Nineteen Eighty-Four | The celebrated 1954 BBC adaptation starring Peter Cushing gets a dual-format BFI restoration
Adapted by Nigel Kneale (whose centenary is being celebrated this year) and directed by Rudolf Cartier, the BBC’s adaptation of George Orwell’s seminal dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, broke new ground for television drama and caused quite the stir when it was first broadcast live in December 1954.
Featuring a career-defining central performance from Peter Cushing as Orwell’s fatalistic protagonist, Winston Smith, this small-screen landmark has been restored by the BFI using original film materials from the BBC Archive and the BFI National Archive.
André Morell co-stars as deceptive Inner Party member O’Brien, Yvonne Mitchell as Smith’s rebel lover Julia and Donald Pleasence as Syme, Winston’s Ministry of Truth colleague. Giving a brief, but notable, turn is Wilfrid Brambell, who had also appeared in the BBC’s previous Kneale sci-fi, 1953’s The Quatermass Experiment.
Kneale was so in-tune bringing Orwell’s cautionary tale on totalitarianism and the cult of personality to dramatic life that it caused great upset within British public and political circles when it was first performed on Sunday 12 December 1954 (mainly due to a torture scene involving rats). While criticised for being ‘horrific’ and ‘subversive’, it was restaged on Thursday 16 December (thanks in part to Prince Philip’s announcement that the Queen enjoyed the first screening) with some 7 million viewers tuning in. And it is this telerecording that has become one of the earliest surviving British TV dramas.
The following year, an Australian radio adaptation was aired as part of the Lux Radio Theatre with Vincent Price taking on the role of Winston Smith, while Donald Pleasence would be the only actor from the BBC play to appear in director Michael Anderson’s 1956 film adaptation starring Edmund O’Brien.
The BFI restoration has really spruced up the image and sound of the 1954 production which is a mix of the live recording and 14 filmed inserts that were required for the scene changes. These inserts look fantastic now – but seeing them alongside the live (soft and grainy) footage they do somewhat jar. Nevertheless, it’s the performances (especially Cushing’s) that count. So time to ditch that old ‘taped off the telly’ DVD (or in my case VHS). Nineteen Eighty-Four is also available on DTO via iTunes and Amazon Prime on 11 April 2022.
Order from the BFI Shop here:
- Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
- Audio commentary by television historian Jon Dear with Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray
- Late Night Line-Up (BBC, 1965, 23 mins): members of the cast and crew look back on the controversies surrounding this adaptation of Orwell’s classic. This is a historic time capsule — and a must-see for Cushing fans.
- The Ministry of Truth (2022, 24 mins): in conversation with the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, television historian Oliver Wake dispels some of the myths that have grown up around the groundbreaking drama over the course of the past half-century.
- Nigel Kneale: Into the Unknown (2022, 72 mins): writer, actor and stand-up comedian Toby Hadoke and Nigel Kneale biographer and programmer Andy Murray try to unpick who Kneale was, what he did and why his work still matters today.
- Gallery of rare images from the BBC Archives
- Original script (downloadable PDF)
- Newly commissioned sleeve artwork by Matt Needle
- Illustrated booklet with essays by Oliver Wake and David Ryan; credits and notes on the special features.