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What We Watched: Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954)

Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four has a strong connection with Doctor Who. Winston Smith has been played on radio by Christopher Eccleston and Patrick Troughton, on film by John Hurt, and by Peter Cushing in the 1954 television adaptation. Peter Capaldi reads the audiobook for Penguin.

While all the dramatisations have their merits, the Cushing version is by far the best. It was a product of the partnership between the extraordinarily talented producer / director Rudolph Cartier and the writer Tom Nigel Kneale. They were responsible for Quatermass, which has a strong claim to be the father of Doctor Who. Nineteen-Eighty-Four was made between the first two Quatermass serials. (There were only three, with a year or more between each. Tonally and thematically, Quatermass has enormous similarities to Who.)

Kneale once said that television in its earliest days was seen by its makers as an inferior medium to radio; it was just thought of as ‘radio with pictures’. It was pioneers like Kneale and Cartier who realised television’s full potential.

Arguably, they are more responsible for the development of early television drama than anyone else. Their insight, and the innovations they brought, essentially became the bedrock for how TV drama was understood and made for the next 40 years. That includes classic Doctor Who, of course.

It was Cartier who realised that television drama need not be confined to the electronic studio. He was responsible for the idea of filming exterior sequences and dropping them into the studio work as and when they were needed. This soon became standard for TV drama – and, of course, it was the format for the majority of classic Who. Barry Letts later commented that television drama’s mixture of film and video gave it a distinctive feel; for the audience, it was somewhere between theatre and film. It had the virtues of both but it was essentially different.

However, Cartier and Kneale were hampered by one thing: videotape was still in development and was unavailable. So, while the film sequences could be pre-recorded and edited, the electronic studio work could not.

Nineteen-Eighty-Four had to be performed live. The original broadcast went down so well with the viewers that a repeat was scheduled for the following week – and that meant they had to do the whole thing again. Live. Well, live apart from the filmed sequences, which could be re-used. It was this repeat performance that was preserved, rather to the chagrin of Peter Cushing, who felt that the cast’s second performance was not quite as good. But, as the first was never filmed, we’ll never know for sure.

Filmed? Yup. Before the advent of videotape, this was the only way of preserving television programmes. An adapted film camera was placed in front of a monitor and the whole thing was, well, filmed. The process was called telerecording and the results were not always great. There was an inevitable drop-out in picture quality.

The picture itself could flare or occasionally turn negative; if an insect got onto the monitor, a fly’s antics could be preserved for all eternity. And this actually happened, sometimes. Part two of The Quatermass Experiment (1953) guest stars a happy bug who sits on the Professor’s face for a good few minutes before it flies off.

Telerecording was used to preserve Quatermass and all of Sixties Doctor Who. While videotape had arrived by 1963, it was expensive and the tapes themselves had to be reused to save money; all of black and white Doctor Who has come down to us from the telerecordings, not from the original videotapes. (The telerecordings were used for overseas sales of Who; it was sold around the world on film, not on video.) The telerecordings of The Quatermass Experiment were deemed to be unsatisfactory and so the decision was made after the second episode not to bother with the final four parts. Maddening. Fortunately, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit survive in their entire, telerecorded glory.

Sadly, the print of the Cartier-Kneale Nineteen-Eighty-Four is often poor. How much of this is down to the primitive video cameras in the studio is unclear, but it certainly looks as though the version we have doesn’t represent telerecording at its best.

If you can forgive the picture quality: is Nineteen-Eighty-Four any good?

Absolutely. It’s flawed and it’s dated, but yes, it’s superb. We’ll come on to that in a minute; we’ll just digress a bit more about the state of television at the time.

Introducing VERA

So, electronic studio work had to be performed live. No videotape machines were available yet.

Videotape was only invented three years before Nineteen-Eighty-Four, in the States in 1951. The earliest machines were plagued with problems: they were unreliable and the tapes themselves were staggeringly expensive. Because of the differences between American and UK television formats, the BBC decided to develop their own system rather than to adapt the American one. (Another motive was doubtless some sniffiness about the British – huzzah! huzzah! – being able to do a jolly sight better job than a lot of Johnnie Foreigners could possibly manage.)

