16 December 1954
Originally broadcast on the BBC in December 1954, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a made-for-TV movie based on the book 1984 by George Orwell. Like the book, this movie explores the libertarian theme of the individual versus a collectivist state that aims to eliminate individuality and conform its subjects to rigidly authoritarian standards. Because of the “subversive” nature and “horriﬁc” content of this teleplay, the broadcast proved to be rather controversial for viewers in the 1950s. Nevertheless, according to a poll conducted by the British Film Institute, this teleplay was one of the 100 greatest British television programmes of the 20th century. The second live performance of the teleplay, recorded on the 16th of December, is the only surviving record of the performance.
Video uploaded to the Internet by YouTube user rosaryﬁlms.
Plot and Analysis
I have no fear, but that the result of our experiment will be, that men can be trusted to govern themselves without a master. Could the contrary of this be proved, I should conclude, either that there is no God, or that he is a malevolent being. — Thomas Jefferson to David Hartley
Statism, to the degree that it exists, causes life itself to become blandly bureaucratic. In this movie, we see the horror of overregulation, the destruction of individual autonomy by the Establishment, the systematic suppression of independent thought, and the indoctrination of children through state-sponsored education. Moreover, we see our protagonist, Winston Smith, a bureaucrat and outer-party member working at the Ministry of Truth, dealing with his wretched predicament.
Yvonne Mitchell as Julia
Smith, played by Peter Cushing, does what he is told to do, and says what he is told to say, but internally, he despises the Establishment. Unfortunately for Smith, this makes him a “thought criminal.” Of course, thoughtcrime is in actual fact a victimless “crime,” not a real crime like rape, theft, or murder; but this matters not to Smith’s oppressors. For the dictatorial Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four, laws are not established in order to defend the rights of the individual, but rather to cement the power of the Party itself. Thus, such basic rights as the right to not be forcibly denied one’s life, the right to not be forcibly denied one’s liberty, or the right to not be forcibly denied one’s justly-acquired property, are entirely ignored in Oceania.
In addition to committing thoughtcrime, Smith also commits what is called sexcrime. A sexcrime occurs when someone engages in lovemaking for any purpose other than procreation. Just like Smith’s thoughtcrimes, this is also a victimless “crime.” So why does the state wish to limit lovemaking? It is because the state recognises that, insofar as sexcrime occurs, the individual’s emotions and desires are directed away from Party needs. Love ought to be reserved solely for Big Brother, for if it is permitted to also be directed to some entity other than the state, one may choose to value this other entity more than the state. Sexual pleasure also entails a certain “release” that causes the individual to, if only for a moment, forget all else, including Big Brother.
Unfortunately, the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as cunning as it is powerful. It tricks Smith into agreeing to commit certain atrocious acts, captures him, tortures him, and systematically eliminates every shred of his individuality. The ending, needless to say, is not uplifting. Nor need it be.
The point here isn’t to say, “There is always hope,” even if it is true that there is always hope. The point, rather, is to demonstrate the inherent problem with any power established through aggression, through the initiation of or threat to initiate force. The teleplay’s bleak ending demonstrates why we all must, at all times, be sceptical of government, and be weary of allowing it to have power. For power, in the hands of a state, invariably means the power to oppress. Even governments established through the noblest of revolutions can become destructive to human liberty. Yes, even in my country, or even in yours.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.” Jefferson was an ardent defender of rebellion against governments. “God forbid,” he wrote to William S. Smith, “we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” referring to Shays’s Rebellion. “[W]hat country,” he asks Smith, “can preserve it’s [sic] liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” Yet, despite the clearly-noble intent of the American revolution, history has shown us that even a government of limited limited size and scope can metastasize into the giant Leviathan we today call the federal government of these united states. Thus, it is not enough to remain vigilant only against clearly-totalitarian states such as the one depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four; we must, moreover, remain eternally vigilant against all statism, even against the smallest increases in statist power. After all, even the government of Oceania must have started out with less power and fewer telescreens than we see in the year 1984—and no country is magically immune from the threat of statist expansion. And, as Jefferson wrote to his friend James Madison, “[G]overnments of force [are] government[s] of wolves over sheep.”
In his book British Cinema and the Cold War: The State, Propaganda and Consensus, Professor Tony Shaw reports that this adaptation “met with considerable praise from critics for its accurate interpretation of the novel.” Nevertheless, “parliament debated the need to censor such television output. Producer Rudolph Cartier read the novel as a warning against totalitarianism in all its forms, including fascism, communism and McCarthyism, but the majority of MPs and journalists saw the play in straight Cold War terms, as a renunciation of life behind the Iron Curtain.” Shaw also notes that it was this broadcast that “effectively ‘launched’ Orwell as a ‘public’ writer, marking the point when the language of his novel entered the popular imagination.”
1984 (1949) by George Orwell
Studio One: 1984 (1953), directed by Paul Nickell
1984 (1956), directed by Michael Anderson
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), directed by Michael Radford