The Wednesday Play: 1984 (1954)

People elevated to God-like status logo

Time to induct a new member into the pantheon of blog gods: Nigel Kneale, the god of writing innovation and scary predictions.

Kneale was one of the first TV playwrights and drama writers, famously emptying the streets of Britain with The Quatermass Experiment, a six-part 1953 science-fiction serial that revolutionised television and brought intelligent science-fiction to the masses.

Kneale principally remains famous for the character of Professor Bernard Quatermass, who went on to appear in three further TV series on both the BBC and ITV as well as three Hammer Horror movies, a radio play and 2005 BBC4 remake.

But Kneale was one of television great trailblazers. As well as predicting reality TV in the play, The Year of the Sex Olympics, he also created the idea of the scientific supernatural play for TV with The Stone Tape, in which scientists investigate the supernatural and discover that houses and stone can act as a recording material for events, thus creating ghosts when they ‘play back’ the event – something still described in psychic investigations as the ‘stone tape’ phenomenon.

For this, his many other works and his influence on television and film, Nigel Kneale has been made a blog god. Here’s a lovely documentary to explain in greater detail why he’s so brilliant.

But back in 1954, Kneale managed to empty the streets of Britain a second time, as well as cause questions to be asked in Parliament about the BBC’s moral standards. How? With an adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 starring Peter Cushing and future Quatermass André Morrell that was voted one of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century. It’s our Wednesday Play and you can watch it after the jump.

About the play
The Quatermass Experiment
was produced and directed by Rudolph Cartier, perhaps the BBC’s best producer-director of the 1950s who was always adventurous artistically and technically. It was his work on The Quatermass Experiment that prompted the BBC’s head of drama, Michael Barry, to ask Cartier to work on an adaptation of the novel, having shown his abilities with literary sources in a version of Wuthering Heights, again with Kneale handling the scripting. The BBC had purchased the rights to a television version of 1984 soon after its publication in 1949, with Kenneth Tynan having apparently originally been keen on adapting the work. The first version of the script, produced in late 1953, was written by Hugh Faulks, in consultation with Orwell’s widow Sonia Brownell, but when Cartier joined in January 1954 he demanded that Kneale be allowed to handle the adaptation.

The play provoked outrage. There were complaints about the “horrific” content (particularly the infamous Room 101 scene where Smith is threatened with torture by rats) and the “subversive” nature of the play. Most were worried by the depiction of a totalitarian regime controlling the population’s freedom of thought. There was also a report in the Daily Express of 42-year-old Beryl Merfin of Herne Bay collapsing and dying as she watched the production, under the headline “Wife dies as she watches”, allegedly from the shock of what she had seen.

Political reaction was divided with several ‘early day’ motions and amendments tabled in Parliament. One motion, signed by five MPs, deplored “the tendency, evident in recent British Broadcasting Corporation television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes”.

An amendment was tabled which sought to make the motion now deplore “the tendency of honourable members to attack the courage and enterprise of the British Broadcasting Corporation in presenting plays and programmes capable of appreciation by adult minds, on Sunday evenings and other occasions.” It was signed by five MPs. Another amendment added “but is thankful that the freedom of the individual still permits viewers to switch off and, due to the foresight of her Majesty’s Government, will soon permit a switch-over to be made to more appropriate programmes.”

A second motion signed by six MPs, applauded “the sincere attempts of the B.B.C. to bring home to the British people the logical and soul-destroying consequences of their freedom” and calling attention to the fact that “many of the inhuman practices depicted in the play Nineteen Eighty-Four are already in common use under totalitarian régimes.” Even the Queen and Prince Philip made it known that they had watched and enjoyed the play.

Amidst objections the BBC went ahead with a live repeat on Thursday 16 December, although the decision went to the Board of Governors, which narrowly voted in favour of the second performance. This was introduced live on camera by Head of Drama Michael Barry, who had already appeared on the Monday’s edition of the Panorama to defend the production. The seven million viewers who watched the Thursday performance was the largest television audience in the UK since the Coronation the previous year.

When the importance of this production of 1984 was realised, it was arranged for the second performance to be telerecorded onto 35mm film, as the first was shown live, seen only by those who were watching. Videotape recording was still in development and television images could only be preserved on film by using a special recording apparatus (known as “telerecording” in the UK and “kinescoping” in the USA) but was used sparingly in Britain for preservation and not for pre-recording. It is thus the second performance that survives in the archives, one of the earliest surviving British television dramas.

The adaptation was produced again in 1965 by the BBC, with some modifications to take account of modern production methods that allowed for pre-recording and quick scene changes. Starring David Buck, Joseph O’Conor, Jane Merrow and Cyril Shaps, it was broadcast in BBC2’s Theatre 625 anthology series as part of a season of Orwell adaptations sub-titled ‘The World of George Orwell’, on 28 November 1965. Long believed lost, it was re-located at the American Library of Congress, although an approximately seven minute segment in the middle was unrecoverable from the NTSC video tape recording. In 1965, a radio adaptation starring Patrick Troughton was transmitted on BBC radio.

But here below you can watch the delights of the original production, written by a true great of British television.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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