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In 1981 the UK radio station BBC Radio 4 broadcast a dramatisation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in 26 half-hour stereo instalments. This followed a previous 12-part BBC Radio adaptation in 1955 and 1956, of which no recordings are known to have survived, and a 1979 recording by 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 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, individual evening broadcasts of the 30 minute episodes with an hour long "omnibus" repeat on Sunday mornings – standard practice for many BBC radio serials even today. 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 the USmarker 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, 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; Minas Anor is 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 the Peter Jackson film version, because Jackson 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).
  • The sub-plot which (in the book The Fellowship of the Ring) explained how Merry, Pippin and Sam knew about the Ring and the journey to Mordor was somewhat edited for the radio dramatisation, in which Gandalf arrives at the Shire one evening, and explains to Frodo the following morning about the Ring. This is overheard by Sam, who is gardening outside the window. Gandalf catches him at it, and so he and Frodo threaten punishment if he breathes a word to anyone, and that he should travel with Frodo to Mordor. Later in the story, when Merry and Pippin are explaining to Frodo how come they know so much, they reveal that Sam was the source of the information, but the information "dried up" after Gandalf caught him. In the book, it is explained that there was a lot of investigation going on prior to Gandalf's return to the Shire. This was not explained in the radio production, so the impression is given that prior to Gandalf's return, Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin knew nothing of the significance of the Ring. Gandalf's explanation was heard by Frodo and Sam, but not by Merry and Pippin. Yet Merry and Pippin knew about it all, despite the fact that they stated that Sam had stopped giving them information after Gandalf caught him eavesdropping.
  • Gandalf refers to the Balrog of Moria as a servant of Sauron.
  • The story includes an arc where Wormtongue is waylaid by the Ringwraiths: this only appears in Unfinished Tales, not the novel.
  • In the final episode, Bilbo performs Bilbo's Last Song, a Tolkien poem which does not appear in the novel.

Links to other The Lord of the Rings productions

Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum/Sméagol) and Michael Graham Cox (Boromir) played roles they had already played in Ralph Bakshi's animated version.

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

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.

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

*Narrator: Gerard Murphy

Episode list

Episode Title First broadcast
1 The Long Awaited Party 8 March 1981
2 The Shadow Of The Past 15 March 1981
3 The Black Riders 22 March 1981
4 Trouble At The Prancing Pony 29 March 1981
5 The Knife In The Dark 5 April 1981
6 The Council Of Elrond 12 April 1981
7 The Fellowship Of The Ring 19 April 1981
8 The Mines Of Moria 26 April 1981
9 The Mirror Of Galadriel 3 May 1981
10 The Breaking Of The Fellowship 10 May 1981
11 The Riders Of Rohan 17 May 1981
12 Treebeard Of Fangorn 24 May 1981
13 The King Of The Golden Hall 31 May 1981
14 Helm's Deep 7 June 1981
15 The Voice Of Saruman 14 June 1981
16 The Black Gate Is Closed 21 June 1981
17 The Window On The West 28 June 1981
18 Minas Tirith 5 July 1981
19 Shelob's Lair 12 July 1981
20 The Siege Of Gondor 19 July 1981
21 The Battle Of Pelennor Fields 26 July 1981
22 The Houses Of Healing 2 August 1981
23 Mount Doom 9 August 1981
24 The Return Of The King 16 August 1981
25 Homeward Bound 23 August 1981
26 The Grey Havens 30 August 1981


Many of the cast members of this production were also recording the science-fiction series Earthsearch and Earthsearch 2 at the same time: Sean Arnold, Kathryn Hurlbutt, Haydn Wood, Sonia Fraser and Gordon Reid had principal roles, while roles in individual episodes were played by Alexander John, John McAndrew, Michael Spice, Pauline Letts, John Bott and Graham Faulkner.

External links

Description and episode list

"Wellinghall" website dedicated to the BBC dramatization

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