Unrated - Cinema of the Extreme

In 1954, BBC television transmitted an adaptation of George Orwell’s novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR adapted by Nigel Kneale, produced (which, in the TV terms of the time, also means directed) by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Yvonne Mitchell. This production remains famous, for the controversy raised by its horrific (though not, it seems, politcal) content, and as an early example of serious science fiction on television. As it happens, the book had been adapted a year earlier for American television’s STUDIO ONE anthology, with Eddie Albert, Lorne Greene and Norma Crane [1]. One of the reasons the 1954 1984 is so well-remembered is that it was broadcast at a time when the UK only had one television channel, which meant owners of television sets tended to watch anything – including programs they would (and did) avoid when given the choice after ITV (known for decades as ‘the other side’) started. The debate this raised within the BBC led in 1965 to the launch of BBC2, conceived as a home for programs the corporation deemed more adult, esoteric or experimental. If you didn’t like it or made your head hurt, you could turn back to THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW or THE MAN FROM UNCLE on BBC1 [2]. Just after BBC2 launched, it had an Orwell Season, consisting of documentaries, talks and three adaptations broadcast in the THEATRE 625 anthology slot. The climax of the ‘World of George Orwell’ strand was a redo of Kneale’s 1984, broadcast on November 28, 1965.

Long thought lost, this 1984 was among the trove of BBC-TV productions found last year in the US Library of Congress, and was shown at the BFI Southbank in a season of these rediscoveries. Sadly, a brief section of the second reel was damaged – the section deals with the growing relationship between Winston Smith and Julia. When I interviewed Nigel Kneale in the 1990s, he was fairly dismissive of the second 1984 and gave the impression that it was a simple restaging of his 1954 script, though he remained impressed by Joseph O’Conor’s interpretation of the role of the torturer O’Brien as ‘a fallen priest’ [3]. Actually, his script was worked over quite thoroughly, bringing in elements of the novel omitted the first time, and changing the emphases. Directed by Christopher Morahan (ALL NEAT IN BLACK STOCKINGS, CLOCKWISE, PAPER MASK) who had also done KEEP THE ASPIDISTRA FLYING and COMING UP FOR AIR for THEATRE 625, the remake is forced to lower the ages of Winston (David Buck) and Julia (Jane Merrow). With only nineteen years til 1984, this had to be done so the characters would have only a dim memory of life before ‘the Revolution’. This, not incidentally, makes it a story of youth protest rather than an intellectual rebellion against the state. Buck and Merrow are sexier than Cushing and Mitchell and vaguer in their beliefs. They even seem naively dangerous when they go along with the suggestion that throwing sulphuric acid in a child’s face would be acceptable if it advanced the cause. Kneale was cynical about youth culture (see the Planet People of QUATERMASS) and, understandably but intriguingly, had come to dislike the performances of Buck and Merrow when what I suspect he really disliked where the characters they played (which he had written). Both leads strike me as rather good, given that everyone who plays the parts has to cope with the fact that the novel (written by a man with severe, terminal health issues) is so despairing that its hero and heroine are tentative rebels at best, utterly crushed by the climax (it wasn’t until I saw this adaptation that I noticed how the gin-soaked, broken Winston of the last scene prefigures Nicolas Roeg’s THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH).

Morahan didn’t have to stage the whole thing live, and apparently had bigger, more elaborate sets – but this feels more claustrophobic than the 1954 production. No matter how grim they might be, dystopiae are all satiric – highlighting contemporary horrors by exaggerated extrapolation. The 1945 1984 is relentlessly grim, but the 1965 1984 is moving towards the horror-comedy vision of the future Kneale would advance in THE YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS and WINE OF INDIA (which is, tragically, lost). On its first publication, NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was often read as a simple indictment of Stalinism (or fascism), which must have irritated Orwell no end, and 1950s adaptations (Michael Anderson directed the 1956 film with Edmond O’Brien looking like Hancock as Winston and Jan Sterling as the most glamorous member of the Anti-Sex League ever) could be sold as anti-communist propaganda. By the mid-60s, that aspect had faded and Orwell’s warning about the incipient totalitarianism of all governments (inspired, in part, by working for the BBC during WWII) was more apparent. This production opens with an atomic war in the (then) near-future, even making a reference to DR STRANGELOVE (casualties figured in megadeaths), to explain how the world of Big Brother comes about. To acknowledge the space age, Britain is no longer Airstrip One but Pad One (as in launch-pad, not crash-pad). In tune with the 1960s, there’s an emphasis on the state’s involvement in the creation of junk culture, with a manufactured pop song (a trivial lyric with a military band beat – truly horrible) running through the show like a virus (prefiguring PRIVILEGE) and Julia toiling over a computer device that manufactures pornographic novels for the proles which are distributed in plain wrappers to encourage the idea that they are illegal (and thus taking attention away from any actually subversive literature out there) [4]. By 1965, the world of 1984 was starting to seem comic – a process that would pay off with BRAZIL – and there’s even an attempt to read the Two Minutes Hate as a sort of officially-sanctioned comedy, with Goldstein (Vernon Dobtcheff) bleating like a sheep during his anti-BB speech.

