In Review: Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Release: George Orwell’s enduring dystopian masterpiece is brought vividly to life in this celebrated BBC production. Adapted by Nigel Kneale (The Quatermass Experiment), Nineteen Eighty-Four broke new ground for television drama when first broadcast in 1954. Featuring a stunning central performance from Peter Cushing as the doomed Winston Smith, this highly influential small screen landmark has been newly restored by the BFI using original film materials from the BBC archive.

One of the most requested BBC productions it’s presented for the very first time on Blu-ray and DVD and released to coincide with Kneale’s centenary. Experience Orwell’s haunting vision of a world dictated by tyranny and propaganda; Big Brother is watching.

Review by Tim Robins

The Review: Given the current geo-political situation, the BFI releases of a new DVD/Blu-ray edition of the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, couldn’t be more timely. George Orwell’s dystopian, science fictional satire details a war-time Britain, renamed Airstrip One, located in Oceania (one of three warring power-blocks) and ruled by a totalitarian socialist party fronted by the Stalin-like, and possibly non-existent, “Big Brother”.

The BBC ‘play’, as the production is known, was broadcast live on 12th December 1954 and was re-staged again for a repeat performance four days later. At 113 minutes, the staging was a remarkable feat for all involved, including director Rudolph Cartier and writer Nigel Kneale, both fresh from the success of The Quatermass Experiment, a legendary series remembered mainly by my parents’ generation, or at least those who had access to a TV.

I well remember my first glimpse of TV drama from the 1960s and being awestruck at what could be achieved, but Nineteen Eighty-Four was a whole different thing. It even had live orchestration, John Hotchkins’ suitably foreboding score conducted from a studio next to where the play was being stage. Hotchkins and his orchestra followed the action on a closed-circuit screen in order to synchronise their performance. By the end, I felt like giving the whole Blu-ray a standing ovation, not just for the BBC production but for the team involved in restoring the show, and providing additional content such as the accompanying commentary.

If you are interested in a rigorous analysis of the adaptation, I can thoroughly recommend Jason Jacobs’ book, The Intimate Screen: Early British Television Drama. One of Jacobs’ arguments is that broadcast technology at the time should not be understood as merely limiting creative talent, but rather the technology was used by directors and performers to establish an intimate aesthetic, while enabiling, rather than constraining, drama productions. In this, the BBC’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a tour de force. Cartier uses filmed inserts (now restored to crystal clarity) to open up the drama, countering potential staginess, but also allowing, with precise timing, performers to move between sets and even change their make-up and costumes. Other methods of managing stage time included fading to black, the inclusion of an intermission, and copious shots of a well-designed telescreen representing Big Brother’s omniscience and relentlessly announcing his party’s lies.

It has been harder to bring sharpness to the interior scenes. If you’re fussy about a certain fuzziness to the stage work, then this release is not for you. As another reviewer, Julian Knott, has pointed out, there is a method of bringing recordings closer to how the broadcast would have looked but this method, – VidFIRE – is costly, time consuming and requires a larger restoration team. But the quality of the image adds to the bleak vision of the future introduced to us by a swirling fog of smoke; the fog of war, perhaps, although introducing the future with foggy images was already a TV trope, one that reached its most dynamic form in the opening credits of 1963’s Doctor Who.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has a top-notch cast including Yvonne Mitchell (Julia, Winston’s love interest), André Morell (O’Brien, Winston’s friend and torturer), Donald Pleasence (Syme, a quisling) and Wilfrid Brambell (TV’s personification of an old prole). Peter Cushing is absolutely fantastic as Winston Smith, the fatalistic protagonist.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith is a downtrodden member of the ‘Outer Party’, who works for The Ministry of Truth, whose purpose is to produce propagandistic news stories, while doctoring past records to conform to the present contingencies of party ideology.

Driven to seek the truth about the latest war, Smith wanders the bombed-out streets of London, where he meets members of the working-class ‘Proles’ and establishes an unlikely and forbidden romance with Julia, a card carrying member of the Anti-Sex League. Sex never-the-less does occur and the couple are arrested for their misdeeds – foolishly, Winston has kept a diary of his thoughts, feeling and actions.

