Friday, August 27, 2010

Tolkien Documentary IV: Tolkien in Oxford [1968]

So, last Thursday (the 19th) I got to see something I've heard about for years but never thought I'd get to see for myself: the 1968 BBC documentary on J. R. R. Tolkien. A few stills from it appeared in print at the time, and some bits made their way into one of the Tolkien documentaries (the 1992 Landseer, I think), with a few more snippets having shown up inexplicably on You-tube a few years back.

I'll be posting more once I've had a chance to re-watch it and take notes, but here are some first impressions.

(1) while there are some interesting bits, anyone coming to this with great expectations after listening to the excellent BBC Radio half-hour interview w. Denis Gueroult will be sorely disappointed. In that case, the interviewer had clearly done his homework; he came to Tolkien with specific questions to ask, and made follow-ups to make sure he got answers, even if they were often obviously not the answers he'd expected. By far Tolkien's best interview.

(2) here, the documentarians seem to have shown up at Tolkien's doorstep and, finding him a thoughtful, rather shy and self-effacing man, not at all the bon-homme self-promoter some authors are, seem to have been rather at a loss what to do. So their back-up plan turns out to have been to make him wear a big furry hat and go out to watch some fireworks. Other footage shows him wandering around various college grounds and gardens, murmuring inaudibly about the trees and various other topics. They fill the rest of the half-hour with students and other people expounding upon what they like or despise about Tolkien's works.

(3) far too much of it is their attempt to coyly depict something of 'the Tolkien phenomenon'. Thus they ask one Oxford student to summarize the plot of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. After a minute or so, they cut away, then come back to her some time later, then cut away again, over and over throughout the half-hour. Their last time is particularly cruel, since they show a bit of someone talking about how fans of the book will drone on and one about it if given the chance, then immediately cut away to her, then cut away yet again.

(4) the final shot is surreal, starting with a shot of Tolkien on a wall (the old city wall? one of the college gardens?) and then panning out into the far distance -- apparently it was shot from a helicopter over Oxford.

(5) Tolkien's favorite part of the whole proceedings was clearly the part where they asked him about food (given the hobbits' enthusiasm for the subject), then whether he liked to drink (he obliged by happily demonstrating that he did indeed like beer) and smoke (the most animated his face ever got was during the lighting of his pipe and happily filling the air with smoke).

(6) we shd all be grateful to have this material -- it's wonderful that they got some live-action film of Tolkien more or less in his element, however modest its achievements as an interview or lacking it is as a documentary. We'd gladly have a few pages of original manuscript from one of Shakespeare's plays, even if it was one of the real stinkers like TITUS ANDRONICUS or TIMON OF ATHENS. So here: we'd all love to have some well-informed, well-intentioned interviewer sit down for half an hour's lively discussion with Tolkien. But we have this instead. So, I'm grateful for what we do have.

Many thanks to both Jessica (who's actually in it, twice) and Charles for drawing it to my attention. Now if the BBC would only sell copies . . .

As for the content of the thing, that's a subject for another post.

--John R.


David Bratman said...

At least now I know where Tolkien mentioned his fondness for the music of Carl Maria von Weber.

In that final shot, Tolkien is standing by the old city wall behind Merton College, along what's evocatively called Deadman's Walk. As the view rises, it takes in Merton College, and then turns north, showing Queen's, All Souls, and New College, and then going to the University Parks (where the Tolkien memorial bench now is) before turning east for a bit then north again. You can't see Magdalen College, where the Inklings usually met, as it's pretty much directly below where the helicopter is hovering.

Ian and Anke Collier said...

If I recall the clip correctly the wall is actually part of the Merton College gardens, so only a short distance from his old office; the path below the wall by the playing fields is Deadman's Walk.


Extollager said...

That long pull-away scene at the end reminds me somehow of the Sixties TV series The Prisoner, as if we might pull away from Patrick McGoohan as Number 6 to show him surrounded by the peculiar architecture of The Village, the surrounding woods, etc.

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks all for the clarification. I suspected it was the Merton wall but cd not confirm it. I also thought they went north from there, but didn't see any landmark I cd recognize (e.g., the Radcliffe Camera). Next time I watch it I'll do so with a printout of yr comments plus my trusty Oxford map (which has accompanied me on all my visits there since 1981).

I assume the hapless summarizer is standing on Magdalen Bridge?

The Prisoner, eh? Hadn't thought of that one, but it was of the era. I wonder.


David Bratman said...

The Camera is there, but it's deep in the background and hard to make out.

Thielmann said...

At the Tolkien Symposium at Oxford in Nov 2014 we were treated to an interview with the actual (now aged) filmmaker of that documentary. Many of the quirks you mention were explained, and we heard some of Tolkien's full statements (later edited out) from the original transcripts, including some extra footage that was preserved over at BBC. Tolkien expanded on the role of food among the peoples of Middle Earth and also on the theme of death that pervades his work. Very neat to hear and see. I captured some of it on my camera.