And thus was VERA conceived and brought to birth.

VERA – the Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus – was proudly shown off to the viewing public by Richard Dimbleby on Panorama in 1958. It was a lot cheaper than telerecording and the tapes could be reused. So, by the time of An Unearthly Child, VERA was only five years old.

Five years. So if Doctor Who had begun five years earlier, it would have been transmitted live. Well, we might be sniffy about the picture quality in the first seasons of Who, but this just emphasises that its contemporary production values truly were state-of-the-art. (I tell you that this astounding new videographic recording device is a technological marvel, Chesterton!)

Extraordinarily, the Beeb was quite stuffy about using its new toy in the early days. They took the view that television should be live and it was cheating to pre-record things. (Well, maybe it’s not so daft. Even today, there are curmudgeons like me who don’t really like watching videoed theatre plays because a recording is no substitute for the live experience, dammit, sir. Perhaps their thinking was similar. Drama must be live; recorded drama is no substitute.) One of the earliest programmes to be videoed was Hancock’s Half Hour in 1960. Even so, some directors still preferred live drama; Thirty Minute Theatre was still going out live as late as 1968.

As you may know, early video editing was crude; electronic editing came later, towards the end of the Sixties. Before then, you had to stop the tape, hope you’d got the right place (you couldn’t see the picture on the tape itself, remember, so you had to guess), slice it with a razor blade, and then stick the bits back together with sticky tape. You even had to use a microscope to make sure you’d aligned the tracks correctly. As a result, the Hartnells were made with as few edits as possible; despite the fact that they were recorded, they were performed as close to live as they could be. Mervyn Pinfield prided himself on recording entire episodes without a single edit; some episodes of The Space Museum were performed like a theatre play, with the cast performing the action from Scene 1 right through to the cliffhanger without a break. Fading the picture to black gave you more chance of slicing the tape in the correct place as you had a few seconds’ grace to get to the right bit.

The Production

Above: Julia (Yvonne Mitchell), Winston (Peter Cushing) and O’Brien (Andre Morell). Morell’s prolific career included an appearance in Doctor Who as Marshal Tavannes in The Massacre. Peter Cushing went on to play — well, you know what he played.

So much for the astounding technical boffiny stuff. Let’s get back to Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

As I’ve said, it’s dated. Television drama dates more quickly than films do; films from the 1960s look better to our eyes than contemporary TV programmes. I’m not sure why. One reason is probably the picture quality. Another is the (massively) lower budget for television, and the fact that the retakes, editing, and the careful lining up of each individual shot available to the film director simply couldn’t be done on television as there just wasn’t time. A film in the Sixties had six weeks to shoot in; Nineteen-Eighty-Four had less than two hours. A film then had time for post-production; Nineteen-Eighty-Four had no post-production whatsoever. Acting styles change, too. Stanislavski’s method acting technique – ‘becoming’ the character you play, rather than impersonating them – was less common then than now. So the acting styles can seem a bit artificial to us today because we’re not so used to them.

That said, there are some superb performances, particularly from Cushing and from Andre Morell as O’Brien. (Four years later, Kneale and Cartier were to use Morell again, as the third and definitive Quatermass. He had been offered the part for the original serial but he turned it down.) Cushing is perhaps a little too posh as Winston, but standard English, which was plummier in its pronunciation then than it is now, was normative for actors in the Fifties. Perhaps Morell’s performance is slightly superior; his O’Brien is a superbly realised combination of intellectual and thug. The double act between him and Cushing, especially in the torture scenes at the end of the play, is hugely effective and genuinely horrifying.

Good support from a young Donald Pleasance as Syme; Yvonne Mitchell as Julia is effective but, again, a bit too posh. The novel’s sex scenes are, of course, toned down for a television audience. Winston and Julia enjoy a chaste hug in the room above Mr Charrington’s shop, rather than any explicit disgracefulness. The sex is implied rather than depicted. Similarly, much of the violence in the novel is toned down for the play.

