Sunday, 13 November 2016

THE LEIGH SPENCE MOMENT: NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (1954)


12. “You are still thinking in Oldspeak, clinging to useless shades of meaning.”




We live in enlightened times, with the hope that the general lot of all people gets better with time, and that we can never fall backwards, making life worse for others. There are those that think the election of Donald Trump has pushed the world in the right direction but, now he is in the full public glare of scrutiny that came with the job he wanted, it will not happen – he has already said he will govern for all Americans, and he now has to prove it.

I feel that, nearly seventy years after its original publication, the dystopian future described in George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” will never happen, or be allowed to happen, in a democratic country, its portrayal a possible worst case scenario remaining vivid with every new reader, and its vocabulary – particularly Newspeak terms like “doublethink” and “unperson” – passing into regular English like little warnings. Therefore, if the job of Orwell’s novel is done, we must continually refer back to it, to make sure it is maintained.

In that case, why am I talking about it here? It wasn’t due to Trump, but more because the most remarked upon adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was in 1954, for television, by the BBC.


If television can be used to speak truth to power, then people need to buy televisions first, as many did in the UK for the Queen’s coronation in 1953. With only one channel to watch, any concerns over horrifying, or even subversive material on TV, would be magnified, and the first performance of the adaptation, on a Sunday night, led to questions in Parliament, and a newspaper report that a watching housewife allegedly died of shock.

Even with the assertions that the BBC were right to broadcast the play, any controversy was silenced after Prince Philip’s remark that he watched the play with the Queen, and they both enjoyed it. The second performance, the following Thursday, still only went ahead after a narrow vote in favour by the BBC’s governors, and wound up with the biggest TV audience since the Coronation.

Hearing of the effort to broadcast “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at all underlies its importance. At a time before video tape, when television was not recorded, the two-hour play, adapted by “Quatermass” and “The Year of the Sex Olympics” writer Nigel Kneale, was broadcast live, with some recorded inserts, with incidental music being played live by an orchestra in the studio next door – deciding not to do it more than once would have been too easy. Thankfully, the importance of the play, highlighted by the controversy meant a film camera was placed in front of a TV screen, just as was done for the Coronation, preserving it for ever.

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is quite easily found online, and stars Vincent Price, Yvonne Mitchell and Donald Pleasence so, once you accept that you are perfectly safe, and you can look past some wobbly scenery, you can expect a very well performed, very well-made play.

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