Sunday, 25 September 2011

Nineteen Ninety-Four (An Orwellian sitcom)

1. Work is Freedom                     2. Freedom is Choice
3. Choice is Progress                     4. Progress is Power
5. Power is Happiness                     6. Happiness is Work

I love 1984. One of my all time favourite books, it never fails to shock me and make me see the world in a completely different way. Nevertheless, the domineering bureaucracy of the Party is ripe for parody and has been numerous times in the past. However, nobody does cynicism like the British and certainly the best of them are involved in this radio show. Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie form part of the ensemble with the splendid Robert Lindsey taking the lead role of Edward Wilson.

Interestingly enough, the show is far more Orwellian than it is a sitcom. The bewildering situations Edward finds himself in are largely played for laughs but there is a definite dark undercurrent, particularly in 'Power is Happiness' as Edward's lucky break causes him to become disturbingly psychotic. The blase reactions of the population to their clear mistreatment is also just as worrying - when radical changes occur, reactions range from "Oh well" to "Hasn't it always been like that?" (I am of course paraphrasing, the scriptwriters are far more witty)

Despite the gloomy setting and storyline, the cast clearly have great fun playing literal caricatures, people who only seem to care about themselves. As a consequence, except for Edward, I don't really care about the characters. They are entertaining in their own ridiculous way but their fate in this world is of little interest. There is much investment to be made, though, in Edward's plight. The most human character in the show, Lindsey does very well with a character who is often bewildered or boldly pretending to know what he's doing. His exasperations are simultaneously amusing and pitiful, with his screams of "I want to go home" towards the end of 'Freedom is Choice' being suitably dramatic and upsetting.

Just as 1984 did, 'Nineteen Ninety-Four' makes some unintentional predictions - video calls, statistics used as fact no matter how ludicrous and the absolute dominance of commercialism. Indeed, the world of both the novel and the radio programme do bear striking similarities and their protagonists follow similar journeys. Even the classic ending of 1984 is replicated although not to such a devastating effect; there's even a suggestion of a happy ending. Comparisons though are generally unnecessary between the hard-hitting novel and the flawed sitcom. The plot isn't quite as clear as it could've been and it's best moments are when it focuses on the sheer absurdity of this world. The cast show great diversity in their vocal range, making each character unique although there are too many of them and the various substories don't always work. Yet there are plenty of good one-liners and surreal uses of futuristic technology (serving machines have their own personalities and their own guidance councillors) that helps define the show as basically what 1984 would have been like had Orwell decided to write it as a comedy. But not as good as Terry Gillaim's Brazil.

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