NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR
by Nick Cooper © 1992-8

"No art, no science, no literature, no enjoyment, but always and only, Winston, there will be the thrill of power. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever."

Late in 1953, following the unexpected success on BBC Television of Nigel Kneale's six-part serial The Quatermass Experiment, producer Rudolph Cartier was called into the office of Assistant Controller of Television, Cecil Madden. Interviewed by BBC2's The Late Show in 1990, Cartier recalled Madden's words: "I liked your science fiction very much. Would you like to do Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four?" From that single question was born what is arguably the greatest television production of the 1950s, if not the whole monochrome era.

BBC Television - the world's first "high-definition" (the 1933 Television Advisory Committe decided that at least 240 lines were needed for it to be classed as such - neatly disqualifying the earlier German 200-line service) television service - had been on the air for less than four years when it was closed down the day the War began in 1939, and transmissions were not resumed until June 1946.

In those early days, technology was still primitive and audiences (restricted to the London area only), with a mere 50,000 people watching King George VI's Coronation in May 1937. As the forties became the fifties, the transmission network spread further afield and set ownership slowly grew, but it took another Coronation - that of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 - to spur the public into a real interest in the medium. An estimated one million sets (effectively doubling the existing number) were bought in the run-up to the event, which was watched by an estimated 20 million people in this country, with live links by cable to France, Holland and West Germany (a major technical feat given that three different transmission standards were involved).


At this stage, television drama was still in its infancy, being little more than "filmed" theatre, a reflection of the fact that most producers (the modern roles of producer and director were combined) came to television from the theatre, a medium which did not instill a familiarity with the sort of huge audiences that it could attract.

Rudolph Cartier, Born in Austria in 1908, had worked in Berlin before the War at the celebrated UFA studios. After the Nazis came to power, Cartier left Germany, but unlike former colleagues such as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, who went on to the US and Hollywood, he took the same decision as Emeric Pressburger and stayed in England. While Pressburger formed a partnership with Michael Power and became a leading light in the British movie industry, Cartier made just two films here before joining the BBC in 1952, the same year that BBC Head of Drama Michael Barry spent his entire first year's budget for commissioning new scripts (£250) on Manx-born short-story writer Nigel Kneale.

Cartier and Neale were the perfect combination. Interviewed in 1990, Kneale observed:

"I don't think any of the things I wrote then would have come to anything much in other hands. The more difficult and improbable it was, the more keen he was to do it. He was wonderful at pushing the whole project as far as it could possibly go, to the point of right to the edge of the cliff, where it almost couldn't happen at all, taking terrible risks, both with the budget and the very simple technical apparatus, and making it look as if it was doing more than it really was."

The Quatermass Experiment's tale of a British rocket which returns to Earth with two of its crew mysteriously missing and the third man possessed by an unknown alien lifeform gripped the nation, with the finale on 22 August being all the more shocking for being set in Westminster Abbey, which - as the scene of the Coronation - had only months before been the focus of such national rejoicing.

Like all television drama at the time, it was transmitted live - pre-made programmes on film being restricted to documentaries and "newsreels". The only form of live programme preservation was telerecording, which involved a special transmission monitor permanently set up in front of a modified 35mm film camera. Although introduced properly in 1947 (an early experiment had been tried in 1936 for a production of The Scarlet Pimpernel too complex to be attempted live), even after five years, the quality of early-50s recordings was poor.

