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An Author’s World, Extended: George Orwell on Screen by David Ryan

Edmond O'Brien in 1984 (Michael Anderson, 1956)

Edmond O’Brien in 1984 (Michael Anderson, 1956)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

After reviewing the latest Criterion DVD release of Michael Radford’s 1984 (1984), I felt obligated to obtain a copy of the above book since the author’s relatively brief appearance on the company’s special edition features revealed some interesting facts worthy of pursuit. My quest was not in vain. I not only read a book far better than the Criterion DVD’s opportunity to produce a really informative work with relevant supplementary information but also one recognizing the fact that Orwell had written other books in addition to 1984, several of which received adaptation in other media such as radio and television. Written (according to the blurb) by a “former film critic” now working as a freelance journalist, this book from McFarland (2018) contains important information that DVD viewers should turn to for a broader understanding both of the author and his other texts.

Beginning with forward by creative writing Warwick University professor (and “stand-up comic,” according to the DVD blurb), A.L. Kennedy, an author introduction by a non-academic journalist but also a scholar who loves vintage films and television (1), the book features seven sections and twenty-three chapters dealing with Orwell adaptations from the 1950s to the present day. It is one of the best sources on Orwell versions so far.

978-1-4766-7369-1Part One, appropriately sub-titled “The 1950s: Bashing the USSR,” has four chapters. They deal with the US live TV Studio One adaptation with Eddie Albert and Lorne Greene as O’Brien (yes there was a time when future Ben Cartwright played baddies as in Robert Aldrich’s 1957 Autumn Leaves!); the Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier 1954 BBC adaptation; Animal Farm (1954); and Michael Anderson’s 1956 film version. The BBC’s Alexandra Palace studios (also used in the 1984 film version but later much more devastated) provided the background for location inserts for the 1954 TV production. An NBC University Radio Theater production with David Niven appeared within weeks of the book “hitting the shelves” (11). The CIA was involved in the making of the animated version of Animal Farm (39-44) (2), and Australia’s Lux Radio Theatre flew Vincent Price in from Hollywood for their radio adaptation of 1984 (p. 34). (3) The Cartier-Kneale 1954 BBC TV production of 1984 receives good coverage along with public reaction (22-38). Although the British Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker expressed disapproval similar to The Jewish Chronicle’s review of the London 1971 Roundhouse production of Andy Warhol’s Pork, it was clearly not their Party. However, like Lesley Gore, they could cry if they “want(ed) to” (33) and certainly did, according to their offended sensibilities. Ryan appears not to have had access to the “happy ending” of Anderson’s 1984 that is missing from the 2007 DVD version, but I can affirm that I saw it on ITV’s Television Wales and the West in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, several TV versions of Orwell’s work perished in the notorious “tape holocaust” by the BBC, so Ryan relies on the script version of the 1965 World of George Orwell: Keep the Aspidistra Flying with Alfred Lynch and Anne Stallybrass. Ryan also mentions the possibility of a theatrical musical version of 1984 that David Bowie later expressed interest in (63). Keep the Aspidistra Flying appears to have been one of the better versions of Orwell’s work showing his significance well beyond 1984; it is a shame that is now lost. Fortunately, American archives preserved a copy of the second 1965 TV version of 1984 (recently rediscovered), which was adapted by Kneale again but now directed by Christopher Morahan (88-93).

In 1971, BBC TV’s Omnibus presented a 57-minute color documentary on Orwell, written and directed by Melvyn Bragg, while two years later ITV produced a musical documentary on The Road to Wigan Pier. Both received positive reviews, as did the later 1983 dramatized documentary written by Z Cars 1962-65 scriptwriter Alan Plater, The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura, featuring Ronald Pickup as the writer. Ryan sees the last as “a premature reminder of a year that had seemed grim before it had even started.” He continues, “critically and artistically, it is one of the most accomplished works in this book, securing a BAFTA nomination for best single drama in a vintage year for television, it holds a special place, too, in the hearts of those who made it” (107). Yet, these all belonged to a now vanished past of quality television that suffer devastation later by the commercialized ethos of Thatcherism and the destructive actions of BBC Controller John Birt in the 1980s. It is extremely disappointing that Criterion did not make an effort to acquire it as a supplement for their recent DVD version of Radford’s version.

