Based on the
The film has never been legally released on video. Collector copies, however, have been known to surface on the auction web site eBAY.
AMAZON.COM: A paperback version of the novel can be purchased through this online bookseller.
BLAM! -- George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: Hans Presto's tribute to George Orwell's saga with photos and information on the novel and the various film adaptations.
THE INTERNET MOVIE DATABASE: Cast and crew information is available at this popular film database.
THE PETER CUSHING FILM POSTER SITE: Roger Harris' site offers a vast collection of the beloved British actor's film posters.
THE PETER CUSHING MUSEUM AND ASSOCIATION: Christopher Gullo's haven for everything Cushing with photos, reviews, news, and more.
THE PETER CUSHING SHRINE: Michael Hoaglin's shrine to Cushing with descriptions of all of his films.
YOU TUBE: The entire teleplay can be viewed online, in multiple chapters, on You Tube.
When published in 1949, George Orwell's political allegory-cum-dystopian speculation Nineteen Eighty-Four immediately made an enormous impact on popular culture, with phrases such as 'Big Brother' very quickly taking on a more sinister connotation than ever before. The novel's quick rise to notoriety was perhaps aided by the death of its author early the following year, but what really sealed its fame and ensured it struck right at the heart of the British psyche was its legendary 1954 television adaptation by the BBC.
It is perhaps ironic that the very medium Orwell parodies in the novel itself became the vehicle by which it was conveyed to the masses, but Nineteen Eighty-Four became one of the landmarks of the monochrome television age. It was produced in the year following the coronation, when an explosion of interest in television had led to a boom in sales and for the first time establishment as a truly mass-market, popular medium.
Orwell's novel was adapted for the screen by Nigel Kneale, perhaps one of television's greatest ever script writers. The previous year he had created the legendary Professor Bernard Quatermass for the popular science-fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment, the creation for whom he is perhaps best-remembered who came back to star in three subsequent television serials for the BBC and ITV and three Hammer feature film adaptations. Four years later in 1958, Kneale adapted John Osborne's trend-setting "angry-young-man" play Look Back in Anger, which included a supporting performance by Donald Pleasence as the market inspector Hurst; he also wrote the original script for the non-Pleasence starring Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983), although he was so disgusted at the many changes made to it before production that he had his name removed from the credits.
The adaptation was produced and directed by the infamous Rudolph Cartier, perhaps the BBC's highest-profile producer / director of the 1950s who was always keen to push the medium and its capabilities right to the limit, both artistically and technically. Cartier, a veteran of the UFA film studios in 1930s Germany who had fled the Nazi regime for Britain in 1936, had worked with Kneale the previous year on The Quatermass Experiment and was already a veteran of many television drama productions -- indeed, together Kneale and Cartier formed BBC drama's ultimate creative team of the era.
It was his work on Quatermass that had prompted the BBC's Head of Drama, Michael Barry to ask Cartier to work on an adaptation of the famous novel, having shown his abilities with literary sources having just completed work on a version of Wuthering Heights, again with Kneale handling the scripting. The BBC had purchased the rights to a television version soon after publication, with Kenneth Tynan having apparently originally been keen on adapting the work. The first version of the script, produced in late 1953, was written by Hugh Faulks, in consultation with Sonia Orwell herself, but when Cartier came aboard in January 1954 he demanded that Kneale be allowed to handle the adaptation. This and other complexities of production meant that the hoped-for April airdate was quickly pushed back.
Right up until the early 1960s, the vast majority of the BBC's television output was performed live, as videotape recording was still in the development stage and the process of capturing television images onto film using a special recording apparatus (known as 'telerecordings' in the UK and 'kinescopes' in the USA) was only used sparingly, usually to repeat a programme that had been filmed as it was going out live and not for pre-recording.
Nonetheless, there was a certain degree of pre-shooting in the form of inserts on film, which could be played into the studio and broadcast as part of the play to cover changes of scene, or show location material which would have been impossible to mount live in the studio. Pleasence had been cast in this production as Syme, the frosty Newspeak worker responsible for the destruction of words in the new editions of the Newspeak Dictionary, as he so enthusiastically sets out to Peter Cushing's Winston Smith in the Canteen scene early on in the play. Pleasence was involved in some of the pre-filming that took place on 10 November 1954 in Studio B of the BBC's original television complex, Alexandra Palace (even by then all-but abandoned as a venue for shooting drama, although it housed the news and later the Open University for the next thirty years), with footage of the Two Minutes' Hate and Cushing and Pleasence as Smith and Syme queuing in the canteen.
Pleasence was not involved with any of the other location shooting that took place on November 18th as these were all exterior scenes, but he was back with the rest of the cast for rehearsals at Mary Ward Settlement, Taverstock Palace, from November 22nd (moving to 60 Paddington Street from November 29th). During these rehearsals, Pleasence and his fellow cast-members memorised their lines and cues (being as important in a live television production as in a theatrical play, if not even more so given the vastly greater audience and technical sophistication involved).
The cast and crew moved to Studio D at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios (a decade later the very studio that was to house the early years of Doctor Who) on Saturday 11 December 1954, the day before transmission, for a full camera rehearsal and run-through on the now constructed sets. Rehearsals continued the following day until shortly before transmission, which began at 8.37 pm on the evening of Sunday the 12th and continued for the best part of two hours.
All went off well technically and artistically, but the play provoked something of an uproar. While the vast majority of the audience were taken aback at the brilliance of the production and the performances from the leading cast members, such as Cushing, Pleasence, Yvonne Mitchell as Julia and André Morell as O'Brien, there were complaints both about the 'horrific' content (particularly the infamous Room 101 scene where Smith is threatened with torture by rats) and the 'subversive' nature of the play.
