Updated: May 24, 2022
Such was the immediate success of the Goons’ spoof of George Orwell’s 1984 that the team revisited the script again just a few weeks after the original broadcast.
The script had a few minor changes, and John Snagge featured in pre-recorded excerpts as the voice of the Big Brother Corporation. This was the first time he had appeared as a character in the Goon Show – but was by no means the last.
The action takes place in the shallow end of an open-air swimming bath in Woodmansterne and on the grass verge of the Great North Road. The play is unsuitable for human beings, young horses and Alderman John Snagge.
(from the Radio Times listing, page 24, issue 1630, published 4 February 1955)
The two script changes I noticed involved restoring a gag that (I think) was scrubbed from the original script, poking fun at Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels of Life With The Lyons.
Winston (Harry Secombe): That night in my room I sat out of range of the TV screen. I loved Fnutt, and I hate Big Brother. I wrote it in my diary: "I hate BB, I hate BB, I hate BB, I hate BB." [FX: Phone ringing receiver up] Winston: Hello? Sellers (American): Hello. Don't tell anybody, but I hate BB too. Winston: Who are you? Sellers: Ben Lyon.
The cricket joke was also updated, indicating that the British team's fortunes had improved in their series of matches against Australia.
Charrington (Sellers): It's beautiful isn't it? It's called a cricket bat. Winston: Did they have test matches way back? Charrington: Yes, that's quite right. Matter of fact, this bat was used in the very last test by an Australian opening batsman. You can see it's quite unmarked.
The undoubted success of this episode probably gave some semblance of relief to BBC bosses, as it served to draw a line under the controversy that surrounded the TV play version of 1984, broadcast in December 1954.
Starring Peter Cushing as Winston, the broadcast was the first time many TV viewers had seen such depictions of horror on their screens. The torture scene, in which Winston has his head shut in a box of frenzied rats, caused particular consternation.
Viewer reactions gathered by the Manchester Evening News seemed overwhelmingly against the play, particularly on a Sunday night, a slot traditionally reserved for family entertainment. The comments themselves are unintentionally amusing, however.
“My wife went out of the room when the torture scenes were on. That is not entertainment. It is not the type of play for women viewers especially and should certainly not be put on TV.”
“This is not the type of thing for TV on a Sunday night or any other night. I didn’t enjoy it.”
“It was not the thing for television and I would not like to see children looking in at this sort of thing. But I must say that the production was good.”
The BBC in response said it had put out warnings before the broadcast that it was unsuitable for “children, people who were nervous or elderly”. Hence the Goons’ warnings:
Greenslade: The BBC would like to caution parents: this programme is unsuitable for the very young, the very old, the middle aged, those just going off, those on the turn, young dogs and alderman John Snagge.
The alderman reference could well be a dig at the Alderman of Tunbridge Wells, who had appeared on a TV debate to express incoherent outrage at the TV broadcast. Another example of ‘Outraged of Tunbridge Wells’?
Alderman Sheppard of Tunbridge Wells was joined on the debate programme by the BBC’s head of TV Michael Barry, journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, and an unnamed radio critic. Their nine-minute discussion was summarised by Gilbert Harding, who followed them on the programme: “All of you said nothing at all. You just went yacketty yacketty yack. You should have talked sense.”
According to the Daily Herald’s Philip Phillips, writing on 16 December 1954, Sheppard said the play amounted to propaganda. In response, the BBC’s Barry said “the play had been worthwhile because it had made Alderman Sheppard angry”, Phillips reported.
Earlier that week, Phillips had called for a multi-channel approach to television to keep things like 1984 to a channel “where exciting experiments can be carried out”, and away from prime family entertainment slots.
The Beeb didn’t seem very sympathetic, saying – perfectly reasonably, in my view – that people could just have switched off. However, Sir Ian Jacob, BBC director-general, later assured the chairman of the Welsh National Broadcasting Council that similarly controversial plays would not appear in the Sunday slot. The chairman, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor, had warned that if plays at this time were not suitable for both parents and children, it would threaten the unity of the family.
Quoted in the Liverpool Echo, Nigel Kneale (left), who adapted the book for television, said: “It is meant to move people very strongly. If they can’t take it then it is just too bad. Personally I think that if a person has a mental grasp to understand this, then no matter how depressing the theme is, he is not depressed by it. He sees the meaning of it.”
Kneale was also quoted as saying that George Orwell’s widow had approved of his work.
Not everybody disapproved of the 1984 adaptation. Labour MP George Brown, having recently returned from a visit to Poland (then behind the so-called “Iron Curtain”) was quoted in the Northern Whig newspaper as saying: “The people of Western democracies must recognize [sic] the threat which the modern totalitarianism of the so-called Communist States offers to our cherished liberties… We all want to co-exist, but we had better be aware of the evil we are asked to live with.”
The Shipley Times and Express carried a lengthy defence of 1984 from the Reverend AP Lumley, vicar of Frizinghall.
Finally, my heart goes out to Mrs Elizabeth Orwell of South London, whose husband George was listed in the phone book – meaning they were inundated with complaints. Orwell the author, whose real name was Eric Blair, died in 1950.
Here's Goon Pod pod-king Tyler Adams and Sean Gaffney talking knowledgeably about this episode - well, actually, the original version.
Series 5, Episode 20
Broadcast: 8 February 1955
Written by: Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes
Producer: Peter Eton