Cult Movies: BBC's Nineteen Eighty-Four remains a chilling take on Orwell's classic dystopian tale

Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell in Nineteen Eighty-Four
Ralph McLean

Nineteen Eighty-Four

THE BBC's production of Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been talked about in hushed tones by those who love their dystopian television drama.

First screened in 1954, just five years after George Orwell's novel was published, it shocked audiences to the core with its stark portrayal of life under a fascistic, totalitarian regime.

Directed by Rudolph Cartier and scripted by the revered Nigel Kneale, it remains a high water mark in British TV drama. It made a star out of the actor who took on the central role of Winston Smith, a young everyman figure trapped in the horror of a soul-sapping society, while the unforgettable performance from a fresh-faced Peter Cushing would set him on a path that saw him become one of the greatest horror and fantasy cinema icons of all time.

Sightings of the production in the interim years have been rare, however. Bar the occasional screening, fans have been left to pass faded VHS copies around or access shaky public domain prints on YouTube if they wish to savour this particular slice of television heaven.

Thankfully this is where the BFI step in, with a glorious new Blu-ray package released this very week that finally grants the production the respect it has always deserved. The sheer age of the material shows, of course: much of the acting is over-wrought and stagey at times, but this remains a fascinating glimpse into TV history.

It also feels almost painfully prescient with those themes of social control and manipulation of the masses. All those Orwellian lines like "Big Brother is watching you" and terms such as 'thought crime', 'newspeak' and 'doublethink' are as relevant today as they must have been to Cold War audiences in 1954.

Even the sight of Room 101, where the terrified Winston must face his deepest fears, reminds you that these deeply disturbing ideas of government control have seeped into the public consciousness.

The story is simple. Post-nuclear devastation Britain is now re-named Airstrip One and is part of a vast fascistic superstate known as Oceania. Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) works for the shady Ministry Of Truth but his dreams of escaping with his lover Julia (Yvonne Mitchell) lead him further into the horror surrounding him.

Through that simple plot, Kneale, an in-demand screenwriter following the hugely successful adaptation of his Quatermass serial the previous year, weaves a tough and merciless story of human hope in the face of raw evil.

This beautiful new BFI Blu-ray offers up a loving restoration of the original play (or the recorded repeat performance of it staged shortly after original transmission, since the first version went out totally live) and a host of fascinating extras from archive interviews to a well illustrated booklet.

With an astonishing central performance from Cushing, ably supported by the likes of Andre Morell and Donald Pleasence, and an oppressive mood that fits the material, this is a stark reminder of the earliest days of pioneering TV drama and a chilling take on a story that still echoes sadly on in the 21st century.

As such, Nineteen Eighty-Four is simply an essential purchase.

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