Ryan draws some bleak conclusions at the end of his chapter dealing with the Omnibus production.

Bragg – now Lord Bragg, a Labour peer – doubts that such an austere film could be made today. But it gave him a glimpse of Orwell the human being, and led him to conclude that more than anything else, meeting tough, intelligent working men had changed the author forever. “He was stunned at their political knowledge and commitment, and I think chastened by it.” (99)

One viewer of the ITV musical documentary wrote a letter to the TV Times in 1973. She remembered those Depression years all too well and unconsciously anticipated what we would all again experience in the millennium.

“To the present generation, those bitter years are of little interest outside academic research,” she concluded. “But fate plays ironic tricks….That which has happened once may happen again.” (106)

Ryan’s welcome chapter on Radford’s 1984 film version makes one regret that Criterion did not ask him to do an audio-commentary for their recent DVD rather than the interview he does there. At the time, a BBC TV documentary appeared “1984: Designing the Nightmare” that could have formed another welcome supplement to the Criterion DVD. It appears that Ryan attempted to obtain a recent interview with Radford but failed and relied on previous recordings (see p. 233, fn. 11, 13).

However, he does include as much relevant material as possible including Orwell biographer David Taylor’s 2003 The Real George Orwell on Melvyn Bragg’s respected The South Bank Show (also available on youtube along with the other BBC Four centenary production George Orwell – A Life in Pictures). Chris Langham portrayed Orwell in very much the same way as another actor played Joseph Conrad in a BBC Face to Face re-enactment several decades before. Both authors left no surviving sound recordings or film footage. The remainder of the book covers as many versions of Orwell and his work as possible. In 2009, John Hurt graciously agreed to appear in video backdrop footage accompanying a touring production of 1984.

That sounds like a great idea and I’ll be pleased to do it, If you meet me in the Science Museum in London. I’ll give you two hours of my time and you can film me… (217)

In the final chapter “Not Quite and Near Misses,” Ryan refers to Hugh Hudson’s failed attempts to film Homage to Catalonia as well as Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian world of Brazil (1985) and Ridley Scott’s 1984 “mini-masterpiece” 60 second Super Bowl Commercial with 1960’s Dalek vocal talent Peter Graham now articulating the voice of Big Brother.

References

  1. I wish this were true of most of my students encouraged to “dumb down” by administration in the ivory-tower equivalent not of The Ministry of Truth but Ministry of Imbecility. Neither do I wish to cause any offense to Professor Kennedy since one of my best friends is a journalist also a stand-up-comic. Humor is now a necessary weapon to use the absurd nature of most examples of today’s higher education.
  2. This is available on youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRCRNnhgJ18&t=304s. As Arte Johnson would say in his accented “Verrry Interesting” on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In” (1968-1973), one wonders if the CIA (aka. “The company”. “Murder Incorporated”) had a much earlier interest (and involvement with the Estate) prior to Animal Farm. As another of the show’s most memorable lines went, “You bet your sweet bippy!”
  3. No prizes for guessing who may have paid his air fare. In Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999, Victoria Price mentions that her father came under suspicion during the early 50s and signed a five page document for the FBI denying he was a communist and condemning those who used the Fifth Amendment when under interrogation (pp.173-174). “Along with this document, he carefully preserved a letter dated September 30 1955, addressed to the head of CBS which he had sent, along with the FBI document, in an attempt to clear himself to work with for the television studio again.” (p.174) Price never mentioned this to his daughter when alive. Family friend Eddie Albert, who played Winston in the 1953 live TV production, put this action into perspective for Victoria. “You have no right. You have no right to judge. You don’t know what it was like.” (p.174) Presumably, like Joseph L. Manciewicz with his 1958 re-working of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Price may have had to prove his credentials by making this trip.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.

Read also:

1984, Revisited in 1984 (The Criterion Collection)

The Year of the Kneale Olympics – Into the Unknown: the Fantastic Life of Nigel Kneale by Andy Murray and We Are the Martians edited by Neil Snowdon

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