Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1954: The BBC TV adaptation

Dir: Rudolph Cartier
Star: Peter Cushing, Yvonne Mitchell, André Morell, Donald Pleasence.

It’s hard to appreciate the impact the BBC adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had on the country at the time. The first of the two broadcasts, in December 1954, triggered an enormous furor, with motions proposed in Parliament criticizing “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.” When the performance was repeated the following week, needless to say, it got the biggest television audience in the country since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. [Some things don’t change!]

That was not a repeat of the original screening, as both broadcasts were largely performed live, with some filmed inserts to allow for scenery, costume, etc. changes. Fortunately, the second showing was recorded; this being the days before video-tape (which would become available a couple of years late), the process basically involved filming a TV monitor, and the resulting picture quality leaves more than a little to be desired, especially when you start watching it. However, the brain adapts, and the grainy, ghostly quality of the images eventually ceases to matter.

It’s important to put the broadcast into the context of the time, in a post-war Great Britain, where rationing, such as of meat, had still been in place up until as little as six months previously. The Cold War was entering perhaps its chilliest phrase, following the death of Stalin in 1953, with the Korean War also fresh in everyone’s mind. Indeed, even the book itself was freshly-published rather than a cobwebby cornerstone of Eng. Lit. courses everywhere, having come out only five years previously.

What we have here, is a pretty straightforward retelling of the novel, with Winston Smith (Cushing) revolting against the authoritarian world of the Inner Party and its leader – who may or may not exist – Big Brother. He falls for another rebel, Julia (Mitchell) and seeks to join the underground resistance, of which Inner Party member O’Brien (Morell) is a member. Except (and I trust this hardly counts as a spoiler), O’Brien is no such thing, and Smith ends up arrested and undergoing tortures both mental and physical, culminating in his experience in Room 101, all with the aim of getting him to love Big Brother as he should.

The adaptation was written by Nigel Kneale, one of the most-renowned British genre scriptwriters of all time – in his field, easily as important as Dennis Potter, with his work including the Quatermass serials (as well as Quatermass and the Pit) and The Stone Tape. The film also lucks into a main star and a supporting actor who were little known at the time, but would go on to become horror icons of the highest order, in Cushing and Pleasence. The former is sublime, and his Smith is definitive in a way of which John Hurt could only dream, and goes alongside Cushing’s portrayals of Van Helsing, Baron Frankenstein and, arguably, Sherlock Holmes. Pleasence is his usual solid self as Syme, promoter of Newspeak, who is eventually “disappeared,” like one of the words he is striving to erase.

The supporting cast is not much less familiar. Morell gives a brilliant performance as O’Brien, delivering the film’s signature line with the perfect mix of deadpan menace and absolute certainty: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” He and Cushing would team up, in a more friendly way, in Hammer’s Hound of the Baskervilles, where Morell played Dr. Watson to Cushing’s Holmes. Also present are Wilford Brambell, who’d go on to renown as Steptoe, and antique shop owner Mr. Charrington is Leonard Sachs, who compered variety show The Good Old Days for thirty years.

A couple of things stand out about how this was made. The budget was reportedly just £3,249 – even allowing for inflation, it works out to less than £70,000 in today’s money. It’s an astonishingly low sum, especially considering things like the live orchestra which played the music during the performances. The special effects, depicting the bombarded city of London, though sparse, are certainly effective. Again, you have to bear in mind, this was shown barely a decade after Hitler’s V-2’s were falling on the nation’s capital. Depicting the resulting rubble would have had much the same emotional resonance for the audience here, as the Twin Towers falling does for today’s viewer.

The adaptation being performed live is also remarkable – something that was common at the time, but hardly ever happens for dramas nowadays – a 1958 Armchair Theatre performance, during which one of the actors died, didn’t help [One of the survivors said of that incident, “We could see him coming up towards us, but we saw him fall. We had no idea what had happened, but he certainly wasn’t coming our way. The actors started making up lines, ‘I’m sure if so-and-so were here he would say’…”] In the case of Nineteen Eight-Four, 22 sets were used and it’s almost impeccable. You can see what appears to be the shadow of a boom-mike early on, otherwise it seems near-perfect, and it’s hard to tell this isn’t a multiple-take production.

