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  Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell And Good
Year: 1954
Director: Rudolph Cartier
Stars: Peter Cushing, André Morell, Yvonne Mitchell, Donald Pleasence, Arnold Diamond, Campbell Gray, Hilda Fennemore, Pamela Grant, Keith Davis, Janet Barrow, Norman Osborne, Tony Lyons, Wilfrid Brambell, Leonard Sachs, Sydney Bromley
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction, TV MovieBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The year is 1984 and the world has survived a nuclear war, but Britain has been renamed Airstrip One and is now a satellite state of a totalitarian mega-state, strictly controlled by the authorities under the protection of their so-called Big Brother, the leader seen in broadcasts on wall-mounted screens in every home and workplace in the country. One of the citizens is Winston Smith (Peter Cushing), who diligently works at an information correction station for the government, and he gives every appearance of being loyal to Big Brother, but he has a secret: he doesn't love his country - he hates it!

This version of George Orwell's famed 1948 novel was produced for the BBC in their Sunday Night Theatre strand, proving one of the most controversial programmes broadcast on any nation's television up to that point. There was a vocal contingent of the viewers who saw the violence in the play as a personal attack on their values and not what they wanted to see in their living rooms, especially on the evening of the Sabbath. What had started as a prestige production of a much-respected, recent classic novel had turned into a media talking point, with viewers writing in their droves to complain.

Perhaps the trouble was that most of the complainers had not read the novel and cared nothing for its intellectual persuasions, only seeing the violence and not connecting it to an attack on ideology as Orwell had intended. Though a left-winger, he was a critic of the Soviet Union and its human rights abuses, so took the newly arrived Cold War to its extreme in his book; he died before he was able to watch the TV play, a pity as it would have been fascinating to hear his opinion. The man brought in to write the script was Nigel Kneale, who had enjoyed huge success the previous year on the BBC with The Quatermass Experiment.

That too had terrified a large part of the audience, and was science fiction as well, but felt more fantastical whereas the Orwell adaptation was based around man's inhumanity to man, and therefore felt a lot more authentic in its horrors. But as is always the case with the BBC, listening to the complainers only tells you part of the story, as there were plenty of viewers happy with the play and believed it was exactly what the Corporation should be broadcasting, not non-stop cosy material but also works that challenged and expanded the opinions. Although there persists a myth that questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament about Nineteen Eighty-Four, it's not true, and the brouhaha blew over within days.

As for the production itself, obviously watching it now it is a little primitive with its shaky sets, microphone shadows and obvious film inserts to give the cast a chance to get into position for their next scene (it was filmed live, and this reprise from the following Thursday is the one that was recorded). But the power of Orwell’s warning about how control could get out of control remains, and there are some very strong performances, notably from Cushing but also from André Morell who played his eventual nemesis O'Brien, with Donald Pleasence a memorable presence too. Yvonne Mitchell played Julia, Winston's true love, a love that gets bastardised by the establishment to break them both. Finding parallels between the source and the contemporary society we live in now has never gone out of fashion, be that the Two Minutes Hate of social media, the weaponisation of nostalgia or the paranoia that gossip has graduated to a boot stamping on a human face forever, and you will find much to draw on here. Some say it was never bettered, thanks to writers and cast. Music by John Hotchkis.

[The BFI release this on Blu-ray with the following special features:

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
Late Night Line-Up (BBC, 1965, 23 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
Nigel Kneale: Into the Unknown (2022, 72 mins): writer, actor and stand-up comedian Toby Hadoke and Nigel Kneale biographer and programmer Andy Murray try to unpick who Kneale was, what he did and why his work still matters today
Gallery of rare images from the BBC Archives
Original script (downloadable PDF)
Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Matt Needle

*** First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with essays by Oliver Wake and David Ryan; credits and notes on the special features.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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