Revisiting BBC Radio 4's The Hobbit

Review Andrew Blair 13 Dec 2013 - 07:00

As Peter Jackson's second Hobbit film is released in cinemas, Andrew looks back on the 1968 BBC Radio 4 adaptation...

Somewhere in the sidestreets of Hereford is, or was, a bookshop that is indelibly labyrinthine in my memory, with nooks and crannies (yes) in every direction filled with shelves, platforms, steps and ladders. I have an inkling that it only sells maps now. When I was a child, it sold all the books, and was the first place I ever saw the cassettes of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (speaking of Inklings). And, as I pointed out to my parents, we did need something to listen to on the journey back to Glasgow. The Hobbit was cheaper, shorter, and – crucially – not in a cardboard box about a foot long. The cassettes came in reflective gold-coloured card that, I seem to recall, confused the hell out of budgies.

In light of Peter Jackson's potentially nine hour long interpretation, Michael Kilgarriff's adaptation (the actor played the original Cyber Controller in Doctor Who) consists of eight half-hour episodes, and is very faithful to the 1951 edition of the book (with a few post-Lord of the Rings embellishments thrown in). In 1968, Ralph Bakshi's animated version of Lord of the Rings was still a decade away, and radio seemed an obvious way to encompass the scope of Tolkien's story. Interestingly, a now non-existent adaptation of Lord of the Rings was made in the Fifties, and Tolkien was far from impressed, and thought radio a poor medium to adapt his work due to the over-emphasis of dialogue and the cutting of a lot of descriptive prose. The version of Lord of the Rings available from the BBC today was made in 1981, and will be looked at in a later article.

The Hobbit, though, cunningly introduces the narrator as a character whom Bilbo interacts with and frequently interupts. Though radio does obviously remove a large amount of description from its script, this device enables the scene setting to be done in a more interesting way than a straight narration. Paul Daneman (who played Vladimir in the first English language production of Waiting for Godot) plays Bilbo as a good natured but frantic sort. There is a gnomish quality to this Bilbo, so that even as he grows there is still a child-like quality to him.

Gandalf, here played by the brilliantly named Heron Carvic, is spikier here than the generally avuncular take on the role (in all movie versions, Ian McKellen and William Squire – both Doctor Who villain guest stars incidentally – are mainly friendly and benevolent characters with moments of irritability). Carvic (also a Doctor Who villain, once upon a time) has a voice that suggests impatience and detachment with Hobbit and Dwarf alike. As we are not following Gandalf on his journeys away from the main quest, this approach works well. If, however, we were hearing Gandalf's adventures investigating the Necromancer, this haughty approach to the quest would not be appropriate. As it is, it's quite funny to hear a patronising Gandalf who is effortlessly superior to his travelling companions, and knows it.

This is illustrated during a scene that the radio version, in my opinion, depicts more effectively than the recent film: the Great Goblin in the Misty Mountains. A potentially fun romp involving cartoon physics on screen devolves into an overlong and patience-stretching set-piece. In the radio version, the Goblins are more cunning after the sudden and shocking demise of their leader. They seek out the fleeing dwarves through the darkest tunnels, using stealthy runners to find their position before attacking again. This is what splits the party up, leading to the Riddles in the Dark scene (although, if any scene in the recent film can be said to be definitive, their version of Riddles is surely up for consideration).

Kilgarriff's Hobbit is more consistent in tone than the 2012 movie. Peter Jackson's film has that particular kind of child-friendliness that seems patronising and jarringly goofy, in between scenes of decapitated heads and dwarves being burned to death. The radio version doesn't veer that far in either direction, and its scares are based on sound design and volume dynamics (courtesy of the Radiophonic Workshop, the goblin shrieks and spider noises always felt unsettling). In keeping with the book, its child-friendliness comes from the episodic nature of the adventures. Lacking a visual element helps in this respect, as there's no way to do a song and dance routine. As a result, it feels less patronising but does not seek to achieve through narration some of the splendid visuals that Weta can manage.

It also doesn't have as much pathos as the recent film, but then nor is it trying to. Sticking closely to Tolkien's version it relates the battlefield deaths of major characters in flashback, and doesn't try to shape Bilbo's character arc into something more emotionally resonant. The characters on radio seem severe, but this works because the story is told from Bilbo's point-of-view. With him accompanying the narration, we get to hear his thoughts and reasoning, which makes it understandable that the others seem a little distant. There's no character who befriends Bilbo to the same extent as Ken Stott's Balin does in the new trilogy. Each new creature seems potentially dangerous, even those that are helping the dwarves. The King of the Eagles and Beorn are, through sound design and character, somewhat ambiguous.

