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The Real George Orwell – drama blog

26 Feb

George Orwell

If you have been listening to BBC Radio 4 in February, you will have heard about the ‘George Orwell Season’.   There have been dramatisations of his most famous works, and some very interesting new dramas by Mike Walker and Jonathan Holloway which focus on the man who was George Orwell.

It must be about a year ago that the Controller of Radio 4 mentioned to me that they were thinking of creating a season around George Orwell, and now I have had the pleasure of listening to the new programmes and they are available for anyone to download from us at AudioGO.

Both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are books that have become parts of our national identity, not only the famous phrases such as Big Brother, Room 101, thought police, and indeed the term Orwellian, itself.  I remember first reading the books as a teenager, and then again a couple of years ago reading Animal Farm to my 11 year old son.  Both of these books stay with you for life, and both are warnings about how human society can become corrupted.

Given that these are such significant books, I wanted to understand how the producers at BBC Radio approached them, and so I spoke to Alison Hindell, the producer of Animal Farm, and Jeremy Mortimer who produced Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Jan: What made you want to create a season of dramatisations and original plays for Radio 4 based around the works and life of George Orwell?

Jeremy: The fact is that Orwell is a giant of 20th Century literature in English. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ have sold more copies than any other two books by a British author. And yet beyond those books Orwell is largely unread.  Many people have an image in their heads and some know that George Orwell wasn’t his real name – but as a man he is largely unknown. So what we wanted to do was to throw light on ‘The Real George Orwell’. There was no particular anniversary to celebrate, but the scheduling of the season helped generate a head of steam around Orwell and the 21st January this year (the 63rd anniversary of his death) became the first ‘George Orwell Day’.

Jan: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are very famous and familiar works, did this familiarity influence your production?

Nineteen Eighty-FourJeremy: I was very surprised to discover that our production was actually Nineteen Eighty-Four’s debut as a radio 4 dramatisation. Particularly as the 1954 BBC TV series  (with Peter Cushing) and the 1984 film (with John Hurt and Richard Burton) had made such an impression.

Jonathan Holloway, who did the radio script, had dramatised the book for a stage production some time ago and we had long conversations about how we planned to structure the story. We were very keen to play down any Science Fiction element to the story. Although it is set in a hypothetical future, the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is very much rooted in the 1940s, and it is partly the very familiarity of that setting that makes the violence and the naked totalitarianism so shocking.

Alison: Animal Farm’s  familiarity made it very easy to cast as it is so well-loved and well-known.  Actors wanted to take part in the production and one of them even told the TV production he was working on that they would have to work round the radio schedule as he was so keen to be in it – and that’s unheard of!  But of course whenever you go back to well-known works there are always aspects that you’ve forgotten or think of freshly so it’s not a problem, by and large.

Tamsin GreigJan: Why did you cast Tamsin Greg as the narrator in Animal Farm, is the voice not that of a man, ie Orwell?

Alison: The season as a whole is dominated by male voices and Animal Farm is no exception, so it was in part simply a way of making the texture of the play more varied.  But also, the long set piece by Major at the start of the play is of course a male voice so I wanted specific contrast to that.  And also, it was a response to Orwell’s description of the book as a fairy story: I wanted an apparently gentle, familiar story teller to lead the listener through the piece and perhaps take you by surprise as the tale gets darker.  There is no direct inference that the narrator of the book is Orwell, it is an anonymous omniscient narrator.

Jan: Nineteen Eighty-Four contains scenes of torture, could you tell me about how you approach producing this for radio?

Jeremy: I don’t want to give away too much about the conclusion of Nineteen Eighty-Four (as I hope that there will be plenty of new listeners hearing it for the first time) but it is no great secret that it involves Room 101 in the Ministry of Love – where agents of the Party subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia. Rats surface quite a few times in ‘The Real George Orwell’. We learn that one of Eric Blair’s Spanish Civil War comrades had to share a cell with them. We also learn that there have been reports of rats attacking sleeping babies on the island of Jura when Blair was writing Nineteen Eighty-Four. And how did we approach the torture scenes ? Well, all I can say is that Christopher Eccleston got to scream – a lot. And Tim Piggot-Smith maintained an icy calm.