Smith has no chance of escaping detection in a surveillance society, where public posters read “Big Brother Is Watching You”, and anyone you meet may be gathering information on you on behalf of the State. Taken to The Ministry of Love, he is tortured, interrogated and sent to room 101, where he his confronted with his worst fear – rats. Faced with such horror, can Winston keep a grip on reality? Can he resist abandoning his quest for the truth? Will he refrain from betraying Julia? The answer to all these questions is, no.

Orwell’s biographer, D.J. Taylor, has noted that Smith’s life – solitary, harried by authority, staging a failed rebellion – is similar to protagonists in the writer’s previous novels, “only more so”. However, the story also has similarities with Orwell’s documentary work in The Road to Wigan Pier, which brought to life the conditions of the working poor in Northern Britain.

Nineteen Eighty-Four dramatises a conflict between proletarian popular memory (invisible, anecdotal, outside of official accounts of history) and the dominant memory of the State (visible in newspapers, film, telescreens and other mass media). The adaptation provides an off-screen narration to access Smith’s troubled thoughts and personal memories. His diary is transgressive, not simply because of its unlawful content, but because Smith’s thoughts are made visible and immutable. Diaries can be private and public.

Orwell connects personal and public memory with identity. The endlessly changing pasts of ‘Big Brother’ produce ever shifting allegiances while undermining any possibility of resistance.’We are the dead,’ Smith tells Julia but it is likely that they will be forgotten as ever having lived at all. Smith’s attempts to find a real past are symbolised by the couple’s love nest – an antique shop existing outside the State’s here and now.

As can be imagined, Nineteen-Eighty-Four is not exactly a barrel of laughs. Nor is the story a work of prediction. The pre-internet, pre-personal computer world of Airstrip One is largely dependent on informants, including ‘Spies’ (the name of a children’s group dedicated to telling on people). From today’s perspective, Smith’s workplace, which involves distributing documents by phneumatic tubes, looks positively ‘steampunk’. But it is the way Orwell wove his future from contemporary events that gives the story its power and relevance today.

Orwell took inspiration from the 1943 Tehran Conference at which the ‘Great Powers’ of America, Russia and Britain discussed carving up the post-World War Two even while participants – Roosevelt and Churchill plotted against Stalin. Nineteen Eighty-Four’s take on “Fake News” came from Orwell’s reflections on the reporting of the Spanish War.

“History stopped in 1935,” he argued. “I am willing to believe that history is for the most part innacurate and biassed, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written”.

But it is the way Nineteen Eighty-Four touched base with reality that surely gave the story its power for readers and audiences alike. This is something the TV play dramatises – filmed inserts of Smith wandering among the rubble of its London locations, a reminder that the city still had a post-blitz bombed-out quality. And Smith’s residence, an apartment in ‘Victory Mansions’ looks suitably dilapidated. Things were clearly falling apart.

Recalling her role as Julia on Late Night Line-Up, included as one of the excellent extras on the Blu-ray, actress Yvonne Mitchell actually clutches her pearls, a gesture from another age; recalling the locations for rehersals and how a BBC canteen presaged nothing less than a totalitarian future.

“We were dressed in boiler suits for this scene where the prole behind the counter says ‘Them’s with salt, them’s without!’ or something to that effect. Then, keeping our boiler suits on we went to the [BBC] canteen… and there was a woman saying, “them’s with sugar, them’s without!’ Then began the fright!”

Mitchell’s exprience may not have been coincidental. I’m sure Cartier and Kneale were more than familiar with the BBC canteen; it features in a The Goon Show parody episode, “1985”, in which the “Big Brother Corporation” announces that the canteen is open, while reassuring prospective diners that a doctor is on hand.

(The Goons parody, of sorts, is available on CD, or online on the BBC web site. As much as I love The Goon Show, many of the references in the episode are a bit obscure, although the parody does demonstrate the adaptation’s place in popular culture. It reminded me of Crackerjack‘s send-up of Quatermass; there, presenter Peter Glaze suggested that the young audience ask their parents who the character was).

