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The Lord of the Rings (1981 radio series)

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Genre  Radio drama
Country  United Kingdom
Home station  BBC Radio 4
Running time  30 minutes per episode
Language(s)  English
Starring  Ian Holm Michael Hordern Robert Stephens William Nighy James Grout Simon Cadell John Le Mesurier Jack May Peter Vaughan

In 1981 BBC Radio 4 produced a dramatisation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 26 half-hour stereo installments. The novel had previously been adapted as a 12-part BBC Radio adaptation in 1955 and 1956 (of which no recordings are known to have survived), and a 1979 production by The Mind's Eye for National Public Radio in the USA.


Like the novel on which it is based, The Lord of the Rings is the story of an epic struggle between the Dark Lord Sauron of Mordor, the primary villain of the work, and an alliance of heroes who join forces to save the world from falling under his shadow.

Broadcast history

The serial was originally broadcast from 8 March to 30 August 1981 on BBC Radio 4 on Sundays from 12 Noon to 12:30pm. Each episode was repeated on the following Wednesday from 10:30pm to 11:00pm. The first broadcast of Episode 2 was blacked out across a large part of southeast England because of a transmitter failure (a very rare occurrence even then).

The series was also broadcast in Canada on CBC AM in the summer of 1982. In the US it was on NPR with a new synopsis preceding each episode, narrated by Tammy Grimes. It was also aired in Australia.

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 broadcast from 17 July to 9 October 1982, 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 with overlaps and extra credits removed), rearranging some scenes for dramatic impact and adding linking narration and music cues. Even so, a small amount of material was also lost, notably a minute long scene featuring Gandalf and Pippin on Shadowfax discussing the beacon fires of Gondor. This material was not restored to the 2002 re-edited CD version.

The re-edited version was released on both cassette tape and CD sets which also included the soundtrack album (noticeably taken from a vinyl copy). Incidentally, episode 8 of the series, The Voice of Saruman was labelled as The Voice of Sauron on the cassette & CD box sets.


The script by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell attempts to be as faithful as possible to the original novel, but there are some errors and alterations. They include:

  • At one point, Minas Anor and Minas Tirith are referred to as though they were separate cities, but Minas Anor is actually the original name for Minas Tirith. This was when Gandalf and Pippin were discussing the palantír whilst en route to Minas Tirith.
  • The radio serial omits the sequence in the book in which the hobbits visit Tom Bombadil. This sequence was also excised from Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated adaptation and Peter Jackson's film version. It was omitted by Jackson as he claimed it contributed nothing to the long-range narrative of the story. However, the scene was dramatised, in a similar style but with different actors, in a later series of Tolkien radio adaptations by Sibley entitled The Adventures of Tom Bombadil (a title otherwise only loosely connected with the book of the same name).
  • Gandalf refers to the Balrog of Moria as a servant of Sauron. In the novel, the Balrog was originally a servant of Sauron's former master Morgoth, but was freed from any kind of service and fled into the earth upon Morgoth's defeat during the War of Wrath in The Silmarillion. In fact Balrogs and Sauron are of the same order, the Maiar.
  • Isengard is referred to as a "fair city", "circular" and "filled with fair trees" which Saruman brought to ruin with the exception of the singular great tower/citadel of Orthanc in the center. In Tolkien's writings there has never been an actual city called Isengard, only the lush greenery and the Tower of Orthanc which together are called Isengard.
  • The story includes an arc where Wormtongue is waylaid by the Ringwraiths. This only appears in Unfinished Tales, not The Lord of the Rings.
  • In the final episode, Bilbo's Last Song, a Tolkien poem which does not appear in the novel is used to flesh out the sequence at the Grey Havens.
  • Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum/Sméagol) and Michael Graham Cox (Boromir) previously voiced the same roles in Ralph Bakshi's animated version.

    Ian Holm, who voiced Frodo Baggins in the radio serial, went on to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.

    Re-release in 2002

    In 2002, following 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).

    This version omitted the original episode divisions, and included a new opening and closing narration for the first two sets, and an opening narration only for the last, written by Sibley and performed by Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins - Frodo's narrations deal with his efforts to write his historical account of the War of the Ring in the Red Book, as well as his own personal reflections and musings on the story's events.

    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 Radio 4 Extra, despite frequent requests, reportedly because of copyright issues.

    Cast and credits

  • Narrator (English version): Gerard Murphy
  • Narrator (American version): Tammy Grimes
  • Frodo Baggins: Ian Holm
  • Gandalf the Grey/Gandalf the White: Michael Hordern
  • Aragorn (Strider): Robert Stephens
  • Sam Gamgee: Bill Nighy (credited as William Nighy)
  • Meriadoc Brandybuck (Merry): Richard O'Callaghan
  • Peregrin Took (Pippin): John McAndrew
  • Legolas: David Collings
  • Gimli: Douglas Livingstone
  • Boromir: Michael Graham Cox
  • Galadriel: Marian Diamond
  • Celeborn: Simon Cadell
  • Arwen Evenstar: Sonia Fraser
  • Saruman the White: Peter Howell
  • Elrond: Hugh Dickson
  • Bilbo Baggins: John Le Mesurier
  • Gollum/Sméagol: Peter Woodthorpe
  • Théoden: Jack May
  • Gríma Wormtongue: Paul Brooke
  • Éowyn: Elin Jenkins
  • Éomer: Anthony Hyde
  • Faramir: Andrew Seear
  • Treebeard: Stephen Thorne
  • Denethor: Peter Vaughan
  • Lord of the Nazgûl: Philip Voss
  • The Mouth of Sauron: John Rye
  • Glorfindel/An Elf lord of the house of Elrond half-elven : John Webb
  • Haldir/Nazgûl/Nob/Minstrel: Haydn Wood
  • Gamling: Patrick Barr
  • Ceorl: Michael McStay
  • Háma/A Nazgûl: Michael Spice
  • Éothain/Otho Sackville-Baggins/Ruffian: John Livesy
  • Halbarad: Martyn Read
  • Beregond/The Black Rider/Guard: Christopher Scott
  • Ioreth: Pauline Letts
  • Gwaihir: Alexander John
  • Radagast the Brown: Donald Gee
  • Gaffer Gamgee: John Church
  • Ted Sandyman/Snaga: Gordon Reid
  • Rosie Cotton: Kathryn Hurlbutt
  • Daddy Twofoot: Leonard Fenton
  • Farmer Maggot/Ruffian: John Bott
  • Lobelia Sackville-Baggins: Diana Bishop
  • Farmer Cotton: Alan Dudley
  • Proudfoot/Orc: Sean Arnold
  • Elanor Gamgee: Harry Holm
  • Barliman Butterbur: James Grout
  • Uglúk: Brian Haines
  • Shagrat: Christopher Fairbank
  • Gorbag: David Sinclair
  • Déagol/Bill Ferny/Orc Captain: Graham Faulkner
  • Shelob: Jenny Lee, BBC Radiophonic Workshop
  • Singer (Dream Voice/Bilbo's Last Song): Matthew Vine
  • Singer (The Bard): Oz Clarke
  • Singer (The Eagle/Voice of Lothlórien): David James
  • Dramatisation: Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell
  • Music: Stephen Oliver
  • Radiophonic sound: Elizabeth Parker
  • Produced and directed by Jane Morgan and Penny Leicester
  • References

    The Lord of the Rings (1981 radio series) Wikipedia