In all versions, even the compromised 1956 film, the horrible details tell. The omnipresent televisions, with grilles to prevent damage. The unappetising food and ‘Victory gin’. The crowded jail cells like waiting rooms (the spectacularly emaciated William Lyon Brown is disturbing as the starved arrestee). A pre-RAILWAY CHILDREN Sally Thompsett is venomous as a spiteful junior spy, blaming the sink clogged up with her hair on saboteurs and informing on her pathetically devoted-to-the-state father (Norman Chappell). O’Conor is gentle and unfailingly polite as the manipulative spokesman for the state, who entraps Winston and Julia into joining ‘the Brotherhood’ and then punishes them for it, getting a chill from Orwell’s most-remembered speeches (‘if you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever). The illusion of ‘the Brotherhood’, an underground group essentially made up by the state as a threat and a temptation, is another innovation of this adaptation (perhaps a dig at 1960s radicalism), as is the stress on the probability that the state is behind the missile attacks on London that perpetuate the myth of an unending war and keep everyone cowed under emergency regulations which will never go away. The torture scenes have an antiseptic feel, with men in white coats continually checking on the victim’s health to see if the process can go further [5]. Kneale said that no version of NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR managed to make Room 101 properly the worst thing in the world because on camera rats tend to look adorable rather than hideous, but Buck – like Cushing – manages an upsetting simulation of extreme phobia (Winston’s explanatory speech about why he hates rats is Buck’s best scene). Also in the large cast are Cyril Shaps as the chess-playing Newspeak dictionary compiler and John Garrie as the antiques shop proprietor – surrounding Buck (the handsome young lead of THE MUMMY’S SHROUD) and Merrow (of NIGHT OF THE BIG HEAT) with older, craggier character actors like these only serves to make them seem younger.

Also shown at the BFI was footage from a LATE NIGHT LINE-UP special on the production, which fascinatingly brings together participants in the 1954 and 1965 productions for polite debate (Mitchell cites the then-recent introduction of traffic wardens as a step towards Big Brother). Morahan, put on the spot, suspects that this will be the last production of 1984, unable to conceive the obvious notion which would be hit on by Mike Radford of making a 1984 in 1984, which had John Hurt, Richard Burton and Susannah Hamilton. Now, of course, Big Brother has come to connotate another brand of junk pop culture, closer to the vision of Kneale’s YEAR OF THE SEX OLYMPICS. For all his terror of television, and use of it as an instrument of oppression, Orwell was a radio man and didn’t understand the new medium which would periodically reissue his warning (the 1984 1984 was a Film on 4 production). Kneale was a TV man, and saw how much more insidious the medium could be as a means of social control and eroding human values.

1: This 1984 is available on DVD in the STUDIO ONE Anthology box set along with the original TV version of 12 ANGRY MEN and other interesting, ambitious productions.

2: Now, a channel would get more complaints if it put out THE BLACK AND WHITE MINSTREL SHOW than if it broadcast A SERBIAN FILM uncut before the watershed.

3: In the 1956 1984, O’Brien is renamed O’Connor because Edmond O’Brien was cast as Winston Smith; now, he’s O’Brien again and played by an O’Conor – whose slight Irish accent makes the terrifying speeches all the chillier.

4: Orwell’s idea of porn, incidentally, sounds like Mickey Spillane, but was obviously inspired by James Hadley Chase (he wrote an essay attacking NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH).

5: The sound effects of the electric-crucifixion device are a futuristic radiophonic whine heard often on DOCTOR WHO.

Kim Newman


Directed by Christopher Morahan

English language / UK / 1965 / 120 Minutes (incomplete) / black and white


home current issue news links subscriptions contact
Design and coding by Mike Strick