Year of the Rat

It wasn’t much commented upon back in 1984 but the advent of breakfast television in the UK — incredible to think we were so late in adopting it, but also incredible that anyone would want to watch television while getting ready for work — and if you were going to watch television, why would you watch GARISH and NOISY television full of IDIOTS?

Hang on, I’ve gone off the rails.

Start again: 1984, the year Orwell wrote about, was marked in the UK by the advent of breakfast television, and two of the stars of that new phenomenon were the Green Goddess, an exercise instructor straight out of Orwell’s book, and Roland Rat, a puppet rodent straight out of Orwell’s book. And it was the Chinese year of the rat. Not that Roland R actually ate anyone’s face off. THAT WE KNOW OF. But as O’Brien might have said, it’s the thought that counts.

I was at school. Thatcher was in power. I kept thinking, Why does nobody else see this?

Thirty-eight my god years later, the BFI has a Blu-ray out of Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s teleplay NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR (no numerals for the BBC), which should have been out eight years ago but the Orwell estate is rather funny, which is why we never got a Bowie musical version of the book (but we did get Diamond Dogs so on the whole we won that round).

Trailers for this release made it seem like the greatest feat of restoration in human history, but inspection of the actual article clarifies the achievement: the play went out live but bridging sections had been shot on film to enable scene changes. It’s these bits that look as if they could have been shot yesterday. The live portions are your typical kinescope haze, but looking about as good as they ever could. It feels like we’re watching the action from inside Winston Smith’s little snowglobe.

Film and tube camera, side by side.

The double aesthetic is fascinating — both styles work in their distinct ways. The locations for filming are mostly BBC buildings so, like in The Goon Show‘s parody, 1985, Airstrip One and the British Broadcasting Corporation are conflated. The stark lighting of BBC corridors and post-WWII London makes for bold and striking imagery. Only the addition of Orwellian signposts makes it science fiction. Whereas Mike Radford’s film version, made in 1984, strove for the look of 1948, the year the book was written, this version is perfectly clear that 1984 is RIGHT NOW. Mainly I suppose because they couldn’t afford to make it anything fancier.

The one big special effect is an unfortunate affair. The painting — not a matte, not a backdrop, just a static painting — is technically decent enough to pass under the circumstances, but why does the Ministry of Truth have windows the size of office blocks, and why, when we see Winston Smith looking out one of them, is it suddenly a tiny porthole.

But that’s the only stupid bit.

The interior sets are strictly from poverty, and this works nicely. “Despair enacted on cheap sets,” as Errol Morris is always saying. The Ministry of Truth canteen is a bit of backcloth. The walls of Winston’s flat don’t even meet, so that the most felicitous nook in all English literature is compiled of a series of flimsy-looking flats you could post a letter between.

The show is so cheap it had Kneale himself as the voice of the televisor and production designer Roy Oxley is Big Brother. And a very effective BB he is too: he looks stern and noble, rather than shifty and sinister which is the dumb way of portraying him. Obviously BB would be from Central Casting and would look like an inspiring leader. Or, I suppose, like a cuddly clown. That could work…

In the leads we have Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell — a few years later he would inaugurate Hammer Horror while she introduced kitchen sink drama with WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN. Cushing is amazing in this — like Karloff, he exploits a physical advantage, removing a dental plate to portray Smith in his final decrepitude.

“So much face-crime!” Fiona enthused. Cushing just can’t help showing us what he’s thinking.

As O’Brien we have the excellent Andre Morell, who was also a Quatermass for Kneale, also a Watson for Cushing’s Holmes, and his tormentor (again) in CASH ON DEMAND. Morell has a bluff, matey quality that works nicely in counterpoint to O’Brien’s more obviously vicious aspect. He’s cold, but superficially clubby, chummy. Affable. When the Thought Police come for us, they will be wreathed in smiles.

Donald Pleasence is Syme, and I don’t have to tell you how much entertainment HE brings — a warm-up for similar turns in the CIA-backed 1956 version (where he plays Parsons) and THX 1138. Parsons is an extraordinary gremlin called Campbell Gray, who looks, sounds and acts just like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s P.R. Deltoid, Aubrey Morris, so much so that I thought it could be him under an assumed name. Which would make this some kind of dystopian trifecta.

Also: Wilfred Brambell (in two small roles) and a pre-beard Sydney Bromley.

Highly recommended. I find the desaturated eighties version drab and dull, whereas this one delivers its moments of horror with a lipsmacking relish more in keeping with Orwell’s grand guignol tendencies. Instead of speeding up at the end, it slows down, delivering a series of grisly blackout sketches whose recurrent punchline is the death of hope.

Almost the best thing on the disc, however, is the original continuity announcer, a plummy gent (unidentified) who welcomes the people of Aberdeen to the BBC, regrets that the Scottish comedy they’d hoped to present has been postponed, worries a bit about what they’ll make of this offering, muses aloud that perhaps the people of Aberdeen have never SEEN a play, and sums up the thematic concerns of the work in a remarkably sophisticated manner. There we have it: the Reithian vision of the Beeb, to inform and educate as well as entertain, coupled with a good dose of condescension. It’s real time travel, quite a fitting epitaph for the British Broadcasting Corporation now that the government has finally decided to destroy it.

