Saturday 8 November 2014


Contunuing our series on SF from classic British TV. After looking at Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier's work on the pioneering BBC TV SF series 'Quatermass', we shift to their adaptation of 'Nineteen Eight-Four'

You could be forgiven for regarding Kneale and Cartier’s choice of follow-up to the successful 'Quatermass Experiment’ as an eccentric one. While much of the early part of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is given over to a man writing a diary, this later develops into scenes of him reading a book. It’s central question is not whether the totalitarian regime will catch dissident Winston Smith, which is rather assumed to be a foregone conclusion, but whether it can get inside his head and make him love Big Brother. As the old saying goes, you can’t photograph thought. So how do you dramatise thoughtcrime?

In fact the BBC had bought the rights to the book very shortly after publication, and Kneale and Cartier had quite distinct advantages over other adaptors. Though working a good six years after the novel’s publication (in 1954), they perhaps found it easier to reproduce the spirit of the book than the later versions. The Jewish Cartier had to flee his native Austria after the Nazi take-over, and lost family members to the Holocaust. Which, somewhat needless to say, might well have sharpened his feelings about totaliarianism. However, despite this dramatic sequence of events, it would have been more his later experiences in Britain that informed this adaptation.

Though the novel takes place in a scenario of perpetual war, Orwell wrote it after hostilities were over. And, like many others during theat period, he had become convinced that it had stratified the possible outcomes for history – into socialism versus totalitarianism. Hence his book is still steeped in ration-book austerity, the smell of boiled cabbage and ‘careless-talk’ style paranoia. (Aspects of it now seem dated to us, such as the Anti Sex League. They stopped trying to censor sex a long time ago. In fact nowadays it’s their favoured ruse to try and sell us shit.) Kneale, and to a lesser extent Cartier, would have been similarly steeped in such a spirit. Rationing, for example, did not end until shortly before the programme was broadcast.

Added to which, they perhaps had the advantage of irony. Orwell had based Smith’s work at the Ministry of Truth on his own experiences at the BBC, and prophesised the widespread adoption of TV (or ‘televisor screens’). Producing an adaptation not just for the BBC but on television therefore gives proceedings both an edge and a fillip. (It’s perhaps a peculiarity of British society that such apparent contradictions empower artworks as often as they emasculate them. As cultural commentator Martin Barker has argued, the best children’s comics of this era were produced for the most conservative publisher – DC Thompson.)

Perhaps more importantly, television of this time was by necessity ‘talky’. Though the programme begins with one matte painting of futuristic horror, any attempts to ‘sex up’ this cautionary tale would have run into an intractable Anti Sex League of budgetary constraint. If Orwell wrote long passages of conversation to explain the concept of ‘newspeak’, that’s exactly what is put up on the screen.

Admittedly, the sheer interiority of the book still causes problems. There’s an early point where Smith joins in a workplace chant of “we love Big Brother.” His thought voice then gets overdubbed – “I hate Big Brother.” You can see what they’re trying to convey, the way our own thoughts can take us by surprise. But it feels clumsy, even if we’re to accept that this is the first time Smith ever thought such a thing. Similarly, if typically for the era, the acting frequently veers to the melodramatic.

Nevertheless, the adaptation commendably displays both a feeling for and faithfulness to Orwell’s book. It may well be the best filmic representation of the book and certainly eclipses Michael Radford’s version (released, with typically limpid literal-mindedness, in 1984).

Of course Kneale is too smart a writer to attempt to literally hold up a book before a camera. Though I last read the book a long time ago, I was still struck by a number of large and small divergences. Take for example the scene where Smith is called to his neighbours’ flat to fix the sink, which is used to demonstrate the party’s effect upon the young. In the book he is challenged by the son with a toy pistol. Told at school to watch out for spies the children are now playing at this, using it as an outlet for their bullying instincts. (“Like the gambolling of tiger cubs who will soon grow into man-eaters.”) In the TV version they are led by the daughter who is in earnest in challenging Smith. Like Abigail in 'The Crucible' she is old and smart enough to have worked out that such claims give her power, that adults can be taken away merely on her word.

This also places a more sinister twist upon a later scene where she denounces her father. From the book we assume he must be ‘guilty’ of his thought-crime, in this version it’s more than likely she set him up. But this altered version is most likely to be in itself an adaptation, taken from a very similar scene in Brecht’s ’Fear and Misery in The Third Reich.’ (Cartier would go on to adapt Brecht’s ’Mother Courage’ in 1959.)

