10 ways to play Winston Smith

In the beginning was the book: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published 8 June 1949.

Eleven-and-a-half weeks later, on 27 August, American radio broadcast the first adaptation, starring David Niven as its much put-upon hero, Winston Smith… although, given the rape-and-murder fantasies he admits to, maybe we should call him an antihero.

Winston’s a complicated guy, living in a nightmarish world that’s been devastated by a nuclear war. In the power bloc he inhabits, Oceania, the ruling Party monitors the population’s every move, changes historical records as a matter of course and crushes dissent via torture and vaporisation.

Ten actors – none of whom exactly matches the smallish, frail, fair-haired character of the novel – have starred as Winston on radio, TV and film. So, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Niven play, let’s take a look at how the Smiths performed.

The posh chap: David Niven (radio, 1949)

Going by the upper-crust accents in NBC University Theater’s one-hour play, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a British production. Take the scene in which Winston visits the home of his sinister supervisor, O’Brien, and is astonished to learn that the two-way TV – the ubiquitous telescreen – has an off switch. “That thing is really turned orff?” he asks, in a voice that harks back to his ‘jolly good fellow’ movie roles (witness his next film, Powell and Pressburger’s The Elusive Pimpernel). “Yes,” says O’Brien. “Everything is turned orff.”

The tough guy: Richard Widmark (radio, 1953)

NBC broadcast a second adaptation, with a more overt anti-communist message, four years later. Widmark comes across as a terse, hard-boiled American revolutionary – until, in harrowing scenes of torture, O’Brien reduces him to a husk who screams for mercy till he’s hoarse. Spare a thought too for Marian Seldes as Julia, who, as written by Orwell, is a male fantasy at the best of times. Here, the character has never been more superficial: when Winston brings a seditious political manifesto to their love nest, she reacts by saying, “That’s nice, dear.”

The dweeb: Eddie Albert (TV, 1953)

CBS anthology show Studio One assembled the largest production American TV had ever seen for the launch of its sixth season. Broadcast live, it’s a curious, bare-bones dramatisation – just 50 minutes, minus the ads – with a remarkable New York cast (including Martin Landau, an extra in the Two Minutes Hate). Albert, who’d appeared in the US’s first TV play in 1936, portrays Smith as a forlorn little man who, as a result of his obsession with Julia (a steely Norma Crane), transforms himself into the archetypal worm that turned. Until, that is, Lorne Greene’s O’Brien flings him into a roomful of rats.

The repressed fusspot: Peter Cushing (TV, 1954)

Shown live on a Sunday night, then again the following Thursday, the BBC’s iconic feature-length adaptation turned the UK slightly loopy for a week as newspapers whipped up the first British television scandal. The consensus among its fiercest critics was that it was the televisual equivalent of a horror comic: one woman reportedly died of a heart attack while watching it (though you can take that with a pinch of salt). At its heart is Cushing as a diffident, gaunt, thoroughly decent Englishman. His reaction to Room 101’s rats earned him the title “horror man of the BBC”, paving the way for a career with Hammer Films and a pivotal role in Star Wars.

The split personality: Vincent Price (radio, 1955)

Television didn’t exist in the Australia of 1955, so when the producers of Lux Radio Theatre read about the BBC scandal, they staged their own play with actors who sounded English. Price flew to Sydney to take part, prior to filming Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. In this surprisingly thoughtful and innovative play – “Love is a political act,” says Julia at one point – Winston is shown to be weighed down with guilt and literally conflicted. When we’re privy to his inner thoughts and conflicts, a different actor plays the other side of the argument.

The ordinary Joe: Edmond O’Brien (film, 1956)

The British public hoped that Cushing and his co-star, Yvonne Mitchell, would reprise their roles in director Michael Anderson’s movie. For box-office reasons, however, Anderson cast (or miscast) two Americans: chunky alcoholic Edmond O’Brien and the vapid Jan Sterling. To be fair, O’Brien did have talent – he’d just won an Oscar for his supporting role in The Barefoot Contessa. But rather than portray a troubled, malnourished deep thinker, scratching a living in a warzone, he stomps around bellowing at people, till a forgettable Michael Redgrave (as the renamed ‘O’Connor’) hauls him off to the Ministry of Love.

The disgruntled civil servant: Patrick Troughton (radio, 1965)

An uncredited Troughton, sporting a moustache, was no stranger to Orwell’s dystopia, having appeared in the 1956 movie as a telescreen announcer. Nine years later, he took the lead in a BBC radio play. A subdued, sad-sack bureaucrat, his Winston is prone to Hamlet-style soliloquies. “Was tobacco always like this? Was food always like this? Was life always like this?” he grumbles. Life briefly perks up when he meets Julia, played by Sylvia Sims – and in a neat twist that suits the medium, is radicalised not by a book, but by Radio Free Oceania.

The young one: David Buck (TV, 1965)

Not many people owned a TV in 1954, so the BBC remounted the Cushing play – with revamps by the original screenwriter – more lavishly for its new channel, BBC2. In the spirit of Swinging London, this much-hyped remake was more upfront about the sex and violence of the novel; but with the real 1984 a little over 18 years away, the main role went to a man of 28, so that no one could say: “Ha! Unbelievable! The war of Winston’s childhood never happened!” Buck’s cherubic good looks take some getting used to, but he’s terribly convincing in the torture scenes. Truth be told, hardly anybody cared. Viewers, who’d grown accustomed to screen brutality in the preceding 11 years, simply yawned and switched off.

The worn-down dreamer: John Hurt (film, 1984)

Growing up in Grimsby, the son of clergyman, Hurt read the novel in his teens and dreamed of one day playing its hero. His chance came in late 1983 when writer-director Michael Radford, prepping a movie that would capitalise on the calendar year that was looming, offered him the job at an awards ceremony. The craggy-faced master of his craft, acclaimed for playing distressed characters in 10 Rillington Place, Midnight Express, Alien and The Elephant Man, proved the ideal choice – as did his O’Brien, Richard Burton, who’d go on to die within weeks of filming. “It’s suffering time again with John Hurt,” wrote one critic. “‘Hurt the name, hurt the game,’ his Equity dossier must say.”

The stroppy swinger: Christopher Eccleston (radio, 2013)

After a long gap, the BBC returned to the fray with an Orwell season on Radio Four in 2013. Taking advantage of Eccleston’s trademark intensity, its two-part dramatisation plays up the idea that the sex between Winston and Julia is a political act, at least in part. That said, Winston behaves as most middle-aged heterosexual men would if a fantasy 26-year-old offered them sex on a plate: like the proverbial dog with two dicks. Notable lines include: “You’re a dirty cow,” and “Your rebellion is between your legs, isn’t it?”

Those, then, are the Winstons to date. Four Americans and six Brits, four of whom – Cushing, Troughton, Hurt and Eccleston – were also Doctor Who, oddly enough.

Will there be more adaptations? Almost certainly. Indeed, at this year’s Orwell Society AGM, the author’s son, Richard Blair, mentioned that the BBC had enquired about making one.

The British broadcaster diligently follows a diversity and inclusion policy, which raises an interesting question. Next time around, will we see a Winston Smith of colour?

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