Watch the Live TV Adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Most Controversial TV Drama of Its Time (1954)

“Wife Dies as She Watch­es,” announced a Dai­ly Express head­line after the broad­cast of Nine­teen Eighty-Four, a BBC adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s nov­el. The arti­cle seems to have attrib­uted the sud­den col­lapse and death of a 42-year-old Herne Bay Woman to the pro­duc­tion’s shock­ing con­tent. That was the most dra­mat­ic of the many accu­sa­tions lev­eled against the BBC of inflict­ing dis­tress on the view­ing pub­lic with Orwell’s bleak and har­row­ing vision of a total­i­tar­i­an future. Yet that same pub­lic also want­ed more, demand­ing a sec­ond broad­cast that drew sev­en mil­lion view­ers, the largest tele­vi­sion audi­ence in Britain since the Coro­na­tion of Eliz­a­beth II, which had hap­pened the pre­vi­ous year; Orwell’s book had been pub­lished just four years before that.

This was the mid-1950s, a time when stan­dards of tele­vi­su­al decen­cy remained almost whol­ly up for debate — and when most of what aired on tele­vi­sion was broad­cast live, not pro­duced in advance. Dar­ing not just in its con­tent but its tech­ni­cal and artis­tic com­plex­i­ty, a project like Nine­teen Eighty-Four pushed the lim­its of the medi­um, with a live orches­tral score as well as four­teen pre-filmed seg­ments meant to estab­lish the unre­lent­ing­ly grim sur­round­ing real­i­ty (and to pro­vide time for scene changes back in the stu­dio).

“This unusu­al free­dom,” says the British Film Insti­tute, “helped make Nine­teen Eighty-Four the most expen­sive TV dra­ma of its day,” though the pro­duc­tion’s effec­tive­ness owes to much more than its bud­get.

“The care­ful use of close-ups, accom­pa­nied by record­ed voice-over, allows us a win­dow into Win­ston’s inner tor­ment” as he “strug­gles to dis­guise his ‘thought­crimes’, while effec­tive­ly rep­re­sent­ing Big Broth­er’s fright­en­ing omni­science.” It also demon­strates star Peter Cush­ing’s “grasp of small screen per­for­mance,” though he would go on to greater renown on the big screen in Ham­mer Hor­ror pic­tures, and lat­er as Star Wars’ Grand Moff Tarkin. (Wil­frid Bram­bell, who plays two minor parts, would for his part be immor­tal­ized as Paul McCart­ney’s very clean grand­fa­ther in A Hard Day’s Night.) Though it got pro­duc­er-direc­tor Rudolph Carti­er death threats at the time — per­haps because Orwell’s implic­it indict­ment of a grub­by, dimin­ished post­war Britain hit too close to home — this adap­ta­tion of  Nine­teen Eighty-Four holds its own along­side the many made before and since. That’s true even now that its tit­u­lar year is decades behind us rather than decades ahead.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Very First Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984 in a Radio Play Star­ring David Niv­en (1949)

Hear George Orwell’s 1984 Adapt­ed as a Radio Play at the Height of McCarthy­ism & The Red Scare (1953)

Hear a Radio Dra­ma of George Orwell’s 1984, Star­ring Patrick Troughton, of Doc­tor Who Fame (1965)

A Com­plete Read­ing of George Orwell’s 1984: Aired on Paci­fi­ca Radio, 1975

Rick Wakeman’s Prog-Rock Opera Adap­ta­tion of George Orwell’s 1984

David Bowie Dreamed of Turn­ing George Orwell’s 1984 Into a Musi­cal: Hear the Songs That Sur­vived the Aban­doned Project

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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