Meanwhile, actor Dan Stevens has appeared on the BBC’s The One Show (a wonderfully Orwellian name) and shocked the nation by uttering an actual political THOUGHT not sanctioned by universal consensus. The palpable terror in the room!

15 Responses to “Year of the Rat”

  1. The author of “1984” (forget his real name) was a closeted self-hating gay sado-masochist

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    So the 1956 film version was CIA-backed. I’m not surprised since “Murder Incorporated” (as they are commonly known) had their eye on the property ever since they heard of the galleys. That is why a radio version with David Niven ( !) as Smith was rushed into immediate production and Pan-Am flew Vincent Price to Australia yo demonstrate his loyalty several years later. Surprisingly, Price does a better job than

    Then there was the 50s live TV version with Eddie Albert as Smith who later told Price’s daughter Victoria that unless she actually experienced that era aster she went through her late father’s correspondence.

  3. The Company also backed the Halas and Bachelor animated Animal Farm, Britain’s first feature-length animation. Both their Orwell adaptations required happy endings to make them suitably anti-communist, and in AF all it required was some Saturday morning cartoon style repetition of frames from earlier in the story.

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  5. MARGARET SHARON ROBERTS Says:

    Poetry in life is missing in the 21st century. Hungry for it.

  6. Fiona Watson Says:

    I made the mistake of referring to The Goon’s version as “remarkably accurate” only for me to be pulled up by David for misuse of the English language. (It’s a laugh a minute in our house) I think we can all agree that it is surprisingly close to the original in its presentation. Even Kneale liked it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoW0uILAdGs

  7. “Faithful” rather than “accurate,” was my pedantic adjustment. “If it was accurate, it would all have come true.” Although I’d rather live in the Goons dystopia than Kneale’s.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Video unavailable over here (US). But back to breakfast TV associated with Selena Scott and middle-aged gent in cardigan who was “bit of a lad” away from the camera, I gather. Anyway, when arriving here in 1984 I watched GOOD MORNING AMERICA with its two hosts but you were spared the THE ENTERTAINER tele-evangelist like Richard Roberts who sang to his audience – unless that show has also happened here? In my first year of residence I understood that the “special relationship” was one way with garbage imported and UK television now resembling its “American cousin” in being mostly worthless

  9. We’ve never had the televangelists, thank gods.

    Selena Scott just turned up in the Netflix doc on Jimmy Savile, analysing her own behaviour onscreen when he flirted with her on live TV. “The camera lies.”

    The current kleptocracy is planning to cut the BBC off at the knees by killing the license fee, and to sell Channel 4. And even if we get rid of them at the next election, I have no faith that Labour won’t simply implement their plans.

  10. Tony Wiliams Says:

    But is the BBC worth a license fee now? My UK correspondents tall me it is now 100% rubbish and resent paying a license feel when its days are now over. If the BBC resembled the type of programming in the pre-cable days that would be one thing but now… It is so unfair that viewers are faced with this unfair poll tax, something that brought Thatcher down.

    Also Chanel 4 has long departed from the days of ASIAN EYE, BLACK ON BLACK, and screening independent film. Is it now the channel known for NAKED ATTRACTION?

    Yes, Sir Keir Sturmfuhrer will do nothing apart from suggesting a loyalty test by importing TV programs from Israel or restricting NAKED ATTRACTION participants to “circumcised only”?

  11. The BBC, trying to maintain some balance between its original mission and the perceived need to capture a healthy share of viewers, has indeed lost its way. But I’ve never believed in demolishing things that have deteriorated, I think it’s better to repair them if possible. Because we’re not going to be given a decent replacement in this case, are we?

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Watching one of those documentaries about Saville I now feel the BBC should lose its license for allowing this monster to get away with his activities.

    But why should people be forced to pay for a channel they never watch and is little better than others? That is undemocratic and equivalent to a poll tax. If the BBC became a subscription service like the American PBS, this may be the way for it to return to its lost mission. No, you will not get a “decent replacement” but viewers will have a choice as to whether they watch or not. Polly Toynbee’s recent GUARDIAN article has a still from STRICTLY COME DANCING the BBC’s current values. This hardly inspires confidence, does it?

  13. The whole idea of a TV license is questionable, but what invalidates it is not people not watching, it’s if the channel doesn’t offer them something more valuable than the commercial market. People still have to pay taxes towards the NHS even if they never get sick. So I could stand behind a boldly educational, ennobling BBC that completely ignored mere entertainment, even if it haemorrhaged viewers, but of course the government wouldn’t stand for that.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    Oh no, the Government would not stand for that unless they decide to give them minimal support with money raised from viewer subscriptions very similar to Congress. each time the GOP wins, they threaten to cut off entirely PBS but never do. You may pay taxes to the NHS in its present form (before privatization takes over but everybody falls sick sooner or later and it is guaranteed to be used. However, there is no reason that viewers should support financially a channel that is little different from its competitors that people voluntary subscribe to.

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