This review is for the 5 disc BBC dramatization of The Hobbit, with the white cover, ISBN 1620641135. There is a newer release, with a yellow cover, that packages this version of The Hobbit (1968) and The Lord of the Rings (1981) together with some bonus material. This is a full-cast audio drama originally developed for radio, not an audiobook. There are 8 episodes clocking in at a little under half an hour each.
This is a much-beloved adaptation with some serious flaws. It's easy to forget that it will be half a century old in a few years. It is presented in frequently abrasive mono sound, with dated effects, a few questionable casting choices, and more than a few questionable music choices.
So why bother?
Bilbo - that's why. Paul Daneman's Bilbo is clever, bumbling, endearing, and frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. In short, he is the perfect gentlehobbit. Much like Bill Nighy's Sam in the later Lord of the Rings radio production, Daneman is the overt inspiration for Martin Freeman's recent take on Bilbo in Peter Jackson's movies. Freeman does a great job, but the similarities are striking. In the end, Daneman's subtlety and sharpness set him apart as the greatest Bilbo interpreter.
The rest of the cast for the most part dives in with great relish. There are unfortunately two glaring misfires: Gandalf and Gollum.
Heron Carvic's Gandalf (interestingly pronounced "Gandalv" by most of the cast) is played as a sneering elite with a nasal drone. It is so vastly different from the great interpretations of Hordern and McKellen that it will probably take you out of the story the first few times he opens his mouth. Carvic is at least a perfectly serviceable actor, even if badly miscast, so you eventually get used to it.
I can't really say the same for Gollum. Gollum is a tough character to play in an audio format, and even the fantastic later radio production of Lord of the Rings cannot escape the issue. Wolfe Morris hits the notes of manic schizophrenia just fine, but it is a screeching performance that is poorly served by the presentation. The audio is neither mixed nor compressed too carefully, so the dynamics allow Gollum's piercing wail to rise above the normal levels like a blaring commercial in the middle of a sedate TV show. The mastering leans heavily treble for the sake of clarity as well, due to technological issues with both the transmission and reproduction of radio programs at the time. In crisp digital audio on CD, it does Gollum no favors.
Thankfully, Gollum is not in the story for long, and Gandalf's visits become more and more believable as the story draws on. Bilbo is there all the while, however, and his charm is a rock solid foundation for the rest of this aged, flawed, but ultimately delightful production.