The BBC radio dramatisation of Lord of the Rings has been reissued with new material, written by Brian Sibley and recorded by Ian Holm last year, added. This new version appears to only be available on CD. Note that the old version (identical to the broadcast repeats going out at the moment on BBC Radio 4 in the UK) is also still available in many stores.
The differences between this version and that issued previously on CD and cassette are as follows:
The recordings have been digitally cleaned up – tape hiss that was audible on the original (if you listened through headphones) has gone and some of the messier edits have been tidied up.
There are no hour-long episodes – instead there are 3 separate sets of CDS which can be purchased separately and which follow the books exactly. Each set comprises 4 CDs with no episode beginning and ending music other than at the start and end of each 4 CD set.
Each set features a new intro and outro (between 5 and 8 minutes per set) recorded last year by Ian Holm and written anew by Brian Sibley. The scenario is that Frodo is going through Bilbo’s Red Book, reminiscing about his own adventures before leaving for The Grey Havens. Needless to say it is very nicely written (I loved the regretful reminiscing about Sam and the hardships he faced at the end of The Two Towers it brought a real lump to my throat and a tear to my eye) and superbly acted by Ian Holm. You really can’t tell that 20 years have passed between these new recordings and the original material.
The “Return of the King” set narrative really only covers 3 CDs. The 4th CD is Stephen Oliver’s music but with the added “sung” version of Bilbo’s Last Song which, for copyright reasons, they were not allowed to broadcast with the original serial (or indeed the current re-broadcasting on Radio 4). This was featured on the tie-in radio documentary for the radio repeats a couple of months ago, but that recording was played on a transistor radio – here it is much improved in quality and of course doesn’t have people talking over the intro/outro. Personally I find this version more moving than the original spoken version, not least because John Le Mesurier, who plays Bilbo, can’t really sing, making it somehow more “real” and even more melancholic.
Each of the three sets features a new booklet. The first set features writer Brian Sibley reminiscing about the radio series, the second features director Jane Morgan reminiscing, and the third features a short Tolkien biography and one sentence summary of each of the 19 music tracks on the last CD.
The set is NOT as lavishly presented as the original CD/cassette release which came in a handsome black cloth binder format with a fold-out map of Middle-Earth and a generous booklet. However, the original lavish packaging did mark rather easily and was a bit unexciting in visual appeal. The new sets each feature the rather standard “dual jewel case” format -a bit generic and rather ugly in my view. The sleeve design is a LOT more modern and colourful too. Although you now get the chance to buy a set at a time so you don’t have to buy the whole thing in one expensive go (you can break it down into three separate purchases), the new edition also works out considerably more expensive if you’re going to buy the whole set (at least if HMV in Oxford Street, London are anything to go by). In a shrewd (but unfair?) marketing move the first set (Fellowship of the Ring) costs £37, the other two sets £27 – despite having the same number of disks and running time (4 hours 35 minutes per set). I guess the BBC realise that many will buy the first set and may then decide they can’t afford the follow-ons so they’re maximising the revenue from those who just buy “The Fellowship of the Ring”!
Because the credits now appear at the end of each 4 and a half hour set (rather than every hour) they are a lot longer and have been newly recorded by Brian Sibley rather than the original radio announcer (whose name I forget).
I prefer this new version (although those who want to get nostalgic about the original broadcasts may prefer the original episodic format) because of the wonderful new prologues and outro’s and cleaner sound (OK I notice things like hiss – many probably don’t!) but these may not be obvious to many who will find the original version (still on sale) a much cheaper purchase.
And for those wondering what happened to the original 26 half hour episode format (only broadcast once and, I would argue, the best presentation of the radio series and the format it was originally written for) – they were lost when the BBC actually used the master tapes to edit the first repeat broadcast as one hour long episodes!
Also of interest and highly recommended is the double-CD (and cassette) from the BBC Radio Collection called “J.R.R. Tolkien – An Audio Portrait”. narrated by Brian Sibley and made last year. This runs to 1 hour 50 minutes featuring Sibley’s narration of Tolkien’s life and the influences which came to bear when writing The Lord of the Rings. It features interviews with Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carter, his original publisher Rayner Unwin, several of Tolien’s colleagues and friends, and perhaps most important of all the man himself. This is all intespersed with relevant radio series extracts. This is a fascinating listen and a great way to find out about Tolkien – lively and very informative.