BBC Radio 4, 10-17 February 2013
One of the major tasks facing any adapter of Orwell's 1948 classic is
to alter listener preconceptions, which have been shaped by a variety of sources, including the famous television version
of the mid-1950s (when Peter Cushing played Winston Smith), Michael Radford's 1984 film with John Hurt and Richard Burton
(in his last major role), as well as various cultural forces that have transformed the phrase "Big Brother is Watching
You" into a cliche.
In Jeremy Mortimer's production, apparently the first for radio, dramatist Holloway dealt
with this issue by focusing on the importance of making statements, whether verbal, physical, or imaginative. In
a totalitarian state, all of them could be identified as significant acts of resistance. The production
began with one such statement, as Winston Smith (Christopher Eccleston) recalled the words said to him by his mother as she
sent him out to fend for himself. The words were not important in themselves; but Smith's imaginative recollection
conjured up a world of personal security that challenged the powers of thought control characteristic of the state he inhabited.
Such recollections were doubly significant, in that they challenged Smith's public persona - as an employee of the Ministry
of Truth, he was charged with the responsibility of disseminating the official party line, and hence controlling the citizens'
As the production unfolded, so Snith's desire for resistance increased, as he encountered
Julia (Pippa Nixon), a like-minded soul who used sex as an act of resistance. Every love-affair represented the discovery
of new possibilities, both emotional as well as sexual, that no one - not even the Party - could control. Thus it seemed
inevitably that Winston and Julia would be brought together as like-minded souls, drawing inspiration from one another in
their different ways.
Mortimer's production used sound-effects and music to emphasize the importance of
this alternative world, that challenged the Thought Police's efforts to impose ideological uniformity. The nursery-rhyme
"Oranges and Lemons/ Say the Bells of St. Clemens" functioned as a leitmotif of this spirit: whenever it was sung, it showed
how individuals were perfectly capable of thinking for themselves, if they allowed their collective imaginations to flourish.
However this was not always an easy thing to do. The Party had subtle ways
of disseminating its messages through the radio - which bore a distinct sonic resemblance to the old-style BBC broadcasts
of the mid-twentieth century, as well as more modern equivalents, such as the old-time radio spoofs of Fitzrovia and
other troupes. Through this strategy Mortimer emphasized how adept the use of propaganda had become in this world; even
something entertaining and/or nostalgic contained subtle, and often sinister messages.
The first episode ended on an interestingly contrastive note. On the one hand
Smith had decided to place his trust in O'Brien (Tim Pigott-Smith) as a fellow-rebel against the Party, even though there
was little justification to do so. Perhaps Smith had forgotten the importance of mistrusting appearances and looking
for something more permanent instead. That permanence was symbolized by the sound of raindrops plashing on glass: not
even the Party could control Nature.
This first episode was both subtle and in low-key in tone, preparing the
way for more sinister happenings to come. I'm looking forward to hearing the denouement.