Over the following few days, there was a storm of controversy in the newspapers, live television debates, even questions in parliament as there were calls for the second scheduled performance -- again live -- on the Thursday evening to be dropped. However, the BBC, always eager to preserve its artistic integrity and independent nature as far as possible, stuck to its guns and went ahead with the performance, which was even introduced live on camera by Head of Drama Michael Barry himself.
When it had become clear just what an influential and important production Nineteen Eighty-Four had become, it was arranged for the second performance to be telerecorded onto 35mm film -- the first performance having simply disappeared off into the ether as it was shown live, seen only by those who were watching that wintry Sunday evening. It is thus the second performance that survives in the archives, which allows us to look back on the piece.
Peter Cushing later went on the record to say that he felt his own performance on the Thursday was poorer than on the Sunday, but there is little sign of this in the finished play. Donald Pleasence really catches the eye immediately as Syme, right from the word go in the café scene as he questions Winston about razor blades with a very calculated air of ambiguity -- we are not sure whether he is trying to trick Winston into giving an incriminating answer or making a genuine enquiry. This very shifty and unknowable nature of Syme's character is something that shines through in Pleasence's portrayal in the early part of the play.
His conversation with Winston about Newspeak -- "it's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words" is a powerful performance by Pleasence, not simply because of the horror of the notion of the destruction of ideas by the lack of words to express them, but because in Pleasence's portrayal Syme is not simply a man doing his job, but a man who loves his job and who loves talking about it. This love of working for such a disgusting regime ought to make us dislike Syme immediately, but despite this cold side to him there is still something very human about him, and it is a tribute to Pleasence's skill that we are able to see this, perhaps best of all in his mockery of the woman serving the stew in the canteen -- "them's stew with salt, them's stew without..."
Perhaps it is his interaction with Parsons -- who just from Pleasence's face we can tell Syme has little more than contempt for -- that also conveys this human side. Parsons, outwardly so cheerful, ought to be much more likable than Syme, but he isn't simply because we see immediately that Parsons is as stupid as Syme is intelligent. For some inexplicable reason, the producers of the 1956 feature film version of Nineteen Eighty-Four missed the point entirely and, although they did pick up Pleasence presumably on the strength of his role in the television version, they cast him as a new version of Parsons who forms an amalgam of the two characters. This does mean, however, that Pleasence is the only artist to have appeared in two different adaptations of the novel.
Of course, as with Winston and Parsons, even Syme is not safe from the Thought Police. Pleasence's most powerful scene in the production undoubtedly comes when Winston meets him sitting blankly in front of a chess problem in the Chestnut Tree Café. When Winston asks about Syme being a member of the chess club, he breaks down completely, explaining how he has been expelled from all Party duties and activities -- particularly the chess club -- because of a Thought Crime, something he is totally at a loss to explain. Syme's complete break down and his pleas to Winston, who quickly abandons him for fear of being incriminated, are a powerful contrast to the character's cool, controlled, implacable manner in the earlier scenes. The final image of Syme, being dragged away by the Thought Police, are perhaps some of the most affecting in the entire play, because if Syme, a party man through and through who loved the corrupting work Big Brother set him to, can be 'got', then nobody is safe. As Winston later explains, Syme is not even dead -- he never even existed. He is erased from all records, an 'un-person'.
Sadly, this excellent BBC Television version of Nineteen Eighty-Four is almost as erased from the records as Syme himself was. Although it is extremely fortunate that even the second performance survives in the archives from an era when precious little television was preserved in such a manner, the play is well known only amongst archive television enthusiasts and science-fiction fans. It was twenty-three years before it received a repeat broadcast in 1977, and another proposed repeat run as part of the BBC's 50th anniversary of television celebrations in 1986 was overruled by the producers of the 1984 John Hurt/Richard Burton feature film adaptation, who felt that any exposure for earlier versions would effect income for their film, a frankly somewhat ludicrous idea that is presumably also the reason for the burial of the 1956 feature film version, although the latter is somewhat less missed.
However, the BBC were permitted to show the play again in 1994 on BBC-2, which allowed most interested parties to tape their own off-air copies, and it recently surfaced again on digital station BBC-4 in June 2003 as part of the George Orwell centenary celebrations. Kneale's adaptation was actually produced again by the BBC in 1965 as part of a season of Orwell adaptations, however sadly this later production does not survive in the archives.
The BFI investigated the possibility of releasing the 1954 Nineteen Eighty-Four as part of the 'Archive Television' DVD range in 2001, but were deterred from doing so by rights issues. Whether these unspecified 'rights issues' result from continued interference by the copyright holders of the 1984 adaptation for the copyright holders of the novel has long been a subject of debate, but there is an additional complicating factor. The composer of the incidental music for the serial, John Hotchkis, had insisted on a bigger than usual orchestra to perform the incidental music for the piece. As well as this, Kneale hated music off disc, so the score was conducted live to the performance by Hotchkis from Lime Grove Studio E, next door to where the play was being acted out, with Hotchkis and his orchestra following the action on a closed-circuit screen to synchronise their own performance. It is understood that were the production to be released on DVD, every member of this orchestra or their estates would need to be traced and paid, an administrative and financial headache that would be enough to deter any potential distributor. It can only be hoped that perhaps something can be worked out to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the play in 2004, as this excellent adaptation and its performances deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Review submitted by Paul
[Screen capture courtesy of Brian Holland and Christopher Gullo]
[Screen capture courtesy of Brian Holland and Christopher Gullo]
[Screen capture courtesy of Brian Holland and Christopher Gullo]
Images © 1954 BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION. All Rights Reserved.
[ TELEVISION | HOME ]