It’s unclear whether many people are moved to personally telephone the BBC to complain these days, its only facility being an off-line recorded message service, buried as a bit of an afterthought on the website’s information page. It seems outmoded in today’s world, even slightly eccentric, as if it were an activity now reserved to furious colonels retired to their Home Counties mansions. In 1954, though, on the transmission of its play of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the BBC received floods of calls and eventually thousands of letters in a reaction that qualified as a bona fide ‘furore.’ Members of the cast and crew reconvened eleven years later for an episode of Late Night Line-Up to parse, with distance now established, the broadcast’s controversies, not least the narrowly-voted decision amongst the BBC’s governors to put the play on again a few days later. (Some dispute that this vote took place; the play’s writer, Nigel Kneale, says that it did.)
Putting the furore aside for a minute, what feels extraordinary is that both performances —with the exception of some pre-filmed inserts—were done live. Unlike a relatively recent, short-lived, and arguably gimmicky trend in English soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders (not exactly strangers to dystopia themselves) towards special live-to-air episodes, when the BBC’s version of Nineteen Eighty-Four went out on the 12th and again on the 16th of December 1954, it was far more habitual for drama to be broadcast as and when performed. (Indeed, the early days of Coronation Street are an example.) To deliver a flawless performance with no safety net directly to tens of millions of viewers is an impressive feat for any actor, and it’s one that adds another layer to Peter Cushing’s incredible embodiment of Winston Smith, a man figuratively and in the end physically chained in Airstrip One, the post-UK province of George Orwell’s despotic geopolitical construct Oceania.
On Late Night Line-Up (included as an extra feature on the BFI’s release), reasons are pondered concerning the upset caused. There’s Orwell’s contentious use of the phrase “English Socialism,” which had put left-wing noses out of joint and fostered rumours of orchestrated complaints. Mainstream viewers, meanwhile, having just digested a no doubt agreeable What’s My Line?, had balked at their Sunday evening entertainment suddenly receiving a heavy coat of existential darkness. Sunday was still in many ways sacrosanct in the England of 1954. It was a day of family time and gentle pursuits. Nuclear mushroom clouds heralding a two-hour totalitarian horror-fest may not have sat particularly well with regular pot-luck viewers of the evening playhouse, despite the preface of a sombre opening caveat discouraging (in a dubious demographic assumption) anyone too old from watching. Peter Cushing vouchsafes a fairly sound theory as to the root of people’s discomfort. One, the story is unambiguously set in an England of the not-very-distant future; two, the inhumanity described in Nineteen Eighty-Four had already happened, and was/is presently happening, somewhere in the world. It’s one thing to have H. G. Wells sending his War of the Worlds Martians to menace the fields near Woking, but this was all a bit too close for comfort. The effects of the Second World War had hardly begun to recede. For most, one suspects, escapism —blandness—would have been preferable over Cartier and Kneale’s sparse, credible, and chilling depictions of brutality, which become objectively horrifying towards the play’s end. Furthermore, the BBC, possibly burned by the fallout from scrapping the second showing of an earlier, unrelated play and spurred on by favourable reviews, decided that Nineteen Eighty-Four would go out again on Thursday.
Winston Smith, though he puts on a front of sorts, can’t bring himself to practise Doublethink, improve his Newspeak, or take the Two Minutes Hate seriously, and commits Thought-Crimes on a daily basis. Peter Cushing’s encapsulation of this is a work of genius. We know that he ends up a beaten man, but Cushing’s Smith —sitting at his media terminal creating lies— is beaten from the start of the play, when all is as superficially well as it can be in this new regime. He’s not just broken as a function of O’Brien’s eventual crushing betrayal and torture; we’re not being shown a man who through mistakes, naivety, or rebellion is on a collision course with inexorable tragedy. The tragedy has already occurred before curtain-up. The anger in Cushing’s character is past tense, largely played out, the space filled by a hopeless trauma so powerful that it informs his physical demeanour. His nearest approach to genuine rebellion is writing in an illicit journal. Cushing’s finest moment, amongst strong competition, comes when Smith and Julia make a pact with the apparently dissident O’Brien, a scene in which he manages to suggest that this alliance is nothing more than wilful, real-time self-delusion: a means to get to some end point. While Julia buys into stolen moments in the Prole Sector you feel that Smith, underneath, is running down the clock. There’s a pronounced feeling that he’s always known that everybody ends up on the wrong side of the Inner Party eventually, to be processed and corrected by its psychopathic O’Briens for one reason or another, and that he simply wants to get it over with or do something different along the way. Cushing gives us a Smith who is resigned and knowing throughout. When incarceration duly happens, he doesn’t look all that surprised to find that a line-toeing neighbour has been arrested as well, shopped by his hideously zealous school-age daughter for a minor Thought-Crime.
While famous for its quasi-allegorical model of a dictatorial state —a particularly harsh one— Nineteen Eighty-Four prods our self-perception more than is comfortable. We can all say: yes, this system is horrendous. That’s the easy part. It’s harder to look in the mirror, which is the trick that Orwell deploys, drawing us into judgement of others before, at an unspecified moment, turning it in on us. When the novel was written, the scope of consumerism (often Orwell’s fascination, such as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying and Coming Up For Air) was a UK-centric fraction of the global marketplace that confronts us today. It’s just one of the reasons why his parable is as unsettling now as it ever was. Watching or reading it, it’s hard to ignore questions about our own complicity: what we’re really doing with our pounds, subscriptions, and lifestyles.
Late Night Line-Up proffers light relief via some breezy green room anecdotes. Yvonne Mitchell is a delightfully ‘Rank Charm School’ presence, incongruously jaunty after her doomed Julia. She repeats a fun (and in some corners disputed, but who cares?) tale about the taking of a prop, a snow globe unfortunately rather front-and-centre in a number of Sunday’s scenes, leading to a desperate search for Thursday’s replacement, which possibly contained the figure of Mickey Mouse. This, if detected on screen, would have detracted from the play’s gravitas just a little. Andre Morell, who played the granite-like Inner Party bigwig O’Brien, remembers folk erroneously hailing him as ‘Big Brother’ on the streets. (You can understand why – in both play and novel, O’Brien is as close as we get.)
Orwell’s bleakest fable is so iconic, so deeply embedded in English culture, that its components of imagery and language resurface all the time, ever rippling out in journalism, entertainment, and literature – such as the novelist Magnus Mills’ recent Sunbathers trilogy, with its sold-off England now a dubiously-purposed Americanised theme park. Or there’s the television series Room 101, the original concept misappropriated into a dumping ground for things that annoy celebrities, which, to be fair, sounds like something that Orwell could have dreamt up today.
As for Peter Cushing, he would, of course, go on to become eternally synonymous with those films: the Hammer Horrors; the boundless iterations of Dracula, Frankenstein, and Holmes; the curses, revenges, and brides, all liberally doused in that bizarre night-glo weirdness. First-rate nonsense, and highly enjoyable. But as Winston Smith, in Cartier and Kneale’s rendering of the BBC’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he delivers – today as much as then – visions of a very real terror indeed. --Neil Jackson