At the time the BBC had no obligation to maintain an archive except for their own use, so telerecording was used sparingly, and the sort of material most likely to be recorded was that of newsworthy or historical importance, such as the 1953 Coronation or interviews with major public figures. Since strict agreements with the entertainment unions dictated how television drama was made and transmitted, most programmes were not recorded because they could not be repeated. In the late-50s, when high-quality telerecording was used to pre-record programmes for transmission later, such agreements often required the recording to be destroyed after transmission. The first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment were recorded, but not the last four due to industrial action.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, then, was to be a live production, with a budget high by the standards of the day at £3,000. Cartier still found this restricting, since all the costs - copyright, actors fees, costumes and sets - had to come out of this. Expected to use stock music on disc, Cartier insisted on live music, and commissioned John Hodgkis to compose and conduct the score during the performance from a second studio at a cost of £300 in excess of the original budget. Cartier recalled:


"Nineteen Eighty-Four was particularly difficult because it had so many sets - twenty-eight sets - and five or six film sequences which couldn't be shown in the studio. So we arranged that the film sequences would come between the main sequences to give us time to move the artists from one set to another; and as we were doing this we also had to move the cameras."

The play was to be performed live twice, first on Sunday 12 December 1954, and then again the following Thursday, this being telerecorded for the archives. Interviewed in 1988, Peter Cushing - whom Cartier cast in the lead role of Winston Smith - recalled the reason for this:

"The BBC moguls felt that it would be more fair to the technicians if they recorded the second transmission, which would give them time not to get cameras or mikes or things into the shots,"

although he considered that the edge to his own performance was lost in the intervening four days.

1984

The play opens with an authoritative voiceover setting the scene:

"This is one man's alarmed vision of the future - a future which he felt might, with such dangerous ease, be brought about."

A short sequence illustrates the start of the atomic wars - a close shot of the hands of some unseen high-ranking miltary officer opens two the protective shutters below a warning sign and presses in sequence the switches beneath, followed by stock footage of the Bikini Atoll H-Bomb tests (which will have been farly "new" at the time) - as the Voice continues:

"Atomic war; famine; revolution; the collapse of a civilisation. And then, in its place, the formation of a new way of existence."

A slow fade takes us to a close shot of a huge circular hoarding of the head and shoulders of a stern-faced moustachioed man in uniform, and the slogan,

"BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU."

The response of The Times the next day was guarded, comparing the play to the original work:

"Concentrating on the action... reduced the ideological explanation so drastically that it robbed the story of half its power. What we saw was not so much Orwell's vision as a pictorial simplification of it."

The reviewer, however, did suggest that Orwell himself would not have been disappointed:

"The vividness with which many parts of it came through would, perhaps, have pleased the author. The two-minutes' Hate was, for instance, a wonderfully riotous orgy of vindictiveness." There was also praise for the cast: "Mr Peter Cushing made a touching broken hero of Winston Smith, and Miss Yvonne Mitchell did well in bringing to life the girl whom the sight of the torturer's rats forces him to deny. Mr André Morrell as O'Brien, who manipulates Winston's long remedial 'cure,' had just the right tone of controlled fanaticism."


The reaction of others, however, was not as academic. On the Tuesday, a motion was tabled in the House of Commons by five Tory MPs, which deplored,

"the tendency, evident in recent in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes."

An amendment tabled by five Labour members and one Conservative would make the motion 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."

A second amendment would have added to the original motion: "but is thankful that freedom of the individual still permits viewers to switch off and, due to the foresight of Her Majesty's Government [a refernec to the imminent start of ITV], will soon permit a switch-over to be made to more appropriate programmes."

Finally, a second motion, tabled by six Tory MPs, applauded,

"the sincere attempts of the BBC to bring home to the British people the logical and soul-destroying consequences of the surrender 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."

An editorial comment in The Times on the morning of the Thursday repeat replied to these Parliamentary manoeuvres with a sympathy for the BBC uncommon today:

"The British Broadcasting Corporation alone should be responsible for its programmes... It is to be hoped that as a result of all the fuss in the newspapers and elsewhere there will be an even larger audience for tonight's repeat performance than might otherwise have been gathered. If anything had been needed to underline the tremendous possibilities of television the reactions of the last few days have provided it."

