1 9 5 4 (UK)
1 x 107 minute episode
Aired as part of the BBC’s Sunday-Night Theatre on 12 December 1954, Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of George Orwell’s most celebrated novel was one of the most controversial television programmes of its time and marks a key transitional moment in the development of television drama in Britain.
Orwell’s warning of a totalitarian future – with one eye on the Soviet present – was just six years old when Kneale and producer Rudolph Cartier (in modern terms, the director) enacted it for the small screen, and audiences and critics were unprepared for the brutality endured by its hapless hero, Winston Smith.
Like all TV drama of the time, Nineteen Eighty-Four was broadcast live, but it made unusually extensive and imaginative use of filmed inserts – 14 of them in total.
These sequences bought time for the more elaborate costume changes or scene set-ups but also served to ‘open out’ the action – showing us both the desolate ‘prole sector’ and the apparently idyllic woods where Winston (Peter Cushing) and Julia (Yvonne Mitchell) have their first illicit meeting – while speeding up the drama by reducing the average shot length.
This unusual freedom helped make Nineteen Eighty-Four the most expensive TV drama of its day, but other, less costly features were just as striking.
The careful use of close-ups, accompanied by recorded voice-over, allowed us a window into Winston’s inner torment (and demonstrated Cushing’s grasp of small-screen performance) as he struggled to disguise his ‘thoughtcrimes’, while effectively representing Big Brother’s frightening omniscience.
In the Room 101 torture sequence, Cartier condensed days, perhaps weeks of relentless humiliation into a few minutes by periodically fading to black, slightly reframing the shot, then fading back in.
Winston was hidden from view throughout this sequence while we watched his persecutor, O’Brien (André Morrell, whose coolly menacing performance was at least equal to Cushing’s).
This enhanced our shock when the abject figure of Winston was finally revealed, stripped of all humanity.
For the scene in which Winston is confronted with his greatest fear (in his case, rats) a rodent wrangler managed to secure a couple of sewer rats for the final rehearsal, but by the time it came for them to leap aggressively at Winston’s throat, the pair had been so sated with kindness, warmth and food that they were happily asleep.
With time running short before the actual broadcast, another pair were snared at a local pet shop – tame ones, which had to be dyed a menacing dark brown from their normal, unthreatening white.
This time, food was kept well away. But just before going on air, these rats were making so much noise that they had to be removed to a separate studio with a camera and microphone all to themselves.
There, with bits of food dangled above their heads, they rose to the occasion, snapping with genuine rodent ferocity.
Meanwhile, in another studio, completely out of sight of this monstrous tandem, Peter Cushing was horrifiedly reacting to their attack. But, for a TV audience, two and two made five.
Audiences today are used to far stronger stuff, but in 1954 the drama caused much public and media comment and some tabloid newspapers tried to whip up a demand (unsuccessfully) for the Thursday repeat to be cancelled.
Support also came from an unlikely quarter when the Duke of Edinburgh announced that he and the Queen had “thoroughly enjoyed” the broadcast.
This endorsement and the publicity generated by its opponents ensured that the programme attracted a massive audience – the largest since the Coronation – when transmitted a second time (again live) four days after its first screening.