant sweeping soundtrack too intrusive and more to the point, it hurt his ears.

I do love Howard Shore's extensive film score, with its epic grandeur and use of leit motifs and have a great many favourite moment, like the all too short section of the halls of the Dwarrowdelf in Moria. Shore evokes that cathedral like mixture of grandeur and regret in a way which is truly heart tugging and there is some absolutely wonderful stuff which captures everything necessary and more.

But the book is full of songs and poems Apart from Frodo's disastrous party piece in Bree, nobody really sings in the film and if they do it is apologetically, so people end up saying, 'Ooh, look, Viggo Mortensen can sing, after all.' Others are just drowned by the constant music.

But Bill Nighy can sing. And the chorus of assembled Ents can. And long before he became a wine critic, so could Oz Clarke as the voice of The Bard. And then there's acclaimed counter tenor David James and Baritone Matthew Vine as Lothlorien and the Eagle and the Dream Voice. Later John le Mesurier was recorded singing Bilbo's last song and how suitably weary and earth-trodden it sounds. You can hear it as part of the hour long soundtrack on youtube. But what Stephen Oliver does in contrast to Howard Shore's approach is give us a soundtrack for an epic story, rather than a soundtrack for a film, something more suitable for a Saxon feasting hall - which would of course been much far more up Tolkien's street.

Brian Sibley

Brian Sibley has written, adapted and collaborated on so many things it shouldn't be any surprise that his later role as Mr Movie Tie in, (Rings, Hobbit, Potter just for starters), not to mention as Peter Jackson's official biographer. comes in an impressive direct line from adapting the subject of this blog and before that the BBC Narnia chronicles and latterly Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. He also wrote the wonderful book Shadowlands, about the elderly CS Lewis's relationship with Joy Davidman.

Of course Brian Sibley adapted the series with Michael Bakewell, who must of course share the credit for so powerful, moving and above all beautifully structured a dramatisation.

Sometimes Eccentric Casting

There are a great many other actors in this version apart from the leads and several of the the established BBC radio drama stalwarts appear not only in name parts but in the 'also starring' list at the end of each episode. It would be nice to give them all a credit here, but the list, as you'd imagine, is extensive.

The two younger hobbits can be a little middle class and too wide eyed with wonder, but are fine nonetheless. David Collings has the right voice for Legolas, as has Michael Graham Cox the suitably gruff tones for the disappointed Boromir and Douglas Livingstone is the best Gimli you'll ever hear. Then there's the late great actor Peter Vaughan, with a career spanning all the way through to his final role as Maester Aemon in Game of Thrones, as the bitter and Palantir maddened Denethor, but who we all remembered at the time as Genial Harry Grout, Fletch's nemesis in Porridge, and Andrew Sear as his son Faramir. We also have Simon Cadell sounding every inch the stiff upper lip elf in his cameo as Celeborn, (to Marian Diamond's gentle Galadriel).

Jack May and John Le Mesurier as Theoden and Bilbo respectively may be more of an acquired taste. Jack May, famous for his old ham role of Nelson Gabriel in the early days of The Archers, starts with a very thick slice of it, before settling down into more of a neatly sliced version. Its speeches that seem to bring out the worst of the old tendency, so he's far better in his dialogues with Gandalf or when Peter Howell's marvellously voiced Saruman, (here is a wizard whose gentle tones could surely lull us for long enough to lure us).

I like John Le Mesurier as the old Bilbo, but I can understand how others might not. Part of the problem is his type-casting in our memories as Sergeant Wilson in Dad's Army. Every time he comes in you expect him to say 'Do you think that's wise, Frodo?' But after you get over the initial shock, his portrayal becomes as heartfelt at Ian Holm's once we get to Rivendell. 

I also shouldn't forget Stephen Thorne's wonderful Treebeard, Paul Brooke's wheedling Wormtongue or Philip Voss as the Voice of Sauron. And then there's Inspector Morse's future boss James Grout as a wonderfully befuddled Barliaman Butterbur.

Two hobbits and a wizard rather eccentric advert from the Radio Times in 1981.

Audio Narration

In 1991 I took a group of Performing Arts students to Grimsby Leisure Centre to see the RSC's touring company's production of Shakespeare's . A Winter's Tale. Before the performance, two hundred or so school and college students were given the chance to hear the actor Gerard Murphy talk about playing the role of Leontes. At the end we addressed questions to him. To fairly amazed looks from my students I asked him what it had been like working with all those wonderful actors as the narrator in the BBC Radio Lord of the Rings. His clearly rather dazed reply was that he had been very young then and didn't remember much.

Recently I've realised that it was a rather stupid question, (neither the first or last!). Of course he didn't see them because a narration track would be done separately and likely added later.

But it isn't Gerard Murphy's creditable narration that for me provides the final emerald in the crown of this 1981 jewel.
Instead it is what I have chosen to call the audio narration - for which I should probably say direction. Generally the words of an author rarely survive without the surrounding superstructure of plot and character, which are a big part of what radio as a medium does so well. A director like Jane Morgan or Penny Leicester would have had to rely on the surrounding part , what screen writing tutors often call 'theme', that which is essentially narration done by actors, music and effects. There are too many instances of this but try the fellowships's impossible attempt to master Caradhras and reach the Redhorn Gate, and then follow it with the closed in echoing ambience of the Mines of Moria. Then there's the music and combined atmospherics which tell you that on entering Lothlorien you're in a whole different world, one different even from the earlier, far more human influenced and welcoming Last Homely House of Elrond. Take in the eerie strings of Frodo, Sam and Gollum's passage through the dead marshes, or the early horror that surrounds Frodo with the black breath at Weathertop moments after Bill Nighy's Sam has almost inadvertently welcomed in the Black Riders through his singing of the words 'in Mordor where the shadows are.'  in the Lay of Gil-galad.

Whether you listen to it all in a thirteen hour stint, or take it a book at a time, or like I am currently, on one of Audible's one hour plus stretches, you cannot help but be fully immersed and variously chilled, awed or simply blissed out by the full experience of the BBC's magnificent aural experience. And of course, it hardly needs saying that you get to paint the landscape of the perilous journey yourself from green, safe and settled Hobbiton to the wastelands of Mordor and the slopes of Mount Doom.


Madonaldo said...
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Penny Dolan said...

This is a vastly impressive analysis of the roles and characters and voices and versions, Steve. As someone who tends to just listen and/or watch things, I am in awe!

Steve Gladwin said...

You're too kind, Penny. It's too long of course, but I tend towards the enthusiastic! Thanks.

Paul May said...

Thanks, Steve. This reminds me how much I enjoyed the radio adaptation. I especially agree about the casting of Frodo and Sam. Absolutely brilliant in the radio version and absolutely terrible in the movie, but that's just me. I wanted to love the movies and didn't mind the first one when it came out, but ended up hating them all. I also know exactly what you mean about Robert Stephens as Aragorn. He sounds a little too mellow and well-fed at times, but he's such a good actor that he makes it work. I used to have the whole thing on cassette tapes but they're long gone. Have to find another way of listening.

Jenny Alexander said...

I'm with Penny! This wonderfully detailed analysis is quite awe inspiring!