Saturday, 14 January 2012

Nineteen Eighty-Four

“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot, stamping on a human face, forever.”

I should probably say at the start that this is the 1954 BBC teleplay, written by Nigel Kneale, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Peter Cushing. It’s rather interesting to see this for the first time just one week after seeing The Year of the Sex Olympics; suddenly the debt the later play, set in a future with a diminishing vocabulary, owes to Orwell’s concept of Newspeak becomes even more blatant.

This is first class telly, though. Yes, it’s of its time, with a rather blurry picture quality (although, to be fair, the prints could really do with a good clean), and technical limitations mean that a slow pace is sort of inevitable, but this is no bad thing. The cast is superb, with Peter Cushing putting in an outstanding performance, with honourable mentions also going top Yvonne Mitchell and André Morell. It’s quite a shock, too, to see Donald Pleasance in a television role. There’s also a nice little cameo from Wilfrid Brambell.

It’s not just the picture quality that dates this; it is, after all, the earliest piece of telly I’m likely to be reviewing on this blog except, probably, for the surviving bits of The Quatermass Experiment once I get to it. The fact that it was made live (apart from the many film sequence!) isn’t really too obvious, but lots of other things are, notably the plummy accents, Mr. Cholmondely-Warner strength, which are spoken by every character who isn’t a prole. And this is a future with things like valves in it It’s rather interesting, though, to see an adaptation made just five years after George Orwell’s novel was published; the general feel of austerity (how very topical!) seems very fitting, especially as 1954 was the year that rationing finally ended. I couldn’t help also noticing that, among the many sinister notices seen in the programme is one saying “Be ready to produce identity papers”. Orwell would have been horrified at the last Government’s plan to introduce identity cards, now thankfully off the table for now in a rare wise decision from our current lords and masters.

Cartier’s sets, with ever-present posters and pictures of Big Brother, are a triumph of design, and it’s a nice touch that everyone (except, again, the proles, who wear 1950’s clothes) wears what look very much like prison uniforms, while Winston Smith’s room looks awfully like a prison cell. This is a confining, utilitarian world, devoid of all beauty and ornament. The constant televised announcements, which cannot be switched off, remind me a lot of the 15 Million Merits episode of Black Mirror.

It’s a while, certainly more than fifteen years, since I last read the novel, so the sheer levels of totalitarianism on display here come as quite a shock. Big Brother is indeed watching everyone, even language itself is being perverted so as to render “thought crime” impossible, but the scenes towards the end, with Morell’s Obrien as the torturer, are more chilling still. The line asking how many fingers are being held up (blatantly ripped off / homaged, decades later, by Star Trek: The Next Generation), and the following dialogue, make it clear that the Party claims the right to dictate reality itself; there is no empirical truth. Rather cleverly, this is all foreshadowed by Smith’s job of “adjusting” past records to fit with current political convenience.

It’s interesting, although somewhat patronising, that hope lies with the uneducated and ignorant proles, and the fact that their cultural fare is all written or composed by computer could be read all sorts of ways. Hope certainly seems to be closed up elsewhere; even Smith is not quite the pure hero, agreeing to commit all sorts of awful crimes. But the romance between him and Julia is rather sweet and lovely, but also profound. What they have is theirs alone, and it’s real. Nothing else is. And their relationship burns all the brighter for the fact that it, and they, are doomed, and they both know it.

The ending, with both Julia and Winston denouncing each other under torture, is devastating, but brainwashing was very much in the zeitgeist so soon after the Korean War. This is a first class piece of telly, whether in terms of script, directing or performances, but I think its view of the future is a little pessimistic. Totalitarian regimes always have a limited life expectancy. They always burn themselves out eventually; the world is a chaotic place, for good or ill. The future will be far more Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.

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