Saturday, August 26, 2023


The British Film Institute’s 2022 Blu-ray and DVD release of the BBC’s celebrated 1954 adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, no doubt helped by George Orwell’s novel having entered the public domain, set right a myth surrounding it that I have been guilty of repeating. 

It was not widely reported at the time that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip had watched and enjoyed its original Sunday night performance, quashing a campaign to prevent its second performance the following Thursday – before videotape, these were separate live performances.

Instead, a BBC liaison officer was informed by Prince Philip, while at a private function, of their seeing it, an anecdote recorded in the BBC’s private records in 1954, but not made public until decades later. The second performance was in fact authorised to proceed the day after the first took place.

Now that is clear, we can marvel in Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, whose opening narration begins: “This is one man’s alarmed vision of the future, a future which he felt might, with such dangerous ease, be brought about.” It retains its shock value, depicting a London as grimy and scarred by war as contemporary audiences will have remembered, only that its populace now tell themselves they never had it so good, giving life to Orwell’s famous “doublethink”. There is a chill at seeing Winston Smith, played by Peter Cushing in the role that launched him into his film career, being physically degraded on screen. In Airstrip One, a good citizen is one that has no capacity to express itself – it did not matter what crimes Smith falsely confessed to in order to escape Room 101, it is only that he thought about them.

I watched the adaptation this time specifically to take attention to how the neologisms of Newspeak are applied in a TV adaptation where, despite the limitations of a staged live adaptation viewed on a low resolution, black and white screen, actions still come first. Building on the first scene of Smith using his “speakwrite” to “correct” the official account of Big Brother’s actions for “The Times” newspaper, rewriting previous editions, it is down to Donald Pleasence, as Syme, to gleefully explain how Newspeak will remove confusion and vagueness from speech: the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by a single word, “good”, and whether you add un- to flip its meaning, or plus- or doubleplus- to amplify it. You feel that successive editions of the “Newspeak Dictionary” won’t even allow you that, unless you “bellyfeel” it (accept it without question). Newspeak is sprinkled through the rest of the play, especially when Syme is eventually told, by the pervasive telescreen, “ungo antecoming thinkpol”, immediately clarifying for the audience by saying “the think police are coming for you”.

I initially thought of writing about newspeak after coming across an online listing for a prop newspaper from Michael Radford’s later film of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, released that very year, the pictures of which were detailed enough for me to read sections that were faithfully written by someone in seemingly full Newspeak: “nix doubleplusbig efforts of progsoc they nogodepast outzones of Brazzaville”. It is meant to be spoken, and probably read, in a clipped staccato manner, the use of “nix” recalling the famous 1935 “Variety” magazine headline “Sticks Nix Hick Pix”. The new terms created by “Variety” in its long history, from “cliffhanger” to “striptease”, from “greenlight” to “sex appeal”, and from “biopic” to “showbiz”, were to shorten headlines, emulate the slang used by the industry on which it reported, while making readers feel part of that industry.

However, seeing the art being removed from novels and music was what stayed with me the most this time, the rise of AI programs being something that has happened mostly since this Blu-ray release. A “prole” woman sings a song played by her telescreen as she puts up washing on a line, later revealed to have been created by computer: “The sentimental ones are issued sparingly, they’re always properly.” Later, a machine made to write pornographic novels, named as the “author” of a work shown earlier, is shown to produce twenty novels a day: “all phrases and thought sequences were built in during assembly so that it has its own distinctive style... The operator is now adjusting the situation kaleidoscope, which varies the six basic plots...” Newspeak really is the last of our real-life problems.

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