That the radio adaptation feels more perilous might be informed by its standalone nature, whereas Peter Jackson has already made The Lord of the Rings. It can't be helped, but making the films in this order does negate a lot of suspense over whether or not some characters will make it. Obviously, we know that everyone who appears in the original trilogy will survive, whereas the radio version was made without any existing films, and the 1951 – 1956 radio version of Lord of the Rings was not available to buy or repeated since its broadcast. Basically, they didn't have to consider the idea of over-familiarity nearly as much.

Musically, too, it's evocative. Obviously it being something listened to in childhood has had an impact, but the theme music to the radio version of The Hobbit had lodged itself in my head, whereas I can't remember any music from Howard Shore's recent score that wasn't already featured in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. David Cain's score from the Radio show is a mix of a capella (occasionally effects enhanced) singing and medieval sounding instruments, performed by The Early Music Consort.  Here's a selection:

Overall, while The Desolation of Smaug looks to be a more tonally consistent film than An Unexpected Journey, anyone who wishes to get an idea of what The Hobbit might be like as one faithful film – minus appendices and Sylvester McCoy – should seek this out. It might lack the dynamism of the cinematic adaptation, but the world it creates feels more dangerous and real.

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I've got this and the LOTR radio adapt too - I love bilbo in this version but it drives me insane the way that they've chosen to pronounce two of the main character names "ganDALF" and "GOLoom" it really jars the ear every time I hear them

Oh man, massive flashback to 25 years ago. Painting Citadel Miniatures and listening to this over and over and over again... Gonna stick it on usb and listen to it in the car next week.

Odd story, I listened to this on a car journey when I was 6 (before reading the book) and I think I must have fallen asleep because I remember a totally different ending.
In my mind the battle of the five armies went badly and the last of the dwarves and Bilbo are trapped at the end of a canyon and about to be killed. Realising all was lost Bilbo puts on his ring and tries to sneak away, but a goblin sees his shadow and kills him. I was so traumatised it was a number of years before I discovered that wasn't the ending and actually read the book.

I'm amazed that I didn't know about this. I've read LOTR at least 4 times, and the BBC Radio adaptation is one of my favorites. I still remember how I stumbled across it the first time while sitting in my college's computer lab browsing through internet radio streams. It was in the middle of one of the episodes, and I didn't even know what it was, but I couldn't stop listening. When I realized what it was, I flipped out. Since then, i've listened to it a few more times from start to finish. I also listened to the LOTR audiobook, which is great as well.

Now that I know about the Hobbit radio adaptation, I will definitely seek it out.

Wow. Um...i'm sorry that you had to go through that. I wonder what put that ending in your head?

Where are you finding it? I searched, but BBC doesn't seem to make it available and it's out of stock on Amazon.

Being a very strange child, that's what did it!

There are lots of people selling on Ebay, or playdotcom has it for £19.99 or there are other places, if you know where to look and prefer to pay less (ie nothing).

Yeah, I actually found it at my local library as a digital download, they had 10 copies and no wait (that's a first!). I used Overdrive to get it, but it won't play on my Android phone. I also tried playing it on my PC, but no luck. I guess i'll just get it 'someplace else'.

You can get it at Audible - it's where I replaced my tape copy a few years ago

I was in stitches when the thirteen dwarfs were coming into Bilbo's house. I like Jackson's Hobbit, but that scene was no where near as funny as the comedy timing the BBC production pulled off. *knock* *knock* *knock* "Oh, if that's more dwarves...!"

I 'studied' the Hobbit many years ago for my English Literature GCSE, (it was the very first year of them, so that gives you a date,) and we did the book to death, however I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC Radio version, and found the new film version left me totally cold. Apart from Sylvester McCoy's Radagast the Brown, I found the whole thing tedious, overlong and utterly inappropriate in tone. I genuinely have no compunction about missing the second and third.

I remember a Jackanory version with Bernard Cribbens from the early 80s - anyone seen any pointers to it? Full cast and gloriousness abounds. It's the version I remember most fondly.

I have a copy of this on cd and honestly it was crap..Gandalf's voice was irritating, like he had been sucking helium.. and the music was like someone scratching a blackboard..it is a far far far distance behind the BBC radio play of The Lord of the Rings with Ian Holm as Frodo (actually it's pretty obvious Jackson was influenced by this in his magestic film triology with some of his plot choices eg no Tom Bombadil)..it is awesome! I will add I loved Jackson's first Hobbit and I'm looking forward to his next two..but as for this adaption of The Hobbit..boy oh boy read the book instead!

I remember that well - had a cast of 5 or 6 and uniquely for Jackanory, told it over 2 weeks.

I never liked this version either - I much preferred Nicol Williamson's recording from 1974.

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