Nigel Kneale’s Nineteen Eighty-Four


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.


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.


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.

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