Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) – Blu-Ray Review

This 1954 BBC adaptation of the dystopian classic 1984 by everybody’s favourite self-described “Tory Anarchist,” George Orwell, was the novel’s first serious adaptation. Previously it had been adapted for CBS’s Studio One, and the result was abysmal—it was kind of like those budget best-of CDs where it has one or two hits from the artist mixed in with a hodgepodge of filler album tracks. CBS also made the story American, which is fundamentally at odds with the source novel. Soon after the much better BBC adaptation, there was an American feature film with Edmond O’Brien as Winston. Like the Studio One version, this film was also adapted by William Templeton, but with Donald Pleasence combining his role of Syme in the BBC with Robert Parsons. Personally, I consider the best screen 1984 to be Michael Radford’s adaptation made in 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, although the BBC version has a lot going for it.

One of the big draws of the BBC version is that it was adapted by Nigel Kneale, who had already made a name for himself for The Quatermass Experiment and an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, which is what got him the 1984 job. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation, with only a few minor additions and changes, nothing that fundamentally alters the point. Kneale’s adaptation efforts were so good that they would actually be reused in 1965 version, with only some minor script alterations.

Peter Cushing had been in theatre, film and television already, with some minor success—most notably the role of Osric in Laurence Olivier’s highly acclaimed cinematic version of Hamlet. However, it was his leading role as 1984‘s everyman hero Winston Smith that gave Cushing the break he desperately needed. It’s his strongest work, he knocks it out of the park. While I prefer John Hurt, because his take on Winston is more physically wounded by the end, Cushing gets to flex his chops. Although Cushing actually thought his first performance of Winston was superior, the surviving version of the teleplay is his second performance. The weak link is Yvonne Mitchell as Julia, who doesn’t leave much of an impression. That can’t be said for Suzanna Hamilton in the Radford version, who should’ve been a huge star on the back of her performance. Pleasance is also great as Syme, and André Morell as O’Brien is solid (but you have Richard Burton in that role in Radford’s version, so it’s impossible to live up to that.)

The design of the teleplay is really wonderful, even with its clear budget and locations limitations. It was mainly shot at Alexandra Palace and a demolition site that eventually became BBC Television Centre. A live component was recorded at BBC’s Lime Grove Studios. It has fittingly desolate feel: the inserts, which look beautiful in the restoration, almost look like they have been torn from the covers of ’50s sci-fi books, which is very visually appealing. The painting that shows the Ministry of Information is just gorgeous in its design and simplicity. The direction from Rudolph Cartier is solid,. Cartier directed the majority of the Kneale’s ’50s work for television, including Quatermass and Wuthering Heights.

Overall, the BBC version is a remarkable piece of television that has so luckily survived against all the odds. Anything the Daily Worker described as “a Tory guttersnipe’s view of socialism” must have its strong points. It was the only paper that really took against the programme, simply for being critical of authoritarian communism, rumours over the years overexaggerated the negative response from other outlets. The restoration from BFI is also spectacular, even with some rough edges still intact. That’s part of the charm of the programme.

This long-awaited Dual Format release (it was announced way back in 2014 as a DVD-only offering) includes a nice selection of extras. The commentary track is from Jon Dear, Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray, who are television historians. Murray and Toby Hadoke also supply a video talk overview on the life and career of Nigel Kneale recorded at HOME Manchester, which understandably focuses mainly on his Quatermass work, but 1984 is mentioned. This Blu-Ray even gets a mention by saying this talk may end up on the DVD! The archival extra is a fascinating look back on the 1954 BBC programme, made around the time that the ‘60s version of the Kneale’s adaptation was broadcast. It’s a shame that version wasn’t included. Most of it has survived, and I have it on some authority that it may have a separate release down the line. BFI’s Dick Fiddy talks about the reaction to the ’54 version and the myths around it. Photo gallery and the script finish off the extras. The booklet includes three essays: two by Oliver Wake and one by David Ryan. 

★★★★½

Ian Schultz

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