Review #GeorgeOrwellOnScreen

My positive disposition towards George Orwell On Screen (Adaptations, Documentaries and Docudramas on Film and Television) – before ever getting to read it – was due to David Ryan‘s generous assistance. The author provided sage advice on where I could view Orwellian material for free while living in London. Many pleasant hours…um…days were spent at BFI Southbank in their Mediatheque and Reuben Library viewing treasures, some until recently thought to be lost.

Ryan’s book is the first comprehensive study of Orwell on film and television, covering the period from 1953-2016; each section focusing on a decade. Orwell fans will appreciate the deep erudition and passion the author has for his subject. The Scottish novelist, A.L. Kennedy, who gave the Orwell Lecture in 2017 – Orwell with women – has written a suitably glowing preface which recognises the importance of Ryan’s ‘astonishingly comprehensive record’. The bibliography and footnotes are worth the price of the book alone.

Written in a warm and engaging style, Ryan avoids a merely chronological procession of facts, figures, summaries and detail by sprinkling amusing or insightful anecdotes, gleaned from a wide variety of sources, about each production. For example, Peter Cushing, who played Winston Smith in the 1954 BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-four, has a story about London sewer rats, caught by a specially employed rat-catcher, who were so ’satiated with food’ from the cast and crew that when the infamous ‘Room 101’ scene was to be shot the rodents were to ‘snug’ to do much but ‘sleep’. A ‘minion’ is then dispatched to a local pet shop and the new cast members ‘dyed dark brown’ for the scene. Gold.

The detailed contextual information Ryan provides about the conversations viewers, politicians, critics, cast and crew members were having at the time of production/broadcast really adds colour and depth to his narrative. This is where Ryan’s research really shines and his ability to (re)create these contemporary conversations for the reader is outstanding. The furore, after the 1954 BBC adaptation mentioned in the preceding paragraph screened, is particularly well-rendered, interesting and historically important for students of media and society. Ryan contrasts tabloid headlines – ‘Wife Dies as She Watches’ – with supportive editorials like, ‘Don’t Chain the BBC’. Ryan details the motions tabled in parliament and the incredible spike in sales of the novel – from hundreds to nineteen thousand – in the week following the broadcast.

The chapter on the animated Animal Farm (1954) will be of particular interest to English teachers and students. This was Britain’s first feature-length cartoon and was massively over-budget, taking three years to make. The story behind the story is a stand alone study in government propaganda.

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The Crystal Spirit: Orwell on Jura (1983) written by Alan Plater stars Ronald Pickup as Orwell. Set and filmed on Jura, at the remote farmhouse of Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-four, it is to my mind an important social document. The writer and director understood that the ‘film has to be about a man writing a book’ and this is difficult to capture visually. Their goal – to make the film in the same style as Orwell’s prose: ‘clean-edged, precise, lucid, cool and ironic’ – is realised marvellously well. Pickup manages to portray Orwell’s ironic sense of humour, as written by Plater, whose detailed investigations into Orwell’s character, with the assistance of many who knew or studied the writer, helped enormously. Pickup’s letter to Ryan, quoted in the book, explains one reason why the film was such a success: ‘I just loved playing him, wishing to be like him’.

One of my favourite adaptations is Michael Radford’s interpretation of Orwell’s last novel, Nineteen Eighty-four screened in 1984. Ryan unfurls the ‘catalog of disasters’ that challenged the cast and crew. For example, Richard Burton’s final performance, as O’Brien, almost didn’t happen (he died just weeks after filming). The role was offered to Sean Connery, Paul Scofield, Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando but for one reason or another they declined. Burton ‘was a notorious drunk’ and ‘nobody would trust him’. His astounding memory was ruined and cue cards were placed strategically on set. You would probably agree that he and John Hurt both gave masterful performances that make this one of the best adaptations of any novel ever. The BBC documentary about the making of the film- which I viewed recently – is hugely enjoyable giving good insight into the creative process.

Ryan, always the Orwell fan first and foremost, shows us what has been lost from the historical, audio-visual record and we feel, as he does, the ‘archival absence’ of such Orwellian treasures to be ‘galling’. The most fascinating story – and one that very few Orwell enthusiasts would have been likely to know – is about an actual recording of Orwell’s voice. It is well-known that there is no audio-visual trace of George Orwell, even though he worked at the BBC for two years during WWII (although some argue that a Young Eric Blair at Eton can be spotted fleetingly). Ryan relates that a young, relatively unknown Alan Rickman was employed to do Orwell’s voice for a documentary (in 1983) and was criticised for sounding ‘too middle class’. A recording of Orwell broadcasting for the ‘Burmese Service’ was subsequently found ‘in the old gram library’ (since lost) and ‘he sounded exactly like fucking Alan Rickman’.

What a great story.

David Ryan’s book is essential reading for scholars, teachers, students and an ever-growing legion of Orwell fans. It is both a good reference tool and enjoyable read. I wholeheartedly agree with A.L. Kennedy who hopes ‘this book gets the praise and attention it deserves’.

You can buy a hard copy of George Orwell On Screen here or the Kindle ebook at the Australian store (USA store or in the UK).

David, also a member of the Orwell Society, is active on social media and very willing to share his expertise. His twitter handle is @DavidXRyan and blog wittily titled, Ryan Flair.

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