Thursday, October 14, 2010

George Orwell's - 1984 (1954)

Here is a version of Orwell's 1984 that was broadcast live in 1954, starring the incomparable Peter Cushing. It also features Donald Pleasence, Andre Morell, and was adapted by Nigel Kneale.

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a British television adaptation of the novel of the same name by George Orwell, originally broadcast on BBC Television in December 1954. The production proved to be hugely controversial, with questions asked in Parliament and many viewer complaints over its supposed subversive nature and horrific content. In a 2000 poll of industry experts conducted by the British Film Institute to determine the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century, Nineteen Eighty-Four was ranked in seventy-third position.

The production provoked something of an upset. There were complaints about the "horrific" content (particularly the infamous Room 101 scene where Smith is threatened with torture by rats) and the "subversive" nature of the production. Most were worried by the depiction of a totalitarian regime controlling the population's freedom of thought. There was also a report in the Daily Express newspaper of 42-year-old Beryl Merfin of Herne Bay collapsing and dying as she watched the production, under the headline "Wife dies as she watches", allegedly from the shock of what she had seen.

Political reaction was divided with several Early day motions and amendments tabled in the Parliament. One motion, signed by five MPs, deplored "the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes". An amendment was tabled which sought to make the motion now deplore "the tendency of honourable members to attack the courage and enterprise of the British Broadcasting Corporation in presenting plays and programmes capable of appreciation by adult minds, on Sunday evenings and other occasions." It was signed by five MPs. Another amendment added "but is thankful that the freedom of the individual still permits viewers to switch off and, due to the foresight of her Majesty's Government, will soon permit a switch-over to be made to more appropriate programmes." A second motion signed by six MPs, applauded "the sincere attempts of the B.B.C. to bring home to the British people the logical and soul-destroying consequences of their freedom" and calling attention to the fact that "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play Nineteen Eighty-Four are already in common use under totalitarian régimes."

Amidst objections the BBC went ahead with a live repeat on Thursday 16 December, although the decision went to the Board of Governors, which narrowly voted in favour of the second performance. This was introduced live on camera by Head of Drama Michael Barry, who had already appeared on the Monday's edition of the topical news programme Panorama to defend the production. The seven million viewers who watched the Thursday performance was the largest television audience in the UK since the Coronation the previous year, even the Queen and Prince Philip made it known that they had watched and enjoyed the play.

When the importance of this production of Nineteen Eighty-Four was realised, it was arranged for the second performance to be telerecorded onto 35mm film, as the first was shown live, seen only by those who were watching. Videotape recording was still in development and television images could only be preserved on film by using a special recording apparatus (known as "telerecording" in the UK and "kinescoping" in the USA) but was used sparingly in Britain for preservation and not for pre-recording. It is thus the second performance that survives in the archives, one of the earliest surviving British television dramas.

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