George Orwell’s 1984 broadcast

12 December 1954

Picture shows Peter Cushing as Winston Smith and Yvonne Mitchell as Julia.

George Orwell’s novel 1984 was brought to television on 12 December 1954, written by Nigel Kneale and directed by Rudolph Cartier. Its vision of a future authoritarian state shocked viewers, particularly the scenes where the hero Winston Smith was tortured in the infamous Room 101. Some MPs and members of the press complained and Cartier received death threats, but the controversy helped the play. When it was repeated days later it drew the largest audience since the Coronation.

1984 was broadcast live, as was usual at the time, so the repeat was a new performance. Cartier helped the pace of the drama by using pre-cut scenes inserted into the action, making time for more complicated changes between the live sections. Winston Smith was played by Peter Cushing with Yvonne Mitchell as his lover Julia. Andre Morrell was intimidating as Smith’s tormentor O’Brien.

When 1984 was revised and revived by Kneale in 1965, both television drama and viewers had become more sophisticated, helped in part by the trail blazed by the 1954 original. The broadcast passed without controversy. Kneale and Cartier continued to work together at the BBC, producing celebrated TV dramas including Quatermass II, Quatermass and the Pit and Wuthering Heights.