Ninety Eighty-Four - Ninety Eighty-Four( Blu Ray/ DVD) [BFI - 2022]
Originally aired on the BBC in 1954, Ninety Eighty-Four was the second small screen adaption of George Orwell’s starkly grim dystopian science fiction novel. It featured Peter Cushing in the lead role, with supporting roles from the likes of André Morell, Donald Pleasence, Yvonne Mitchell, and Wilfrid Brambell. The just shy of two-hour TV film, is as you’d expect, a fairly bleak, far from a bright ride- but it features some great acting, lo-key yet effective set design, and some fairly intense/ unsettling encounters for the 1950s. Here from the BFI is a recent dual Blu Ray and DVD release of the film, featuring a new commentary track and a few other extras.
Ninety Eighty-Four was part of the BBC Sunday Night Theatre series of TV films/ plays. It first aired on December 12th 1954, and I can well imagine it was as shockingly impactful as the harrowing after-the-bomb-drops drama Threads ,was in the 80s when it showed on the BBC. It was directed by Vienna born Rudolph Cartier- who had sixty plus credits to his name- going 1930's German films like Crime drama Teilnehmer antwortet nicht(1932) and ski slop set comedy Liebe auf Bretteln(1935). Moving on to helm six episodes of The Quatermass Experiment, and six episodes each of its follow-up series Quatermass II and Quatermass And The Pit. As well as more than a few BBC plays/ TV films. Ninety Eighty-Four was adapted for the small screen by Nigel Kneale- who of course penned Quatermass films/ episodes, as well as thirty plus other writing credits in film and TV.
The film opens with a short introduction/ apology by a BBC presenter- who outlines that Ninety Eighty-Four is replacing another advertised play, as well as warning viewers that the play is troubling/ upsetting- so it’s neat this has been left in. As we get into the play we meet the film's key focus Winston Smith( Cushing) who works in grey and totalitarian 1984 as a scribe who rewrites news reports/ history.
From the off, it’s clear he’s not as sold as the rest of society, in their belief in the tightly controlled state which is ruled by the never speaking and moustached Big Brother. We see Smith going to the state-run canteen, where all there is to eat, is salted or unsalted strew- here he meets twitchy-though-up on his supporting all things big brother Syme( Donald Pleasence) who is working rewriting language/ dictionary into simply less expressive forms. He goes back and forth from his sparse flat, where we see his neighbourhood family- who have two in-spy-training children. As time goes on, and his doubt about society grows, he notices a woman Julia Dixon(Yvonne Mitchell) watching him- at first, he is very on edge, thinking it’s one of Big Brother's agents. But when she passes him a note, saying she loves him, they start off a secret affair in a room above a rundown, and near stock-less antique shop.
I won’t detail the plot further, but as I’m sure you’ll either know/ or guess things turn out less than well for Winston Smith. Cushing is very believable as the doubting what he’s told everyman, and towards the end of the film is really putting his emotional all into the film. Mitchell is well placed as the growing in confidence temptress Julia Dixon. With notable support coming from André Morell as the seemingly kindly and fatherly government man O'Brien, and Campbell Gray as Winston's amicable, if state brainwashed neighbour Parsons.
As you might expect with a BBC drama from the late 1950s, the set dressing/ effects are very low-key/ crude, but this rather helps enhances the whole grey bleakness of the film. On paper, the nearing two hours runtime may sound a little too long, and yes there are moments here that maybe could have been trimmed slightly, but for the most part, it’s a compelling grim ride- and when it does all resolve, it leaves you with a bleak shudder.
Moving onto this recently released Blu ray and DVD set, and the monochrome print of the film, is good-if-in places a little aged/ warped, but once again this very much enhances the atmosphere of the whole thing- as if it’s a transmission back from some grim multi universes, where the bomb was let off and Big brother took over. On the extras side, we get a Television historian Jon Dear, host of Nigel Kneale podcast Bergcast, with Toby Hadoke and Andy Murray- and this is very well researched/interesting. They begin by telling us that the scan for the release was taken from the Thursday repeat after its initially Sunday showing- this re-run got smaller viewing figures than its first transmission. They talk about the introduction, and the reaction from the press and the public when the play was first shown. They give an insight into where both screenwriter Nigel Kneale, and director Rudolph Cartier were at this point in their careers- and how the former first started writing for TV. They discuss actors & the roles they play. Giving filming dates for the filmed scenes & location. They talk about others who were in line to adapt the book for the screen, and an early completed/ but unused script. They discuss the scale of the production, which had a seventeen-piece orchestra playing the film's cues. Talk about the BBC staff member who played Big Brother, and what he thought of the film. Later on, they discuss how the characters changed between the book & the BBC adaptation. They comment on who did the set design, the interval break and that it's a mix of previously filmed elements & live TV. How the previously CBS version of nineteen eighty-four, and much more- so a very worthwhile track.
Next extras wise we get Late Night Line up- this is from November 1965, and sees interviews with director Cartier, screenwriter Kneale, and actors Cushing, Mitchel, and Morell- this runs just over the twenty-three mintue mark. There’s The Ministry of Truth- this new twenty-three-minute featurette finding BFI’s Dick Fiddy & television historian Oliver Wake talking about some of the myths that have grown up around play. There’s Nigel Kneale: Into the Unknown- which is from 2022, runs at the seventy-minute mark- and finds Toby Hadoke and Nigel Kneale biographer and programmer Andy Murray discussing the work of Kneale & why he’s still important today. Lastly, on the disc, we have an image gallery and a PDF of the original script.
It certainly is wonderful to see this 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four get this classy BFI release- and if you have any interest in bleakly troubling sci-fi, or general well-acted, but troubling/ harrowing drama this is certainly something you’ll be wanting to pick up. Drop by here to buy direct from the BFI, and help support this wonderful body's workRoger Batty