Nineteen Eighty Four (1954)

So I’m beginning my contributions to the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon with a consideration of one of his earliest big roles… He may be better known for some of the films he made after this, but I don’t think any of them resulted in questions being asked in parliament, nor headlines about someone allegedly dying from shock while watching it. Yes, the night of November 12 1954 saw a major stink being made with Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of the Orwell novel… Unfortunately we don’t have that performance; what we do have is the remount of it from four nights later, which the BBC staged rather grudgingly thanks to the fuss the first performance had generated (said fuss also making sure the replay was a big ratings hit for the BBC as well, which I don’t suppose they objected to). Cushing apparently thought the first one was better, in which case we can only imagine how heavy it must’ve been; the remount is hardly lightweight stuff. Looking at it tonight, I actually found it easy to imagine it causing the uproar that it did; even now it’s still pretty intense (and some aspects of it still have some disappointingly contemporary resonance). Obviously stunningly played by Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell (Julia), though Andre Morell’s O’Brien mustn’t be overlooked, and neither should Donald Pleasance in the somewhat smaller role of Syme, the man working on the Newspeak dictionary; Pleasance uses the joy he shows in the destruction of language to give Syme the sort of villainous cast so many of his later roles would possess, elevating this little man into something more menacing than perhaps even Orwell had intended. The remarkable thing, of course, is that this was live television, and in many ways—although, ironically, one of the American drama anthologies had already adapted the book in 1953—Cartier’s production is leagues ahead of the examples I’ve seen in the Golden Age of Television box. It’s markedly longer, for one thing, the subject matter is remarkably adult (I’m still amazed by how far it goes, given that we are talking about 1954), and the BBC obviously didn’t have ad breaks to give them a few minutes’ grace; the handful of pre-filmed segments are all the rest the actors would’ve got. The smoothness of the whole thing is remarkable; apart from one or two mild fluffs you’d barely notice and what looked like a classic BBC wobbly wall in Winston’s apartment, I’d barely have guessed it was, in fact, completely live if I didn’t already know. Quite something.

Written for the Peter Cushing centennial blogathon at Frankensteinia

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