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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