By the time of the broadcast, only the first printing of the novel was available; it sold 25,500 copies. So, the television version introduced many more people to George Orwell’s work: over seven million saw it (though I can’t verify whether this figure is for the first showing, for the repeat, or for both together). Predictably, one of the reactions was outrage: questions were asked in the House, the production was condemned as obscene, sadistic, prurient, and pornographic. As would later happen with Mrs Whitehouse, such criticism totally missed the point. The problem, of course, with a drama that condemns viciousness and violence is that it has to show viciousness and violence precisely in order to condemn it (cf Vengeance on Varos). An unlikely but strong defender of the play was Her Majesty the Queen; she and the Duke of Edinburgh thought Nineteen-Eighty-Four was splendid. Good on them.

Kneale’s script was later remade by the BBC in 1965, with a completely different cast and production team. It was thought to have been lost in the Beeb’s senseless purge of its archive; miraculously, a copy was discovered in 2010 in the States. As far as I know, this version hasn’t been released on DVD or Blu-ray, and isn’t available anywhere on the internet. If anyone knows where you can get hold of a copy, please do write a note below in the comments section.

The Novel

The script of both the 1954 and 1965 versions is very faithful to the original novel (not true of all adaptations), so I’ll digress a little by saying a bit about the book itself.

It’s a masterpiece, of course, and even though Orwell wouldn’t have recognised it as an example of the genre, it’s essential reading for any understanding of the development of science-fiction as a form.

Masterpiece though it is, the novel is also flawed.

Some of the plotting is odd. Exactly why, for example, does Winston come to think of O’Brien as a hidden ally, or even as a potential saviour figure, and how come O’Brien seems to know all about this later on? Julia’s falling in love with Winston seems pretty unbelievable: she’s barely met him, and how she knows him to be a secret rebel and therefore a potential lover – well, it isn’t really explained and it doesn’t really work.

Actually, I think the problem with the novel is that Orwell is much more interested in world-building than he is in the actual story. There’s a huge amount of detail about how Ingsoc and Newspeak work, and while this is all breathtakingly imaginative and effective, it does feel as though the story itself is secondary. As a result, Winston and Julia are a bit colourless: representative figures rather than real people. I have the same problem when I read Tolkein: he seems much more interested in the society that he’s created than in the actual narrative. (And this is a fault of some Doctor Who stories too: the ideas behind the story are primary, while the characters placed within those ideas are secondary.)

Dystopian fiction was rather in vogue in the Forties. To take an example: That Hideous Strength, the final volume of C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, was published in 1945, four years before Nineteen-Eighty-Four. That Hideous Strength is almost forgotten now; the story’s about the attempts of a crazed scientific sect to set up a new (and exceptionally vile) society on Earth.

Oddly enough, Orwell reviewed Lewis’s novel and Lewis reviewed Orwell’s. Neither liked his rival’s work much. There may have been some professional jealousy going on here: you rather wonder whether each wished he’d written the other’s book. That said, Lewis and Orwell were fundamentally different writers; they had little in common. Lewis’s novel had an overtly Christian worldview, which can sometimes be intrusive and heavy-handed; Nineteen-Eighty-Four was overtly atheistic. Lewis despised atheism; conversely, Orwell didn’t think much of Christianity. Orwell made a fair point in his criticism of That Hideous Strength, though, when he said that the moment you introduce the supernatural into a narrative, it becomes predictable: the heroes can’t lose because they’ve got God on their side. Conversely, Lewis found Nineteen-Eighty-Four’s unremitting horror to be unconvincing: he thought the cruelty was so overdone as to verge on the silly.

