Nineteen Eighty-Four (TV programme)

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Peter Cushing played Winston Smith while Donald Pleasence played Syme.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was a British television adaptation of the novel of the same name by George Orwell, originally broadcast on BBC Television in the winter of 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.



Orwell's novel was adapted for television by Nigel Kneale, one of the most successful television scriptwriters of the era. The previous year he had created the legendary Professor Bernard Quatermass for the popular science-fiction serial The Quatermass Experiment. The adaptation was produced and directed by the equally-respected Rudolph Cartier, perhaps the BBC's highest-profile producer/director of the 1950s who was always keen to push the medium and its capabilities right to the limit, both artistically and technically. Cartier, a veteran of the UFA film studios in 1930s Germany who had fled the Nazi regime for Britain in 1936, had worked with Kneale the previous year on The Quatermass Experiment and was already a veteran of many television drama productions – indeed, together Kneale and Cartier formed BBC drama's most successful creative team of the era.

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The opening title sequence to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
It was his work on Quatermass that had prompted the BBC's Head of Drama, Michael Barry, to ask Cartier to work on an adaptation of the famous novel, having shown his abilities with literary sources having just completed work on a version of Wuthering Heights, again with Kneale handling the scripting. The BBC had purchased the rights to a television version of Nineteen Eighty-Four soon after its publication in 1949, with Kenneth Tynan having apparently originally been keen on adapting the work. The first version of the script, produced in late 1953, was written by Hugh Faulks, in consultation with Orwell's widow Sonia Orwell herself, but when Cartier came aboard in January 1954 he demanded that Kneale be allowed to handle the adaptation. This and other complexities of production meant that the hoped-for April airdate – which would have been more or less exactly thirty years before the novel was set – quickly had to be pushed back.

Cast and crew

The leading role of Winston Smith was taken by the young Peter Cushing, in one of his first major roles. Cartier cast him after having been impressed with his performance in a BBC production of Anastasia the previous year. Cushing would later go on to become a major star of the cinema, as would his fellow Nineteen Eighty-Four actor Donald Pleasence, who played the role of Syme in this production. Pleasence was the only member of the cast to also be present in the 1956 feature film adaptation of the story, albeit as Parsons rather than Syme.

Other cast members included the actress Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, who had starred in the Kneale / Cartier Wuthering Heights, and André Morell as O'Brien. Wilfrid Brambell, later famous for his role in the 1960s sitcom Steptoe and Son, appeared in two roles, as the old man Winston speaks with in the pub, and as a prisoner later on when Winston is imprisoned. Nigel Kneale, who had briefly been an actor in the 1940s before turning to scriptwriting, had a small voice-over role as an announcer. The face of Big Brother was in fact that of Roy Oxley, a member of the BBC design department whose inclusion was something of an in-joke on the part of the production team.

The composer of the incidental music for the serial was John Hotchkis, who insisted on a bigger than usual orchestra to perform the incidental music for the piece. As well as this, Kneale hated music off disc, so the score was conducted live to the performance by Hotchkis from Lime Grove Studio E, next door to where the play was being acted out, with Hotchkis and his orchestra following the action on a closed-circuit screen to synchronise their own performance.


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Big Brother: in reality, this menacing figure is BBC design department's Roy Oxley.

Until the early 1960s, the vast majority of the BBC's television output was performed live, as videotape recording was still in the development stage. The process of capturing television images onto film using a special recording apparatus (known as "telerecording" in the UK and "kinescoping" in the USA) was only used sparingly, usually to repeat a programme that had been filmed as it was going out live and not for pre-recording.

Nonetheless, there was a certain degree of pre-shooting in the form of inserts on film, which could be played into the studio and broadcast as part of the play to cover changes of scene, or show location material which would have been impossible to mount live in the studio. Initial pre-filming for Nineteen Eighty-Four took place on November 10 1954 in Studio B of the BBC's original television complex, Alexandra Palace (even by then all but abandoned as a venue for shooting drama, although it housed the news and later the Open University for the next thirty years), with footage of the Two Minutes' Hate and some of the canteen scenes being filmed here.

Further location shooting took place on November 18, all exterior scenes featuring Smith's travels in the proletarian sector. Following the pre-filming work, rehearsals for the entire cast began at Mary Ward Settlement, Taverstock Place, from November 22 (moving to 60 Paddington Street from November 29). During these rehearsals, the cast-members memorised their lines and cues, as important in a live television production as in a theatrical play, if not even more so given the vastly greater audience and technical sophistication involved.

