Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC Sunday Night Theatre 1954)

big brother

The Sunday Night Theatre production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (originally transmitted by the BBC on the 12th of December 1954) is a highly significant milestone in the development of British television drama. Due to be released on DVD by the BFI in November 2014, this seems like a good time to look at the background of the production and the impact it had.

Before we look at the programme it’s worth taking a moment to consider the state of British television in 1954. The BBC had launched its television service in 1936, although the reach was extremely limited – only 20,000 viewers (those close to the single transmitter at Alexandra Palace) could receive the early television transmissions.

The outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 meant that the fledgling BBC TV output was suspended and it wouldn’t resume until June 1946. However, plans for the return of television had been discussed as early as 1943 and one of the major issues to be tackled was how to ensure that the whole of the country – not just those living in the immediate area around Alexandra palace – could view the service.

More transmitters were the answer – Sutton Coldfield in 1949, Holme Moss in 1951 and Kirk O’ Shotts and Wenvoe in 1952 ensured that a further twenty eight million people up and down the country could now access television. There were still gaps in coverage, which would be plugged as the decade progressed, but by the time Elisabeth II was crowned in Westminster Abbey on the 2nd of June 1953, BBC television had firmly established itself nationwide. By 1954 there were 3.2 million television licences (a sharp increase on the 763,000 licences registered by 1949).

The launch of ITV in 1955 and BBC2 in 1964 were future milestones which would increase viewer choice – but when 1984 was broadcast in December 1954, British television was a one channel service, so it had the uninterrupted attention of the viewership.

Nineteen Eighty Four was adapted by Nigel Kneale and produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier.

Nigel Kneale’s (1922 – 2006) earliest BBC credits were on the radio. He appeared several times in the late 1940’s, reading his own stories, such as Tomato Cain and Zachary Crebbin’s Angel. After graduating from RADA at around the same time, Kneale continued to write in his spare time while pursuing an acting career.

After winning the Somerset Maughan award in 1950 for his book, Tomato Cain and Other Stories, he decided to give up acting to become a full-time writer. In 1951 he was recruited by BBC television to become one of their first staff writers. This meant that he would be assigned to work on whatever projects were in production – adapting a variety of books or plays for television broadcast. In 1952 he provided additional dialogue for a play called Arrow To The Heart. The play was adapted and directed by Rudolph Cartier and it would mark the start of a successful working partnership between the two.

Rudolph Cartier (1904 – 1994) was born in Vienna and initially studied architecture before changing paths to study drama at the Vienna Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Cartier worked for German cinema from the late 1920’s onwards, first as a scriptwriter and then later as a director. After Hitler came to power, the Jewish-born Cartier moved to America to continue his film career.

However, his success there was limited, so in the mid 1940’s Cartier moved to the United Kingdom and restarted his  career by working as a storyliner on several British films. In 1952, Michael Barry was appointed head of Drama at the BBC and interviewed Cartier for a post as a staff television producer/director. Cartier was of the opinion that the current BBC drama output was “dreadful” and that a new direction was needed to turn things around. Fortunately Barry agreed, and Cartier was hired.

After Arrow To The Heart, Kneale and Cartier would next work on The Quatermass Experiment (1953). This six part serial, scripted by Kneale and produced and directed by Cartier, would prove to be an enormous success. Its reputation has also endured down the decades – The Times’ 1994 obituary on Cartier highlighted it as: “a landmark in British television drama as much for its visual imagination as for its ability to shock and disturb.”

Kneale and Cartier would go on to make two further Quatermass adventures for the BBC – Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958). Their other collaborations included another Kneale original, The Creature (1955) as well as adaptations such as Wuthering Heights (1953) and Moment of Truth (1955).

Nineteen Eighty Four was therefore only one of a number of projects that they worked on during this time, but apart from the Quatermass serials it’s the production that has tended to define both of them, particularly Cartier.

Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell offers a bleak dystopian picture of the future. The book is set in Airstrip One (formally Great Britain) which is a part of the state of Oceania. There are two other states – Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania is constantly at war with one state whilst allied with the other. The allegiances are constantly changing and this means that Oceania’s history has to be constantly re-written in order to maintain the omnipotence of Big Brother.

George Orwell
George Orwell

Winston Smith is a worker in the Ministry of Truth, rectifying “errors” in Big Brother’s previous pronouncements in order to ensure they accurately now record the “truth”. Winston’s desire to find more about the real past leads him to rebel against the state.

A popular and critical success when it was first published, Nineteen Eighty Four was also a highly controversial book. So it was always going to be a difficult piece to adapt for television, particularly in the period of the early 1950’s.

