The Lord of the Rings (1981 radio series)

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The Lord of the Rings
GenreRadio drama
Running time30 minutes per episode
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Home stationBBC Radio 4
StarringIan Holm
Michael Hordern
Robert Stephens
William Nighy
James Grout
Simon Cadell
John Le Mesurier
Jack May
Peter Vaughan
Created byJ. R. R. Tolkien
Written byBrian Sibley[1]
Michael Bakewell
Directed byJane Morgan
Penny Leicester
Narrated byGerard Murphy
Original release8 March 1981 – 30 August 1981
No. of episodes26

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[edit]

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 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 re-recorded and in some cases expanded suite of Stephen Oliver's music was released in 1981.[2]

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 and CD box sets.

Discrepancies with the novel[edit]

The script by Brian Sibley[1] 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.
  • 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.

Links to other The Lord of the Rings productions[edit]

Peter Woodthorpe (Gollum/Sméagol) and Michael Graham Cox (Boromir) previously voiced the same roles in Ralph Bakshi's animated version.[3]

Ian Holm, who voiced Frodo Baggins in the radio serial, went on to play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy.[4]

Re-release in 2002[edit]

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 monologues for the first two sets, and an opening monologue only for the last, written by Sibley and performed by Ian Holm as Frodo Baggins. Frodo's monologues 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 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, digitally remastered, was included with The Return of the King set, with a demo of John Le Mesurier singing Bilbo's Last Song as a bonus track. The 13-episode series was rerun on Radio 4 in 2002 to promote the station's newly created digital platform.

Cast and credits[edit]

The cast for the production was:[5]

Episode list[edit]

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


  1. ^ a b Sibley, Brian. "THE RING GOES EVER ON: The Making of BBC Radio's The Lord of the Rings". Brian Sibley. Archived from the original on 16 August 2019. Retrieved 24 February 2020.
  2. ^ Stephen Oliver (composer), Oz Clarke, David James, Jeremy Vine (vocals) (1981). Music From The BBC Radio Dramatisation Of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings (LP) (Vinyl). London: BBC Records. REH 415. Retrieved 18 November 2020.
  3. ^ Beck, Jerry (2005). The Animated Movie Guide. Chicago Review Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-56976-222-6.
  4. ^ "The Tolkien Library review of the Lord of the Rings Radio Adaptation". Retrieved 12 April 2020.
  5. ^ Pearse, Edward (15 January 2009). "The Lord of the Rings, Episode 2". Radio Riel. Archived from the original on 15 January 2020.
  6. ^ "Obituary: Ian Holm". BBC. 19 June 2020. Retrieved 19 June 2020. he took the part of Frodo Baggins in BBC Radio 4's massive adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, which featured Holm alongside a host of other stars including Michael Hordern and Robert Stephens.

External links[edit]