- "Tolkien in Oxford" (BBC, 1968):A Reconstruction
On 30th March 1968, from 9.50–10.35pm,1 BBC2 aired the latest episodes of its TV documentary series Release (which aimed to explore "the world of films, plays, books, art, and music"). A colour production, which was strikingly new for its time (BBC2 was in fact the first TV channel globally to broadcast in colour), it consisted of two programmes: the first, titled "Suddenly I know what I have to do…," studied the English sculptress Barbara Hepworth, and the second (longer) episode was titled "Tolkien in Oxford." The latter was described in the Radio Times of the 28th March (9) as a film "about The Lord of the Rings." Quoting in full:
In Europe and Asia it's a school set book. In America it's a craze bigger than Batman: one million copies sold in 1967 alone. In Britain, a lot of people have never even heard of it. J.R.R. Tolkien, seventy-six, retired Oxford don, talks about his major work.
Readers in Oxford try to explain the phenomenon of the lord of the hobbits, the orcs, and the elves. A literary masterpiece or a pleasant donnish joke?
Directed by Leslie Megahey Editor: Lorna Pegram
It is extraordinary to think of a time when the people of any country, especially Britain, could be described as not having heard of J.R.R. Tolkien or at least The Lord of the Rings—but such was evidently the case in the Britain of the late 1960s and, as we shall see, the risk of devoting a programme of this standing to someone so relatively unknown as Tolkien was one which was nearly not taken.
This article will explore the making of the programme using archives from the BBC and those of the cast and crew, the show's reception and afterlife, its importance in terms of Tolkien scholarship, and, most importantly, will present a reconstruction of the full interview [End Page 115] given by Tolkien during the filming, based on recently discovered documents and recordings.
"Tolkien in Oxford" (1968): A Summary
The importance of the original programme has already been hinted at in the extract from the Radio Times. By 1968 Tolkien was aged 76 and nearing the end of his life (he would pass away five years later). Indeed, based on our current information, this was the last recording made of Tolkien (either audio or video) that survives.
For many scholars of Tolkien, access to this film has been through the web. As part of their Modern Writers interviews the BBC released the original film on its web site,2 noting its length as 26 minutes 32 seconds. It erroneously listed this as the work of one 'John Izzard' (this should read John Ezard), who only assisted on the programme, and credit should go to instead to Leslie Megahey, as noted above in the Radio Times. The online version, however, contained no closing credits, no production information, and no captions. Prior to this version appearing on the BBC site, illegal copies had also appeared on YouTube.3
The programme opened with a drawing of the Eye of Sauron overlaid with actor Joss Ackland4 reciting the 'One Ring to rule them all' poem. Whilst animation was used occasionally in subsequent scenes (notably to present a map of Middle-earth), the vast majority of the programme was live production consisting of interviews with Tolkien (mainly seated in a room in Oxford's Catholic Chaplaincy off St Aldate's, but also walking in Merton College, at a night-time firework display at the Dragon School,5 and various other settings), interspersed with commentary from Oxford students and members of staff. There were also general shots of the city and University. The programme famously ended with an aerial helicopter shot pulling away from Tolkien as he stands alone on the walls of Merton College looking out over Christ Church meadow. It is, however, filled with now very familiar scenes in the visual record of Tolkien. For example, there is his description of the writing down of the first line of The Hobbit (02:46–03...