Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four

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If I’d been more diligent I would have posted this yesterday which happened to be the UK’s first George Orwell Day. The Quatermass Experiment and this adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four are the two outstanding dramas from the very early days of British television. Both were written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Rudolph Cartier, an expatriate Austrian who brought to the small screen skills honed at the UFA studios before the war. The Quatermass Experiment was the first major collaboration between the pair after which they adapted Wuthering Heights. Nineteen Eighty-Four followed, a production that was screened twice in November 1954, and which caused considerable controversy at the time on account of its oppressive atmosphere and the scenes of Winston Smith’s torture.

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Kneale’s drama, which was performed live in the studio on both occasions, looks primitive compared to everything that’s followed but in many ways I prefer this adaptation to Michael Radford’s glossier feature film. For a start it has a great cast: Peter Cushing plays Winston Smith, Yvonne Mitchell is Julia, Donald Pleasence is Syme, and André Morell (who later played Professor Quatermass in the BBC’s Quatermass and the Pit) is O’Brien. Also among the cast there’s Wilfrid Brambell in two minor roles, one of them a precursor of the crusty old man he’d spend the rest of his life portraying. Neither Cushing nor Pleasence were known as film actors at this time; both would no doubt have been surprised to be told that their subsequent careers would involve a great deal of horror and science fiction.

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Cartier and Kneale didn’t have the budget to compete with feature films but for once the claustrophobic nature of a studio production works in the favour of a drama where there’s little intimacy or privacy. With the exception of a few filmed inserts almost everything is close shots. As the story grows more desperate so the shadows close in, until the final scenes are all spotlit faces in darkened rooms. The power of Cushing’s performance still resonates today, and gives an idea of how shocking this must have been to a home audience expecting little more than light entertainment on a Sunday evening. The YouTube copy is the entire 107-minute film, and is worth a watch if only to see Donald Pleasence when he had an almost complete head of hair.

• From 2009: Robert McCrum on The masterpiece that killed George Orwell.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Stone Tape

The Horse of the Invisible

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Can Carnacki make any claim to be taken seriously as a detective? If he solves anything it is by force of will, rather than the application of deductive powers. He is no Sherlockian ironist, no high-domed mental traveller. He stands as close to Holmes as Mike Hammer does to Philip Marlowe. His methods are enthusiastic but basic: good old-fashioned head-in-the-door stuff. He is not so much a “ghostbuster” as a self-starting lightning rod for psychic phenomena that has not yet been housebroken.

Thus Iain Sinclair in a typically acerbic afterword to the 1991 Grafton paperback of Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder by William Hope Hodgson. Holmes would indeed look askance at Carnacki’s methods but that didn’t prevent the occult investigator being drafted as one of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes in the first television series of that name in 1971. I was reminded of this dramatisation following last week’s discussion of Hodgsonian cinema; I’ve known about the episode for years—notable for having Donald Pleasence in the role of Thomas Carnacki—but hadn’t watched it until this week courtesy of YouTube.

Philip Mackie wrote the script for The Horse of the Invisible, and Alan Cooke was the director. Their adaptation is interesting mostly for seeing a Hodgson story dramatised; as a piece of television the presentation is serious and well-acted but looks rather creaky today, suffering from the over-lit artificiality that always blighted studio-shot productions attempting to create any kind of atmosphere. Donald Pleasence is his typical lugubrious self which doesn’t really suit Carnacki’s bull-headed enthusiasm but I don’t mind that, Pleasence was a good actor so it’s a treat to see him play the part. And we do get to see Carnacki’s “electric pentacle” in action (Carnacki enjoys his Edwardian gadgets) in the midst of which the beleagured Michele Dotrice is forced to spend the night. The most successful Carnacki stories are those that play to Hodgson’s strengths as a writer of supernatural dread, stories such as The Gateway of the Monster or The Hog. The Horse of the Invisible doesn’t attain the heights of those tales but then it would be a doomed venture trying to conjure Hodgson’s cosmic horrors on a limited budget. With this story you get a taste of the supernatural, which no doubt sets it apart from the other “Rivals”, whilst staying within the bounds of credibility.

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There’s one curious detail worth mentioning: in both the story and the dramatisation the character of the fiancé is named “Charles Beaumont”. There was a real Charles Beaumont, a screenwriter responsible for many scripts for The Twilight Zone TV series, as well as for some of the superior American horror films of the 1960s, including Night of the Eagle, The Haunted Palace (Roger Corman’s adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward) and The Masque of the Red Death. In last week’s discussion I mentioned John Carpenter’s The Fog as a good example of Hodgsonian cinema on account of its ghost pirates. My memory may be playing tricks but I’m sure that Carpenter has a reference to a “Charlie Beaumont” in either The Fog or Halloween, both films being littered with significant character names. (There’s a “Mr Machen” in The Fog). Donald Pleasence was in Halloween, of course, playing a doctor with a name lifted from Psycho. I’ve searched in vain for the Beaumont reference; does this ring a bell for any Carpenter-philes?

Both series of The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes are available from Network DVD.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Tentacles #2: The Lost Continent
Tentacles #1: The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’
Hodgson versus Houdini
Weekend links: Hodgson edition
“The game is afoot!”
Druillet meets Hodgson