Peter Cushing (1913 – 1994) was cast by Cartier in the main role of Winston Smith. Cushing notched up an impressive series of television roles during the 1950’s, which would lead to Hammer Films approaching him towards the end of the decade to star in their adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein, thus ensuring his celluloid immortality.


Yvonne Mitchell (who had appeared in the Kneale/Cartier Wuthering Heights) was cast as Julia, Andre Morell (later to play Professor Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit) was O’Brien whilst the supporting cast included notable performers such as Donald Pleasance and Wilfred Brambell.

The music was composed by John Hotchkis. Cartier disliked recorded music, so the score was conduced live by Hotchkis in Lime Grove Studio E, next door to where the play was being performed. Hotchkis viewed the performance via a monitor in order to ensure that the music stayed in sync with the drama.

Prior to the first live performance on the 12th of December 1954, there was some pre-filming, initially on the 10th of November with additional filming taking place on the 18th of November. Pre-filmed inserts served several purposes – they could be used to present sequences that were impossible to realise in the studio and they were also useful for more practical reasons, such as allowing the actors time to move from one set to another or for them to make costume changes. The filming also helped to “open out” the drama, for example showing Winston moving through the prole sectors or Winston and Julia’s meeting in the woods.

Winston Smith (Peter Cushing)
Winston Smith (Peter Cushing)

Kneale’s adaptation was largely pretty faithful to the original book, with only a few changes made (such as dropping the section where Julia, working in the PornoSec department, reads a excerpt from one of the erotic novels created by the machines).

Given the limitations of live production, this is, thanks to Cartier, a striking piece of television. His use of close-ups on Cushing (along with his pre-recorded thoughts) when the character was struggling to hide his “thought-crime” allow the viewer an insight into Winston’s mind. And this is enhanced by Cushing’s fine performance – throughout the play he is never less than first rate.

He is matched by O’Brien (Andre Morell) who manages a cool detachment in all of his scenes (most famously in the torture sequence) that contrasts perfectly with Winston’s humanity.

Probably the most controversial aspect of the production, Winston’s torture, is another part of the production handled very well by Cartier. The passage of time is signified by numerous fade-ins and fade-outs which help to sell to the viewer that a considerable amount of time has passed.  During these scenes, Morell is quiet,  calm and reasonable, which is truly chilling.  When the broken figure of Winston, stripped of all dignity, Is led away it’s a shocking moment.

Following transmission, there was something of an outcry and the programme certainly stirred a healthy debate. Five MPs tabled an early motion, deploring “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.”

However, an amendment to this motion was tabled, in which another five MPs deplored: “the tendency of honourable members to attack the courage and enterprise of the British Broadcasting Corporation in presenting plays and programmes capable of appreciation by adult minds, on Sunday evenings and other occasions.”

Peter Cushing and Yvonne Michell
Peter Cushing and Yvonne Michell

The play had its supporters in high places, as reputedly both the Queen and Prince Philip had watched and enjoyed the production.

There was still some debate as to whether the second performance (due to be broadcast on the 16th of December) should go ahead. After a meeting of the BBC Board of Governors, there was a narrow vote in favour of the second performance.

Videotape recording was still in its infancy at the time and whilst some telerecordings were made of live productions they tended not to always be of broadcast standard. For example, the first two episodes of The Quatermass Experiment had been telerecorded, but the results were judged to be disappointing and so it appears that recordings were not made of the subsequent four episodes.

The original broadcast of Nineteen Eighty Four was not recorded so, as was usual at the time when a repeat of a play was required, it was performed again.  We are fortunate that the repeat was telerecoded, enabling us to have a record of the production. And due to the publicity, the Thursday broadcast had an audience of seven million, which was the largest television audience since the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.

Given the technical limitations of live performance as well as the primitive nature of the telerecording (although the film inserts should scrub up well) Nineteen Eighty Four is still an incredibly compelling piece of television, thanks to all the performers, but particularly Cushing, Morrell and Yvonne Mitchell. Its place in the development of British television drama is a key one and for anybody who has the slightest interest in archive television or simply good television, this is something that should be in your collection.

2 thoughts on “Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC Sunday Night Theatre 1954)

  1. Even though Nigel Kneale seemed to be a bit of a grouchy person(He seemed to hate on all Science fiction that he didn’t write.) what I have seen from him so far is great. I just got The Stone Tape on DVD, and I’m really excited to watch it. I’m in the process of reading 1984, so I haven’t seen this yet, but I plan to when I’m finished reading the book.


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