“Wife Dies as She Watches,” announced a Daily Express headline after the broadcast of Nineteen Eighty-Four, a BBC adaptation of George Orwell’s novel. The article seems to have attributed the sudden collapse and death of a 42-year-old Herne Bay Woman to the production’s shocking content. That was the most dramatic of the many accusations leveled against the BBC of inflicting distress on the viewing public with Orwell’s bleak and harrowing vision of a totalitarian future. Yet that same public also wanted more, demanding a second broadcast that drew seven million viewers, the largest television audience in Britain since the Coronation of Elizabeth II, which had happened the previous year; Orwell’s book had been published just four years before that.
This was the mid-1950s, a time when standards of televisual decency remained almost wholly up for debate — and when most of what aired on television was broadcast live, not produced in advance. Daring not just in its content but its technical and artistic complexity, a project like Nineteen Eighty-Four pushed the limits of the medium, with a live orchestral score as well as fourteen pre-filmed segments meant to establish the unrelentingly grim surrounding reality (and to provide time for scene changes back in the studio).
“This unusual freedom,” says the British Film Institute, “helped make Nineteen Eighty-Four the most expensive TV drama of its day,” though the production’s effectiveness owes to much more than its budget.
“The careful use of close-ups, accompanied by recorded voice-over, allows us a window into Winston’s inner torment” as he “struggles to disguise his ‘thoughtcrimes’, while effectively representing Big Brother’s frightening omniscience.” It also demonstrates star Peter Cushing’s “grasp of small screen performance,” though he would go on to greater renown on the big screen in Hammer Horror pictures, and later as Star Wars‘ Grand Moff Tarkin. (Wilfrid Brambell, who plays two minor parts, would for his part be immortalized as Paul McCartney’s very clean grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night.) Though it got producer-director Rudolph Cartier death threats at the time — perhaps because Orwell’s implicit indictment of a grubby, diminished postwar Britain hit too close to home — this adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four holds its own alongside the many made before and since. That’s true even now that its titular year is decades behind us rather than decades ahead.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.