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Last Updated: Monday, 2 June, 2003, 14:42 GMT 15:42 UK
George Orwell: A Life in Pictures
Chris Langham
Newsnight Review discussed George Orwell: A Life in Pictures.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

Alkarim, clearly television is always searching for new ways of doing things. And this is yet another way. It portrays his life, but do you feel you're with him?

Absolutely. To the extent that nowadays, from now on, if I see as a picture of George Orwell I'll think there's something wrong with him, because he doesn't look as much as Chris Langham as he ought to. And this is a triumph over the tyranny of television which says "no pictures, no programme". What they've done is they have taken something which was a problem, a necessity and turned it into a in into a new sub-genre. It's just wonderful stuff, and it operates on two levels, the very spirited documentary on Orwell, but its also a tribute to British documentary film making. So it begins with this wonderful pastiche of a programme called Face To Face, which had John Freeman, and the camera focused tight genre, I was going to say the interviewee, but you might say the victim was a better term. You never saw John Freeman himself. It goes on to pay tribute to news reels and propaganda films and expressionist shorts and most particularly the work of John Grierson who did this observational documentary film making. And in fact they take one of John Grierson's films, Coal Face, and actually literally insert George Orwell into the frame. And they have gone to a lot of trouble to get this absolutely right. Every scratch on the film, every hiss and tick on the soundtrack feels authentic, looks authentic. They have done that by actually feeding the film in by hand. I'm told that apparently there are five different kinds of jerk on this to keep the pacing of the film. I mean you know how old film tends to move about a bit, well they have done five different kinds of jerk to make sure that each jerk is particular to that particular kind of film making. This is really painstaking work and wonderful with it.

I thought this was breathtaking. I want everybody to see this, because it's so good. Yes I enjoyed it because Chris Langham is brilliant. The film maker made some fantastic choices about demonstrating that this man was both a brilliant journalist, writer, novelist, thinker, and also probably a complete jerk to live with. Because constantly his wife Eileen is in the back of the picture, watching him being interviewed, sighing, waiting for him to come home. Wishing he would stop talking. There's a kind of fantastic sub-life of domestic irritation going on, and I just thought it was wonderful.

I wasn't as overwhelmed actually and I think the problem I had is as much as it was a beautiful piece of embroidery and very interesting techniques in terms of the pastiche and the honouring of the past and obviously Langham is unbelievable and should get a Knighthood for it. And the words of Orwell are fabulous. What kept annoying me tremendously was the modern element of it. The actual modern element. The tedious rostrum movements that happen onto photographs. The beat of the narrative. The patronising way we're led into the story. It didn't have the vivid and the intellectual rigour that I would want to really celebrate Orwell in a modern way. So that started to annoy me slightly. It was just very, very tepid and a little bit too polite.

The narrator at one point says "well we're going to show you an expressionist film."

Absolutely drove me bonkers! I wanted to shoot the screen.

I'll tell you something that I thought was really good in terms of just going back to the content never mind the style for a minute. Which was that very early on in the film he talks about the fact that he wet the bed when he went to boarding school, and the tyranny of the nurse coming every day to inspect the bed.

But when he walked off with the teddy bear I could have shot the screen then.

That was a little bit pretentious, I do agree with that. But what I was going to say really was that you saw the determination to deal with tyranny came from a very personal, emotional place. And I thought that was a wonderful piece of investigation.


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