After bidding farewell to Sheffield, my home of five years, and the magnificent Showroom cinema last week, I was glad to have visited another safe haven for cinephiles a few days ago. Travelling through London, I had a few hours spare, so paid a visit to the BFI’s Southbank complex, and its Mediatheque. For the uninitiated, the Mediatheque is an online film and TV archive with viewing portals at various locations – Cambridge’s Central Library and the National Media Museum in Bradford are two I’ve used. A treasure trove awaits visitors, from episodes of Blue Peter and early silent footage of London to Lindsay Anderson’s striking 1979 production of Alan Bennett’s The Old Crowd, decried as a travesty at the time by fools.
Also available is the BBC’s 1954 adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, written and directed by Quatermass visionaries Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier. I first learned of this landmark, and highly controversial, production from The Kneale Tapes documentary on the BBC’s Quatermass release ten years ago. I yearned to see it, but thanks to copyright issues with an attempted DVD release in 2004, this seemed unlikely. I was fortunate to discover it was available on the Mediatheque in 2011 in Cambridge, and found it surpassed every high expectation I had built up over six years. Re-watching this week did nothing to dampen my opinion of it as one of the BBC’s greatest achievements in its long history.
Having studied British documentary between my two viewings of the adaptation, I was more aware this time around of that movement’s influence on the piece’s aesthetic (and Cartier’s blending of it with more fantastical visual elements). Perhaps a key to this, and what makes this first visual adaptation so significant, is that it’s only five years younger than the book itself. Culturally, we don’t tend to think of the chronology of classic books in tandem with classic TV because the latter medium is such a comparatively recent innovation. Any television rendering of a book must always be far, far younger than its source material, surely? Not so here.
Much of the prevailing culture of austere post-war Britain is on show, from the sternly measured performances to the bleak industrial landscapes seen as the workers end their shifts. The subjects of documentaries such as Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1941) or Ralph Keene’s Under Night Streets (1958) are portrayed as one whole, but any sense of patriotic unity in this treatment is perverted by Cartier to betray the total absence of autonomy. The line between these two states of being is shown to be wafer-thin, and while matte paintings of the futuristic cityscape lend Orwell’s dystopia the comforting distance of allegory, the parallels with contemporary documentary keep it grounded nonetheless in our own world.
At its heart though, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s true strength is one of any great drama, as had been seen on stage for centuries before and has been seen on television for decades after, from I, Claudius to The West Wing: masterfully crafted language treated with eloquence and sympathy by a cast of supremely skilled speakers. Artistry and precision abound in both writing and delivery and the two creative forces serve each other to leave audiences spellbound, no more so than in Kneale and Cartier’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
This is a superlative cast, even down to child performers Keith Davis and Pamela Grant. The masterful Peter Cushing excels as Winston Smith, offsetting his handsome severity with an enticing frailty, not least when reliving his childhood trauma. Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, meanwhile, seems at first irritatingly plucky – pluckiness, of course, constituting the early-mid twentieth century’s precursor to feistiness – in her initial mockery of the Party. Yet this soon wears away, and Mitchell gradually reveals Julia’s desires and vulnerability. In her final devastating scene, broken in spirit and body, the edge of naivety to Julia’s rebellious intent is revealed to have been an affected performance, given to the character by Mitchell, a true artist.
For stirring vocal performance, as well, special mention must be given to both André Morell and Donald Pleasance. Morell’s soft, authoritative tones are always a welcome sound to my ears, and he is perfect as the enigmatic figure of O’Brien, only five years before he would go on to work with Kneale and Cartier again as the definitive Professor Quatermass. Here he serves Orwell’s prose (treated with the utmost care by Kneale) beautifully, and so too does Pleasance, who delivers the performance I remembered best from my first viewing of the programme. As his character of Syme discusses with obsessive fascination his work in the formation of newspeak, I feel genuinely drawn into his mentality, sharing his fanaticism ever so briefly.
Such powerful performances, working to match dialogue that has itself been crafted to match them, constitute one of the great examples offered by Nineteen Eighty-Four. This is all a great drama truly needs to succeed and to last. Yet the play was so very nearly lost to the ether that it feels a miracle that we have a record of it, for this was the era of live television. When the first performance of the play, on Sunday 12th December 1954, was broadcast, no recording was made. Perhaps the controversy around this broadcast helped to ensure that, once it was permitted to go ahead, the second performance the following Thursday was recorded for posterity. Although only the second of two screenings, this would become the definitive version. A strange time indeed. For me, though, this merely exemplifies how blessed we are to have even one copy to enjoy. It remains a supreme example of the BBC’s output, at once inspiring and terrifying. Informative, educational and entertaining.
The BFI were planning a DVD release of the play, at long last, as part of their sci-fi season last year, but this has unfortunately frozen in time, perhaps dogged by the copyright issues that affected the previous attempt. Especially disheartening when, as I understand, a good deal of hard work had already gone into treating the programme with the high respect it deserves. Perhaps when Nineteen Eighty-Four comes into the public domain in 2021, another release can finally be achieved. Until then, we can at least view (for free, too) in some form. I urge you to visit your nearest Mediatheque.