In the first of two reviews of classic television written by Nigel Kneale, the celebrated and once controversial 1954 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
As Nineteen Eighty Four becomes available to stream on Amazon Prime, Gary Couzens looks back at the iconic adaptation of the equally iconic novel…
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Britain, or Airstrip One, is part of a superpower called Oceania ruled by Big Brother. Posters on every wall say BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU and each house has a telescreen monitoring the inhabitants. Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) works at the Ministry of Truth, rewriting the news to remove references to “unpersons” and refining the language of Newspeak so that anyone inclined to rebel will have fewer and fewer words to think their rebellious thoughts with. Winston meets Julia (Yvonne Mitchell), a member of the Anti-Sex League, and they fall in love. But their rebellion hasn’t gone unnoticed.
George Orwell might have called his final novel The Last Man in Europe or maybe even Nineteen Forty-Eight, and if he had much iconography which has lasted until now might not have existed. But Nineteen Eighty-Four it was, by reversing the digits in the year the novel was written, while Orwell was severely ill from tuberculosis. It was published in 1949 and Orwell died on 21 January 1950, aged just forty-six. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a key work of twentieth-century science fiction, though published outside the genre, and several of its concepts have entered the language: Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak, and so on. Not a work of prophecy, but an extrapolation from Orwell’s present, like most SF is, it has lost none of its relevance. The novel was only five years old, when it was first, and somewhat controversially, adapted for television, during the thirtieth pre-anniversary of its title year.
Thomas Nigel Kneale (Tom to friends and family, though he used his middle name professionally) left the legal profession to become a writer, and published short stories and had radio drama produced before being recruited in 1951 as a staff writer for BBC Television. He was prolific: one of his early credits was for additional dialogue for the 1952 television play Arrow to the Heart, where he met the Austrian-born director (billed as a producer, theatre-fashion, then) Rudolph Cartier. Television drama then was broadcast live, and repeats simply reassembled the cast and crew for a second performance. Both men thought that the television drama of the day was too theatrical – and was often just that, performances of stage plays – and planned to do more with the medium, to make it something distinct from the stage, or radio with pictures, or even the cinema, and by so doing pushed at the technological limitations of the time.
The first example of this was The Quatermass Experiment, a science fiction serial broadcast in six episodes, one a week, between July and August 1953. The serial was a considerable success on what was until 1955 the only British television channel, with many Britons having acquired their first televisions (rented, bought or hire-purchased) for the Coronation of Elizabeth II in June that year. Cartier and Kneale’s next collaboration was an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, broadcast on 6 December 1953 and repeated four days later). Then they started work on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Kneale’s adaptation streamlines the novel: like all versions I’ve seen, it removes the forty-odd pages of political textbook from the middle. Even so, Orwell’s visual prose style does lend itself to screen adaptation. It’s hard to wreck this story – though the 1956 cinema version (which I haven’t seen) did its best by giving the story a happy ending, thus distorting the novel’s intent. (Much the same could be said about Halas and Batchelor’s 1954 otherwise admirable animated feature of Animal Farm.) Peter Cushing, then forty one and having built up his career via character parts to lead roles like this (and before he worked for Hammer), gives a fine performance, matched by Yvonne Mitchell and, as the villain of the piece, O’ Brien, André Morell, who would play the lead in Kneale and Cartier’s 1958/59 serial Quatermass and the Pit. You do have to make allowances for the technical limitations of the medium at the time, but not many: it’s a fine play.
Some material, including the Two Minute Hate scene, were prefilmed at Alexandra Palace, but the majority of the play was broadcast live on Sunday evening 12 December 1954. There was an immediate outcry, with complaints about the play’s content – particularly the Room 101 scene towards the end – and one woman allegedly dying of shock as she watched. Questions were asked in Parliament and five MPs signed a motion deploring the BBC’s tendency, especially in its Sunday evening dramas, “to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes”. Quite what they were referring to is anyone’s guess, as the great majority of them were never recorded, as indeed was not the first broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four. A scheduled repeat (i.e. second live performance) on Thursday 16th came close to being cancelled but the BBC’s Board of Governors decided it should go ahead. The Queen and Prince Philip made it known that they had watched the play and had enjoyed it.
One way in which Cartier was ahead of his time was in the use of telerecording, which at the time involved a 35mm camera being synchronised to a television monitor and the output of the 405-line video cameras being captured on film. While it’s true that the majority of early television, especially from before the War, was beamed out live and never recorded and no longer exists, that isn’t entirely so: early broadcast material included newsreels, cartoons and occasional feature films. Telerecording was used for certain prestigious live events: the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip from 1947 survives in this form, as indeed does the Queen’s Coronation.
However, the earliest surviving telerecording of drama is a Cartier production starring André Morell and the original Quatermass, Reginald Tate, It Is Midnight, Dr Schweitzer, broadcast on 22 February 1953 and “repeated” four days later, the latter showing being the one telerecorded. Other early telerecordings include the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment.
Several people who worked on Nineteen Eighty-Four said that the first performance was the best of the two, but it is the second which was telerecorded and which survives and has been repeated, in 1977 as part of the BBC’s celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of its television service, in 1994 following Cartier’s death, and most recently in 2003. In 1965, the BBC made a new version of Nineteen Eighty-Four using a revised version of Kneale’s script. This was shown only once and was since lost, to be found again in a cache of BBC drama productions in the US Library of Congress, in a copy missing a few minutes but mostly intact.
The telerecording has been restored and there have been two attempts to release Nineteen Eighty-Four on disc, which in 2004 went as far as the production being certified (12) by the BBFC. However, neither happened due to issues with the Orwell Estate apparently not wishing a rival version to be released at the same time as the 1984 film version. This will no doubt change after Orwell’s copyright expires on 1 January 2021, but in the meantime Nineteen Eighty-Four has become available online. It begins with a caption explaining the archive nature of the material, which is visually and audibly rough in places. It’s presented in standard definition, in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and mono sound, as you would expect of television of this vintage.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.