Jan: Orwell based his Room 101 on a room in BBC Broadcasting House, do you know what was in this room?  Does it still exist?

Jeremy: Unfortunately the original Room 101 was demolished back in 2003 as part of the major refurbishing of Broadcasting House. But before that happened, artist Rachel Whiteread managed to make a plaster cast of the room which was then displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum

In 1940, following bomb damage at Broadcasting House, the Overseas Service of the BBC World Service – for whom Orwell was working – moved to new premises at 200 Oxford Street. The canteen on the ground floor was almost certainly the model for the canteen in Nineteen Eighty-Four; no doubt it was not very different from any other canteen acting as a centre for gossip and social life, but it would have been new to Orwell, who had never worked in an organisation of the kind before.

For more information about The Real George Orwell season, check out the BBC website, which has some fascinating clips and comments, and Mark Lawson looking at Orwell’s time at the BBC.  Otherwise, I hope you will enjoy the plays that are available from AudioGO, to download directly to your PC, smartphone or other devices.

Happy Listening.

Jan Paterson

Publishing Director


BBC Drama at AudioGO – About Hugh Costello

11 Jan

Guest Author: Jan Paterson – AudioGO Publishing Director

One of the great things about being Publishing Director at AudioGO is listening to so many good programmes from BBC Radio and elsewhere, especially when the writer is a former work colleague.

Hugh Costello

Hugh Costello

Hugh Costello was a writer and editor at BBC History Magazine, who had the office next to mine when we were BBC Audiobooks.  Hugh has now written a number of plays for Radio 4.  Much of his drama work focuses on the economic and political crises in his native Ireland, and on controversial aspects of the Catholic Church.

I asked Hugh about his interest and motivation for his dramas;

“I am fascinated by the rituals and traditions at the heart of large and powerful institutions – and few institutions are more fixated with tradition than the Catholic Church.  This is part of its appeal, of course, but also causes problems. The church’s slowness to respond to the sexual abuse scandals was due in part to its inflexible structure and its tendency to view itself as an island of morality and truth in a sea of secular relativism. I’ve just finished a new Afternoon Drama called The Fewness of His Words, which tells the story of an English Catholic priest who has jumped bail and is living in hiding in a monastery. A fellow priest is sent by the Vatican to persuade the fugitive to give himself up and face justice for the abuse he perpetrated against children many years before. I don’t intend the piece to be a gratuitous attack on the church – one of the priests in it is a good and rational man. But it does set out to explore the self-justification and sophistry that have characterised the response of many churchmen to the scandals.”

As well as writing for Radio 4, Hugh has numerous screen credits to his name, including BBC series such as Holby City and The Ambassador, and the HBO drama Bernard and Doris, starring Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon, for which Hugh was nominated for an Emmy award in 2008. But he says he does not see TV and radio as mutually exclusive. “The beauty of writing for radio is that you can tell less obviously mainstream stories, and in more adventurous ways. It is by its very nature a writers’ medium, and a great theatre of the imagination. My play Conclave, about the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978, brought together 100 elderly cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. On screen this would have been an enormous – and expensive – logistical headache. But on radio, you can let the listeners’ imagination do the work. It gives you enormous scope as a storyteller.”

Hugh’s interest in John Paul II has continued – he is currently writing a biography of the Polish Pope for the History Press. “John Paul was a remarkable man, a force of nature who modernised the institution and inspired huge personal devotion. But he was also a divisive figure whose reactionary views on issues such as contraception alienated many Catholics. He was a contradictory and controversial figure – in other words, the perfect subject for a biography.”

So far AudioGO have released four of Hugh’s plays, and there will be more forthcoming.  You can see these four on the AudioGO website.

I found Hugh’s writing to be very accessible, the subjects he has chosen are controversial and yet are handled sensitively.  I would recommend the plays to anyone interested in Ireland, history, the Catholic Church or who just wants a really good listen.  I hope you will agree.

Good Listening.

Jan Paterson

Publishing Director