The cast and crew moved to Studio D at the BBC's Lime Grove Studios (a decade later the very studio that was to house the early years of Doctor Who) on Saturday December 11 1954, the day before transmission, for a full camera rehearsal and run-through on the now constructed sets. Rehearsals continued the following day until shortly before transmission, which began at 20:37 on the evening of Sunday the 12th and continued for the best part of two hours.

Kneale's script was a largely faithful adaptation of the novel as far as was practical with the limitations of the medium. The writer did, however, make some small additions of his own, the most notable being the creation of a sequence in which O'Brien observes Julia at work in PornoSec, and reads a small segment from one of the erotic novels being written by the machines there.


The play provoked something of an upset. There were complaints both about the "horrific" content (particularly the infamous Room 101 scene where Smith is threatened with torture by rats) and the "subversive" nature of the play. Most were worried by the depiction of a totalitarian governmental regime controlling the population's freedom of thought, and four MPs from the ruling Conservative government tabled motions in the House of Commons for the scheduled Thursday second performance to be cancelled. 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.

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

When it had become clear what an important production Nineteen Eighty-Four was, it was arranged for the second performance to be telerecorded onto 35mm film – the first performance having simply disappeared off into the ether, as it was shown live, seen only by those who were watching on the Sunday evening. It is thus the second performance that survives in the archives, one of the earliest surviving British television dramas.

Contemporary parodies

Spike Milligan wrote a parody of Nineteen Eighty-Four for The Goon Show entitled 1985, which first aired on January 4, 1955. The cast of characters included Worker 846 Winston Seagoon (Harry Secombe), Miss Sfnut (Peter Sellers), and Worker 213 Eccles (Milligan); Big Brother was replaced by the Big Brother Corporation (aka. the BBC), and Goldstein's revolution by Horace Minikstein's Independent Television Army (aka. ITA). Jokes included such stabs at the BBC as:

Announcer (Sellers): "Attention BBC workers! Lunch is now being served in the BBC Canteen. Doctors are standing by."

Seagoon is tortured in Room 101 by being forced to listen to clips from Ray's a Laugh, Life with the Lyons, and the singing of Harry Secombe. However, unlike the original script, Seagoon is freed from Room 101, and the ITA overthrows the BBC after a three-day phone call and a £10 bribe.

The programme was such an outstanding success that the script was performed again on February 8, 1955. This was not a repeat -- this was a new broadcast of the same script with minor changes. One such change was the pre-recorded addition of John Snagge as the BBC announcer previously portrayed by Sellers.

However, like Cartier's Nineteen Eighty-Four, only one performance was recorded and preserved by the BBC. The first version exists in pristine form in the BBC archives, the second performance only as a lower-quality off-air recording which excludes the first five minutes of the programme and both musical interludes, preserving about 18 minutes of material.


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Although it is extremely fortunate that even the second performance survives in the archives from an era when little television was preserved in such a manner, the play is well known only amongst archive television enthusiasts and science-fiction fans. It was twenty-three years before it received a repeat broadcast in 1977, and another proposed repeat run as part of the BBC's fiftieth anniversary of television celebrations in 1986 was overruled by the producers of the 1984 John Hurt/Richard Burton feature film adaptation, who felt that any exposure for earlier versions would affect income for their film. The BBC were however permitted to show the play again in 1994 on BBC Two, as a tribute to the recently-deceased Cartier, and again in June 2003 on digital station BBC Four as part of the George Orwell centenary celebrations.

Kneale's adaptation was produced again by the BBC, with some modifications, in 1965. Starring David Buck, Joseph O'Conor, Jane Merrow and Cyril Shaps, this version was broadcast in BBC2's Theatre 625 anthology series as part of a season of Orwell adaptations sub-titled The World of George Orwell, on November 28 1965. Sadly however, this later production does not survive in the archives, although a trailer does exist, as does an edition of the discussion programme Late Night Line Up aired the previous evening, featuring Kneale as a guest and concentrating on the 1954 version. Also in 1965, a radio adaptation starring Patrick Troughton was transmitted on the BBC Home Service.

Broadcast history




  • Pixley, Andrew (Jan. 2003). Nineteen Eighty-Four: Big Brother is Watching You. TV Zone, p.50-54.

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