(Having said all that, I marginally prefer Lewis’ novel. Both books feature a proposed totalitarian and joyless society, but arguable Lewis’s work is much deeper and multi-layered. There’s goodness to balance the evil, and Lewis’ work has the stronger story. The characterisation’s much better, too: Wither, Frost, Miss Hardcastle, and Mark Studdock are much more effective and believable characters than are O’Brien and Winston. Nineteen-Eighty-Four is so unremittingly horrifying that it’s the literary equivalent of eating a broken glass sandwich. Also, it does seem to be the case that totalitarianism isn’t as easy to maintain as the world of the novel suggests. Studies of Nazi Germany and the nastier communist regimes show that outward conformity and inner rebellion are actually common; it’s only the minority who fully sign up to the regimes’ ideology. In reality, Winstons are common, not rarities. And anyway, That Hideous Strength can be very funny and, shallow though I may be, I think that’s a strength. But I have been known to be wrong!)

Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Sixties Who

And a few concluding thoughts…

“What We Watched” is meant in part to shed light on Doctor Who, especially on how it would have been received by the contemporary audiences. After all, that’s who it was made for; Verity Lambert and David Whittaker didn’t make Doctor Who for us. Comparing Nineteen-Eighty-Four and An Unearthly Child (and other stories from Who’s early years) highlights a few things.

In terms of production values, An Unearthly Child is far superior to Nineteen-Eighty-Four, even though they’re only separated by nine years. Nineteen-Eighty-Four has no editing. The shock cut between Jacqueline Hill entering the police box and arriving in the control room of the TARDIS could not have been achieved without videotape and without editing. A similar shock transition between two sets simply couldn’t have been achieved in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. So yes, that edit in Who’s first episode looks crude today and yes, the picture jumps, but it represented a major technical advance.

Nineteen-Eighty-Four was live, and that meant all the sets for an entire feature-length play had to be crammed into the small studio at Lime Grove; as a result, some of them were tiny: little more than props placed in front of black drapes. An Unearthly Child was also made at Lime Grove, but the sets are much more sophisticated (and much bigger, too). Fewer are required because the running time is shorter, and the studio space can be used more effectively. The TARDIS set, taking up almost half the studio, was groundbreaking. There is nothing even remotely to touch it in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, either in terms of design or in terms of scale. The look of An Unearthly Child is far superior. The effects work is far better, too. Nothing like howlaround was available to Rudolph Cartier – but you can bet he’d have loved it and would have used it if it he could.

The acting style seems also to have moved on. While Jacqueline Hill and William Russell may seem a bit stilted to our tastes, the leads are nothing like as stiff and plummy as the leads in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. And the violence in Doctor Who has always been criticised: Za’s smashing Kal’s head in with a rock and Susan’s attacking Ian with a pair of scissors led to outrage from the TV Must Be Nice brigade. A quick look at Kneale’s play shows that audiences were by now familiar with horrifying images and most of them don’t seem to have been bothered by it. Nothing in Who compares to the torture sequences in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Even for the original audience, the violence in ’60s Who must have looked pretty tame.

So. Nineteen-Eighty-Four deserves a watch. It’s still very good; even today, almost 70 years later, it remains the best dramatization of Orwell’s novel. It’s massively better than the John Hurt film. It still has the power to shock, and the performances, in the main, are very impressive; indeed, it’s worth watching for Andre Morell alone. The story has lost none of its power.

But… if you fancy seeing Cartier-Kneale at their best, and you want to watch a series which had more (and immediately obvious) influence on the development of Doctor Who than anything else – if, in fact, you want to watch the greatest science fiction drama ever made, in any medium, then get hold of the BBC’s original production of Quatermass and the Pit.

Just don’t watch it with the lights out.

It’s terrifying.


Ever anxious to stop people watching things they’ve already paid for through their licence fee, the BBC has insisted that YouTube can no longer host Nineteen-Eighty-Four. It is, however, easily to be found on and the DVD can still be tracked down by a careful search.

Oh, and here’s the radio version starring Patrick Troughton:

And the Christopher Eccleston version in two parts:

Simon Danes

What We Watched: Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954)

by Simon Danes time to read: 13 min
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