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The Lord of the Rings (1981 radio series)

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In 1981 BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 26 half-hour stereo instalments.

It followed a previous 13-part BBC Radio version in 1956 (of which no recordings are known to have survived).

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


Broadcast history

Each of the original 26 episodes received two broadcasts per week - standard practice for many BBC radio serials even today. The first broadcast of Episode 2 was blacked out across a large part of south east England because of a transmitter failure (a very rare occurrence even then).

The series was also broadcast in the US on NPR with a new synopsis preceding each episode, narrated by Tammy Grimes. It was also aired in Australia.

The 26-part series was subsequently edited into 13 hour-long episodes, 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), rearranging some scenes for dramatic impact and adding linking narration and music cues.

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).

A soundtrack album featuring a completely re-recorded and in some cases expanded, suite of Stephen Oliver's music was released in 1981.


The script by Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell attempts to be as faithful as possible to the original novels, 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; these are merely alternate names for the same fictional city.
  • Aragorn receives a black standard from Arwen as a sign that he should rouse the army of the dead. In a later scene in the book the standard is no longer black but bears the White Tree of Gondor; there is no reference to this apparent transformation in the radio series.
  • Part of the Riders of Rohan sequence is described in song by an opera-style vocalist rather than acted, which tends to distance the listeners from the action.
  • The radio serial omits the sequence in the book in which the hobbits visit with Tom Bombadil. This sequence was also excised from the Peter Jackson film version, because, according to Jackson, it contributed nothing to the long-range narrative of the story.

Links to other Lord of the Rings productions

Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum/Smeagol) and Michael Graham Cox (Boromir) played roles they had already played in Ralph Bakshi's The Lord of the Rings.

Ian Holm, who played Frodo Baggins in the radio serial, went on to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. (Bilbo was played by John Le Mesurier in the radio serial.)

Re-release in 2002

In 2002, to cash in on 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, recorded by Ian Holm.

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 7, despite frequent requests, reportedly because of copyright issues.

Cast and Credits

Mind's Eye radio serial

There is a second radio dramatisation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, produced by The Mind's Eye, and featuring a different cast. It is sometimes confused with the BBC production, but is distinguished by the fact that the most widely circulated US edition comes in a wooden box, whether on compact discs or cassette tapes.

It was recorded prior to the BBC version, and because its cast recorded their tracks separately (unlike the BBC production which, like most British radio serials, assembled the cast to record their dialogue together) is often criticised as being inferior to the BBC version.

The cast includes Ray Reinhardt (Bilbo), James Arrington (Frodo), Pat Franklyn (Merry), Mac McCaddon (Pippin), Lou Bliss (Sam), Bernard Mayes (Gandalf), Gail Chugg (Narrator), Bernard Mayes (Tom Bombadil), Tom Luce (Strider/Aragorn). Franklyn, McCaddon, Chugg , Reinhardt, Bob Lewis, John Vickery, Erik Bauersfeld and Carl Hague were credited for "additional voices".

The Mind's Eye version has also been idenfitied as the Soundelux version, and most recently, the Highbridge version. (The name changes correspond to the studios/companies which owned the rights at the time.)