However, the deeper and more problematic alterations are to the political aspects of the book. Though, as in the book, the ‘counter-revolutionary’ Goldstein is depicted as resembling Trotsky, the adaptation’s main approach to the politics is to leave them out. As in the book, this tension is conveyed through Smith’s relationship with Julia. While Smith sees their affair as a springboard towards political rebellion, Julia sees it as their rebellion – they love each other and not Big Brother, and that is enough. (It would be interesting to know how, with homosexuality then still illegal, a contemporary gay audience responded to their clandestine affair. Smith’s description of his joyless, businesslike marriage sounds almost like a ‘beard’, while Julia’s ability to “tell” deviance equates to ‘gaydar’.)

Orwell’s own stance could be said to be ambiguous, implicitly siding with Smith’s political yearnings but then making his denouncing of Julia into his breaking point. But the adaptation almost explicitly suggests that Smith’s notions of rebellion are chimerical, and that Julia is right in her first instinct to shun contact with the underground.

It’s reminiscent of another Julia from contemporary fiction. In Waugh’s ’Brideshead Revisited’ (1945), Julia Flyte breaks off an affair with Charles Ryder because it would be “ a rival good to God’s”. Things are merely inverted here, for this Julia, for here that is the precise reason for going ahead. In Kneale and Cartier’s hands, ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ becomes almost a secularised theological story, all about their love versus the love for Big Brother. Kneale and Cartier have not done anything so crass as to turn the book into a love story with a political background. But they have set up a story which counterposes love against politics, rather than one politics against another. Love ceases to be a form of freedom buts something paramount, and their affair holds the stage to itself.

There are a number of factors which could have led to this. One of these is the already-discussed interiority of Orwell’s novel. Goldstein’s book, for example, is quoted from only scantly and becomes more a totem than a source of political information, while Smith’s diaries are collapsed into the four words “I hate Big Brother”. The love story was simply easier to dramatise, a more attractive target.

Another might be the six years that passed between book and adaptation, in which a newly forged post-war consensus appeared to make Orwell’s political predictions obsolete. (We got neither the predicted fully fledged totalitarianism nor socialism but, in a very British fudge, bits of both.) But ultimately, you can’t help but reflect that Kneale was a less political writer than Orwell and was consequently less engaged by the political themes.

Does this matter? In one sense, no. Kneale is free to adapt the work as he sees fit, which includes shaping it to his sympathies. (As a fan of Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’, which borrows highly liberally from Orwell's original, I could hardly claim otherwise!) But, in another, yes. In an incident both famous and infamous, a group of right-wing MPs submitted a Commons motion effectively condemning the BBC for broadcasting such a programme. (Though, in a piece generally suggesting the show's controversy to have been overstated, Oliver Wake debunks any suggestion this motion ever reached debate stage.) Less well known, if admittedly covered by Wikipedia, is that amendments and counter-motions were drafted to defend broadcast, which included the following: "many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play Nineteen Eighty-Four’ are already in common use under totalitarian rĂ©gimes.”

Like the saying goes, with friends like these... As mentioned when covering Atilla the Stockbroker's song 'Down On Airstrip One', written on the cusp of that auspicious year, Orwell had gone from prophet to hostage. Perhaps it even started with that very motion. If he hadn't deigned to write the book the British establishment wanted him to, it just needed reflecting in their distorting mirror. Fear what's over there coming over here! Pay no attention to that little man behind the curtain...

Of course, on a prosaic level, the counter-motion's words are correct. But they could not be further removed from Orwell’s purpose, which was to demonstrate how easily Britain could slide down such a road – how far, in many ways, it was already along it. Though Big Brother himself may resemble Stalin, adding to the antipathy between Orwell and Stalinists, the book is quite explicitly located in a Britain locked in with an American superpower. So thickly is the book steeped in Britishness, that even the most cloth-eared adaptations tend to retain this setting. This version even starts with the description of “one man’s alarmed vision of the future, which with dangerous ease might be brought about”.

(For that reason I would half-seriously suggest that the adaptations most true in spirit is the 1979 Dead Kennedys track 'California Uber Alles', which uses collage-like black humour to insert Orwell's dystopia into their contemporary California, where “the suede denim secret police... come for your uncool niece”.)

But that afore-mentioned opening matte painting shows the pyramid-like Ministry of Truth towering over familiar London landmarks such as Big Ben. Perhaps the problem is partly hindsight becoming a slippery slope. It’s impossible for us now not to see in it the germ of Dalek spaceships in Trafalgar Square, and all those so-familiar images of alien invasion. By sidelining Orwell’s politics, and centering the theology-of-love question, Kneale and Cartier have left the door open to such readings. This is unfortunately the most common way for the book to be read today, which in short is to mis-read it.

However, despite that serious but single failing, ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is a compelling and effective piece of drama which is both more effective and far more faithful to Orwell’s vision than most subsequent versions. It's doubleplusgood!

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