Further, one crucial aspect of transmission - yet which is hardly ever realised today - was noted:

"Orwell's novel has been in circulation for five years. It has been widely read and made many thinking people uncomfortable. Yet until last Sunday's broadcast it could be said that the impact of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the British public had been only marginal. Despite their use hundreds of times in newspapers, such phrases as 'totalitarianism,' 'brain-washing,' 'dangerous thoughts,' and the Communist practice of making words stand on their heads have for millions of people taken on new meaning. The BBC is to be congratulated for its courage."

In a memo dated 10th August 1954, Cartier wrote that this play would be

“one of the biggest productions ever undertaken by the Drama Department [entailing] approximately three times as much preparation, filming, research, etc., than a usual top production.”

What wasn’t anticipated, however, was the absolute furoré that occured as soon as the credits rolled. In a memo dated 15th December Cartier requested extra Studio Attendants

“in case there is any attempt to interfere with the transmission or to tamper with the control instruments ... With a view of the number of threats I received by telephone and letter the measures suggested above seem to be imperative.”

It was originally planned to film twenty minutes of play on 12th December for BBC Archives (according to a memo dated 28th October 1954), as there were stipulations about the recording in the deal with Mrs Orwell's agents. In the final event, however, the entire repeat performance was telerecorded onto 35mm monochrome film


Cartier and Kneale continued to work together until the end of the decade, producing such notable plays and serials as The Creature, Quatermass II, and Quatermass and the Pit, not to mention numerous other non-telefantasy adaptations. Throughout the 1960s, both continued to work for the BBC, with Kneale leaving in the early 70s to work ITV companies.

At the end of July 1977, the BBC2 began a special season of repeats - Festival 77 - to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee, with one complete programme representing each year of her reign since her Accession to the Throne in 1952. Chosen as representative of 1954 thewas original Cartier/Kneale play. This was the only televised repeat since the actual recorded performance, and it is from this that the few steadily degrading video copies in free circulation stem.

In 1984 itself, the telerecording of the original play was shown at the National Film Theatre, on the very day that Winston began his diary with the words,

"April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks..."

The reaction of the audience was followed by an ovation, but there was to be no televised repeat of the play. Richard Branson's Virgin Films, in association with Chicago lawyer Marvin Rosenblum, had set to work producing the "definitive" cinema version, whilst actively suppressing all others. This was possible because rather than obtain the film rights from Orwell's widow, Rosenblum had bought all the media rights to the book three years previously. At the last minute, and against Radford's express wishes, the producers replaced most of the neo-classical score with music by the Eurthymics. Radford denounced the film at the BAFTA award ceremony, yet the eventual video release still contained the offending music. When shown by Channel 4 in 1989, the original score was restored.

When the BBC celebrated 50 years of television in 1986, a request for permission to show the play during the TV50 repeats was refused by the makers of the 1984 film on the grounds that it would, "affect their profits. Clips from the production were used in a number of documentaries, while the NFT again organised a screening to round off their major retrospective of Rudolph Cartier's work in 1990.

The reaction of the audience was followed by an ovation, but there was to be no televised repeat of the play. Richard Branson's Virgin Films, in association with Chicago lawyer Marvin Rosenblum, had set to work producing the "definitive" cinema version, whilst actively suppressing all others. This was possible because rather than obtain the film rights from Orwell's widow, Rosenblum had bought all the media rights to the book three years previously. At the last minute, and against Radford's express wishes, the producers replaced most of the neo-classical score with music by the Eurthymics. Radford denounced the film at the BAFTA award ceremony, yet the eventual video release still contained the offending music. When shown by Channel 4 in 1989, the original score was restored.

When the BBC celebrated 50 years of television in 1986, a request for permission to show the play during the TV50 repeats was refused by the makers of the 1984 film on the grounds that it would, "affect their profits. Clips from the production were used in a number of documentaries, while the NFT again organised a screening to round off their major retrospective of Rudolph Cartier's work in 1990.

To read Nick Cooper's full 1984 article in two parts at www.625.org please go to www.625.org.uk/1984/sb181984.htm




Nineteen Eighty-Four - On BBC - The Book