For 95 Minutes, the BBC Brings George Orwell to Life

George Orwell occu­pies a fun­ny place in the mod­ern lit­er­ary con­scious­ness. The last few gen­er­a­tions came to know him, in Eng­lish class, as the author of the nov­els Ani­mal Farm and Nine­teen Eighty-Four. My own peers may remem­ber their teach­ers’ awk­ward inver­sion of the ear­li­er book, forced as they were to clar­i­fy Orwell’s already direct Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion alle­go­ry by explain­ing that, a long time ago, there lived a man named Trot­sky who was a lot like Snow­ball the pig, and so on. The lat­er book, many read­ers’ first glimpse at a real­is­tic dystopia, tends to hit us hard­er. All those tin­ny, piped-in patri­ot­ic anthems; the vari­cose veins; the saw­dusty cig­a­rettes; the defeat­ed cups of watery tea — why on Earth, we asked our­selves, did Orwell so con­fi­dent­ly fore­see a sham­bol­ic world of such simul­ta­ne­ous chintzi­ness and bru­tal­i­ty?

Apart from his six nov­els and four vol­umes of mem­oir, Orwell pro­duced an aston­ish­ing quan­ti­ty of essays. These I reg­u­lar­ly con­sult in my brick-like Everyman’s Library edi­tion, and I bought that on the strength of two par­tic­u­lar pieces: “Pol­i­tics and the Eng­lish Lan­guage” and “Why I Write.” Many of us encounter these here or there in the course of high­er edu­ca­tion, and none of us with an inter­est in read­ing, writ­ing, think­ing, and the feed­back loop between the three for­get them. Pres­sured to cite the most inci­sive pas­sage in all of Orwell, how could I decide between the for­mer essay’s descrip­tion of how “a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blur­ring the out­line and cov­er­ing up all the details,” and the lat­ter essay’s con­trast of the writer’s ego against that of “the great mass of human beings” who, after thir­ty, “almost aban­don the sense of being indi­vid­u­als at all — and live chiefly for oth­ers, or are sim­ply smoth­ered under drudgery”?

Despite pass­ing at only 46, Orwell left an almost impos­ing­ly large body of writ­ten work. Read­ers who’ve savored it and want to learn, hear, and see more come up against a cer­tain dif­fi­cul­ty: we have a few pho­tographs of Orwell, but as far as sound or film, noth­ing exists. Yet that didn’t stop BBC Four from putting togeth­er George Orwell: A Life in Pic­tures, cast­ing actor Chris Lang­ham as Orwell, hav­ing him speak Orwell’s words, and insert­ing him, Zelig-like, into his­tor­i­cal footage real and recon­struct­ed of Orwell’s places and times. Doc­u­men­tary purists may balk at this, but strong choic­es make strong films. As a com­pul­sive read­er of Orwell myself, I’ll take any chance I can to expe­ri­ence more rich­ly the mind of this child of the “low­er upper-mid­dle class” whose fas­ci­na­tion with pover­ty drove him down into it; this social­ist who loathed both the trap­pings and pro­po­nents of social­ism; this wor­shiper of hard man­u­al labor who under­stood more about the impact of words than most of us do today; this famed writer who cloaked his giv­en name of Eric Arthur Blair to bet­ter retreat, alone, into his gray, qua­si-ascetic Eng­lish plea­sures.


Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.


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Comments (7)
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  • raginald says:

    who reads Orwell…
    who cares…

    is much worse
    than any imag­i­na­tion…

  • Anthony I.P. Owen says:

    I real­ly did­n’t like this ‘doc­u­men­tary’. Because it’s a fake — the sort that Orwell him­self warned about in ‘1984’ — straight from the ‘Min­istry of Truth’.

    The ‘worst moment’ (well, it’s as far as I’ve got so far) is when a (real) Gau­mont news­reel from the 1930s about the Span­ish civ­il war is inter­cut with fake footage of ‘Orwell’ (played — excel­lent­ly — by an actor) being inter­viewed. There is also ‘ama­teur’ film of Orwell milk­ing a goat, false­ly labelled ‘home movie 19whatever’, made to look as though it is gen­uine, but it’s not, and there are many more exam­ples.… it’s all fake (there is no film or sound record­ing of Orwell.).

    If the BBC want­ed to make a film bio, then that’s fine. Do it, but don’t try and pre­tend by inter­cut­ting real film, or blue-screen­ing an actor onto peri­od film (as is done on the Sheffield sequence). Or just make a doc­u­men­tary — the BBC has made an excel­lent Are­na doc­u­men­tary about Orwell, some of the inter­views used in that are also used in this.

    I know this won all sorts of awards, and I also realise that all the words that the actor play­ing Orwell’ speaks are ver­ba­tim from his writ­ings, but (in my opin­ion) this is the worst sort of docu-dra­ma and, as said, some­thing which the ‘Min­istry of Truth’ would have been proud of mak­ing. Orwell deserves bet­ter (and his books and essays say every­thing there is to say, any­way.)

    Yes, it’s very well act­ed and the tech­ni­cal fakes are also very well done, but it’s the worse sort of mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

    There are also a num­ber of fac­tu­al mis­takes con­cern­ing the POUM and the sit­u­a­tion in Barcelona, as any­one who has read ‘Homage to Cat­alona’ can see.

    “He who con­trols the present con­trols the past. He who con­trols the past con­trols the future.”

  • Anthony I.P. Owen says:

    It’s already start­ing. Clips from ‘A Life in Pic­tures’ are already on YouTube, enti­tled ‘pre­vi­ous­ly unknown film of George Orwell.’

    This is how his­to­ry is fal­si­fied.

  • Richard Hallmark says:

    To Antho­ny I.P. Owen
    There have been those clips that you com­plain of out on YouTube for some years. Noth­ing has just start­ed as you sug­gest.

    It is unfor­tu­nate, how­ev­er, I agree, that some peo­ple have jumped to con­clu­sions about the film, which you have done. At 1 minute 18 secs or there­abouts, in the film as it is intro­duced, the (wom­an’s) voice intro­duc­ing Orwell after the open­ing shot says explic­it­ly there are no mov­ing shots of Orwell and no voice record­ings of him. (There is some pos­si­ble footage of him among oth­er school­boys from his Eton days. Very grainy and not at all illu­mi­nat­ing of any­thing about him).

    So please, be more Orwell-like (I don’t say “Orwellian”) and check your facts first.

  • Derek Copperman says:

    Antho­ny I.P. Owen,

    The Min­istry of Truth was about mak­ing up lies as truth. These are not lies. They’re fake, but they are not lies.

  • Kai Vara says:

    In a dra­mat­ic sense, the lie that was the doc­u­men­tary was quite inter­est­ing. A beau­ti­ful and hor­rid tri­umph by evil and its min­ions, flay­ing the pro­tag­o­nists skin off and wear­ing it. The futil­i­ty of it is strange­ly fas­ci­nat­ing, almost delight­ful is the fear and goose­bumps.

    If it is any con­so­la­tion, it did awak­en an inter­est for the man, albeit how much more is pup­petry?

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