The black-and-white cinematography, though not a stylistic choice at the time, captures the grim, depressing reality of a hardcore totalitarian regime beautifully – the eighties version was originally intended to be shot in b/w too. As a necessary contrast to the soulless society depicted here, the performances, particularly Cushing and Mitchell, imbue things with humanity, and provide a tinge of hope, even as things go downhill for Smith, with relentless grimness – the moment where Smith sees his reflection in a mirror is not one easily forgotten. It’s a combination, when added to the mix of past and future, that makes it easy to tell why its reputation persists.

And it does: in 2000, it was ranked #73 in the BFI’s list of the greatest British TV shows of all time. It was the earliest program honoured, and put Nineteen Eighty-Four between Walking With Dinosaurs and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. The film has only been shown three times on television since the original broadcast, most recently as part of the celebrations for Orwell’s centenary. However, the fifty-year copyright term on the show expired at the end of 2004, allowing it to enter the public domain, so it’s now available on Youtube. I’d certainly recommend checking it out.

One Missed Call: The TV Series

Having not exactly been impressed with the original Japanese feature film, and even less enthusiastic about the pointless and uninteresting American remake thereof, it’s no surprise the DVDs of the TV series sat on the shelf for quite some time. They’d been acquired before we saw either movie, and the prospect of sitting through the equivalent of about five more feature films of the same kind of nonsense, didn’t exactly fill us with enthusiasm. However, when we eventually could be bothered to slap them in the player, we were pleasantly surprised – this Asahi television version, which came out a couple of years after Takashi Miike’s movie, is actually the best version of the bunch.

The story centers on Yumi (Rei Kikukawa), a magazine researcher, who becomes involved after witnessing the fiery death of a schoolgirl – apparently the victim recently received a voice-mail, apparently from herself, foretelling her own demise. Her investigative efforts get her banished to the basement at work, where she is sent to join the staff of Tokumei Watch, best described as her publisher’s version of the late, lamented Weekly World News. However, Detective Sendo (Ken Ishiguro), is also investigating the case, and it soon becomes clear that the schoolgirl is not the only victim of the apparent curse.

Initially, it seems that events are tied to an incident in the past, when a hiking trip went badly wrong. But the more our heroes dig into things, the more they uncover. Not the least of which, is that there also appears to be a tie to Yumi’s school, where her sister vanished ten years ago on Christmas Eve – and tradition dictates it’s time for another victim to disappear. Will the case allow Yumi to achieve closure? And why does there seem to be a lot of pressure on both her and Sendo to stop the investigation?

To some extent, this is a stretched-out version of the movie, and it uses some of the same elements. For example, as in the film, one victim gets doorstepped by a TV crew, who get her to agree to come to the studio at the time of her demise, for a “live exorcism.” That goes about as well as you would probably expect. But the extended room available here – the series runs ten 45-minute episodes – gives the makers the opportunity to develop the storyline and characters in greater detail, and that’s where the show really scores over its cinematic cousins.

For instance, the investigation does not proceed in an entirely linear fashion. There are dead-ends and red herrings, such as the hoax “one missed call” which succeeds in diverting attention for a while. The two main plot-threads, of the hiking trip and the school with a dark secret, proceed in parallel – some episodes, one takes precedence, while in others, both are developed. After about three or four parts, I was wondering how they could possibly keep things going, and it’s an impressive juggling by the script to keep both balls in the air until almost the end, revealing information at just the right pace to keep the interest level up for the entire time.

The characters are, more or less, pleasant to spend time with. I say “more or less,” because as things develop, it turns out one is more than a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, though you wouldn’t know it on first impressions. Yumi has a good handle on the “plucky girl reporter” thing, and Sendo has endearing quirks: the ringtone on his phone is, I kid you not, a wailing police-siren. The staff of Tokumei Watch are also an amusing bunch of eccentric geeks and freaks, such as the magazine treasurer who insists everyone travel by public transport when on company business.

I am not entirely sure that everything makes complete sense, viewed from the end of the show. However, it’s churlish to look too closely at the plot of a show which is about cursed phone calls from the future. There don’t appear to be any major holes we could spot, and the journey provides a more than adequate number of creepy moments, which in the final analysis, is what matters. Fans of shows like Fringe or Haven could do a lot worse than tracking down this as a Japanese take on the genre.