The BFI’s DVD/Blu-ray is itself a work of commemoration, fans of the “play” have done due diligence by providing an excellent set of DVD/Blu-ray extras, including the aforementioned edition of Late Night Line Up, which serves as a fascinating cast reunion. Counter intuitively, Cushing opines that it was a good thing many of the cast had a background in cinema. He felt that it gave them the ability to cope with the fragmented nature of the production.

In “The Ministry of Truth”, the discussion of letters of complaint about the adaptation suggest that the audience’s concerns where as much about scheduling as the play itself. First broadcast on 20:37 Sunday 12th December, some felt it was unsuitable for “family viewing”. Others felt that Sunday was not an appropriate day for this broadcast, specifically considering its bleak and salacious content.

The inclusion of audience reactions to Nineteen Eighty-Four usefully expands the kinds of opinions and people included on the restoration. My general reservation about the various releases of canonical TV series now appearing on the market is that commentaries and extras of focus tend to focus on the director or writer as an auteur. I would welcome the voices of different people involved in a production.

What was it like for the crafts people working on such productions? What exactly were conditions like for the woman/’prole’ behind the BBC’s canteen? These are questions I am sure Orwell himself would ask.

Tim Robins

Nineteen Eighty Four is available now from a range of retailers

Dear reader, a review is an opinion, not a statement of fact. Other opinions are available

Nineteen Eighty-Four (DVD + Blu-ray) – BFI (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Extras

• Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
• Newly recorded audio commentary on Nineteen Eighty-Four by television historian Jon Dear, host of Nigel Kneale podcast Bergcast with Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray
Nigel Kneale: Into the Unknown (2022, 72 mins): writer, actor and stand-up comedian Toby Hadoke in conversation with Kneale biographer and programmer Andy Murray. Together they try to unpick who Nigel Kneale was, what he did and why his work still matters today
Late Night Line-Up (BBC, 1965, 25 mins): members of the cast and crew look back on the controversies surrounding this adaptation of Orwell’s classic
• The Ministry of Truth (2022, 24 mins): in conversation with the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, television historian Oliver Wake dispels some of the myths that have grown up around the groundbreaking drama over the course of the past half century
• Gallery of rare images from the BBC Archives
• Original script (downloadable PDF)
• Illustrated booklet with new writing by Oliver Wake and David Ryan
• Newly commissioned sleeve art by Matt Needle

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Penguin Modern Classics edition (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most pervasively influential book of the twentieth century.

Nineteen Eighty-Four – Graphic Novel, (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

The first ever graphic novel adaptation of George Orwell’s timeless dystopia.

Winston Smith, an outwardly obedient citizen of Airstrip One, dreams secretly of truth and freedom – but his rebellion will come at a terrible cost. George Orwell’s dark masterpiece has enthralled readers for over seventy years. Now the dystopian world of Big Brother, telescreens, the Thought Police and Room 101 is vividly brought to new life in this first ever graphic novel adaptation, illustrated by acclaimed artist Fido Nesti.

Web Links

Julian Knott, who runs the Zeta Minor site, has written a fantastic feature about aspects of this release, noting presentation, rights issues and much moe in his Facebook page

The George Orwell Foundation

The Orwell Foundation is an independent charity, using Orwell’s remarkable legacy to celebrate honest writing and reporting, uncover hidden lives, confront uncomfortable truths, and, through the Orwell Youth Prize, to encourage all young people to think and write creatively and critically.

The British Library – George Orwell Profile and Resources

The Guardian: The masterpiece that killed George Orwell

In 1946 Observer editor David Astor lent George Orwell a remote Scottish farmhouse in which to write his new book, Nineteen Eighty-Four. It became one of the most significant novels of the 20th century. Here, Robert McCrum tells the compelling story of Orwell’s torturous stay on the island where the author, close to death and beset by creative demons, was engaged in a feverish race to finish the book

The Atlantic – Doublethink Is Stronger Than Orwell Imagined: What 1984 means today, by George Packer

A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide. His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.



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