How ‘1984’ Became an Overnight Sensation

George Orwell’s classic novel sold well when it appeared in 1949, but ironically it took a now legendary live TV performance in 1954 to make the book required reading everywhere.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/the Daily Beast

Nineteen Eighty-Four is at the top of teachers’ list of books “every student should read before leaving secondary school.” —National Association for the Teaching of English, July 2015

My acquaintance with Orwell occurred on 19 December 1954—I can date it as precisely as my wedding days.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published, by Orwell’s most loyal publisher, Frederic Warburg, on 9 June 1949. It sold brilliantly but by the autumn of 1954, three years after Orwell’s death, reprint sales had steadied to 150 a month; just sufficient to keep the novel in print. It was not, as now, a novel that the schoolteachers of England were advised to drill into their pupils like imams in a madrasa.

All this changed with Nigel Kneale’s “horror” adaptation, put out by the BBC on Sunday evening, 12 December 1954. With it the novel’s rise to supersellerdom took off like a Guy Fawkes rocket from a milk bottle. The fact that it was the first novel in which the arch-villain is a television set must have helped. BB was watching Winston. When, then, would the BB(C) be watching us?

My family home couldn’t yet run to a “goggle-box.” I missed out on the first broadcast but, inflamed by playground gossip (“rats! eyeballs!”), I was careful to book a place with a better-off friend to see the repeat a week later. It wasn’t actually a repeat in the modern sense, there being no video technology then. The cast, troupers all, went through the whole thing again.

The production starred Peter Cushing as Winston Smith (the eighty-year-old Churchill, after whom he is named, was currently prime minister, which added a resonance). Cushing’s constipated, haunted look would be carried over into his portrayals of arch-agents of light versus darkness in Hammer Horror films of the ’60s. There was a preliminary Auntyish warning that the program was “unsuitable for children or those with weak nerves.” This had the predictable effect of gluing even the most susceptible viewer (including, of course, fifteen-year-old schoolchildren like myself) to the screen, their nerves pinging like over-wound violin strings.

The dramatization (still available on YouTube, as a muzzy TV-grab from the surviving 35-mm film) opened with a clanging overture based on Holst’s ‘Mars’ and the monitory voiceover: “This
is one man’s alarmed view of the future” (not, that is, Lord Reith’s view). There followed a Wagnerian montage of atomic explosions before the opening scenes in Minitrue (an institution inspired,
as we dimly apprehended, by the BBC’s Broadcasting House).

And so, with the competent performance level of a good provincial repertory company, the narrative rolled on, for one hour and 47 minutes, to rats and eyeballs. Orwell’s bleak ending was respected
by Kneale (as it was not in the CIA-financed animated film of Animal Farm that also came out in 1954; or the CIA-financed American version of Nineteen Eighty-Four).

The effect of the 1954 dramatization of Nineteen Eighty-Four on the population—soon, they were informed, to become telescreen-enslaved citizens of “Airstrip One: Oceania”—was electrifying. Susceptible housewives, who had lived serenely through the Blitz, were reported (apocryphally) to have died of shock watching the “H[orror] Programme.” On 15 December, five Conservative MPs
put down a motion deploring “the tendency evident in recent BBC programmes, notably on Sunday evening, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes.” A less pompously inclined weather forecaster began his bulletin with “Stand by your sets, Citizens, bad news coming up.”

Television lives by viewing figures. Those for Nineteen Eighty-Four were, for a live drama, unprecedented. The tally (seven million) was exceeded only by that for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the previous year. “Big Brother is watching you.”’ “doublethink,” “thought- crime” and the “two-minute hate” became catchphrases. They still are.

The 1954 televization jump-started Orwell’s upward progress to his present status as the Cassandra of his time. All time, perhaps. As the estate’s literary agent, Bill Hamilton, reported in January 2015: “Interest in Orwell is accelerating and expanding practically daily
… We’re selling in new languages—Breton, Friuli, Occitan—Total income has grown 10 percent a year for the last three years.” With some difficulty (it’s not yet on Google Translate) I’ve discovered that the Occitan for “Big Brother Is Watching You” is “Gròs Hrair T’espia.”

Not only has Nineteen Eighty-Four lasted, selling nowadays better than ever; it is, we’re told, a work of biblical importance. In November 2014, a list was drawn up on behalf of YouGov (or “You the People Govern,” an interesting example of what Orwell calls “Newspeak”), asking a representative two thousand members of the reading public what they thought were “the most valuable books to humanity.” The top ten were as follows:

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1) The Bible (37 percent)
2) The Origin of Species (35 percent)3) A Brief History of Time (17 percent)
4) Relativity: The Special and General Theory (15 percent)5) Nineteen Eighty-Four (14 percent)
6) Principia Mathematica (12 percent)
7) To Kill a Mockingbird (10 percent)
8) The Qur’an (9 percent)
9) The Wealth of Nations (7 percent)
10) The Double Helix (6 percent)

Nineteen Eighty-Four is judged more “valuable to humanity” than the Qur’an. Not everyone (probably not two billion everyones in the Islamic world) would agree. But few would disagree with the assertion that Orwell “matters.” It is a pity he did not live to enjoy the vast revenue (the copyright is still in force for another five years) and join his rich friends on equal terms. What Orwell—who is recorded as giving away his meager ration-book coupons
to the deserving during the war—would have done with great wealth is a nice speculation.

Reprinted with permission from Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography by John Sutherland, published by Reaktion Books Ltd. © 2016 by John Sutherland. All rights reserved.

John Sutherland is the author of many books, including Lives of the Novelists and How to Be Well Read. He is the Lord Northcliffe Professor of English emeritus at University College London.