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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 June 2003, 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK
Writer discovers 'first Orwell film'
By Nic Rigby
BBC News Online

Picture of George Orwell at Walberswick, Suffolk. Used by permission. From Orwell, The Life, by DJ Taylor
George Orwell on Walberswick beach, Suffolk, in 1932

The name George Orwell conjures up nightmare visions of 1984, thought crimes and Big Brother - before it became a gameshow.

As the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth approaches, biographer DJ Taylor believes he has found another side to the novelist.

Mr Taylor, a novelist himself and one of the judges of this year's Booker Prize, told BBC News Online he has found evidence of Orwell as a "ladies' man", as well as discovering what may turn out to be the first ever film footage of the author.

The Norwich-based writer said that since childhood Orwell had been his "most substantial literary hero".

"My fascination with Orwell goes back to when I was a teenage boy," he said.

"He was the first serious writer I found out about when I picked up a copy of a not particularly good novel A Clergyman's Daughter."

The novel is partly set in a fictionalised Southwold in Suffolk, where Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, spent part of the early 1930s and where his parents had a home.

George Orwell and Eleanor Jacques and a friend on Southwold beach. Used by permission. From Orwell, The Life, by DJ Taylor
George Orwell with friends at Southwold beach in 1932

"I get the impression that Orwell was a bit of a ladies' man. A pursuer of Southwold girlhood," said Mr Taylor.

"Another old lady I interviewed had been handed a poem by Orwell when she was 16-years-old.

"I also came across an elderly gentleman, George Summers, who had actually come to blows with Orwell over his fiancee on Southwold Common in the 1930s."

It is in film footage of the Southwold area that Mr Taylor may have made one of his most important discoveries.

Surprisingly, considering Orwell lived until 1950, there are thought to be no recordings of his voice or film footage of the novelist.

George Orwell in front of a BBC microphone.
Orwell gave a number of BBC radio talks but none of them were saved

But Mr Taylor believes his research at the East Anglian Film Archive in Norwich, has unearthed the first footage of George Orwell.

"We blew it up on a proper screen in a preview cinema. I didn't say anything, but the people who were there said 'God it looks like him'," he said.

"I'm about 80% to 90% certain we've got him on film for the first time.

"It's the circus coming in to Reydon (near Southwold) in 1930. There's traction engines coming down the high street and you suddenly see an intensely tall bloke with his hands in his pockets.

He was a toff and there was no way he could get away from it
DJ Taylor on Orwell

"He has very Orwell hair. His hair is distinctively Orwell, smoking a fag, just loitering down the high street. He comes into shot for two seconds and then wonders out of shot."

Despite many years of work on his book, Orwell: The Life, Mr Taylor still finds Orwell in some ways difficult to understand.

"I had always admired him, but I thought when I finished writing the book that I was further away from him because he is so weird in some ways and so manipulating," he said.

Mr Taylor said that Eton-educated Orwell often tried to reinvent himself and "mythologise his life".

David Buck as Winston Smith in the production of George Orwell's 1984
Orwell created Big Brother - not to be confused with the game show

"A friend of mine who knew Orwell as a kid of 20 was once in a pub with Orwell, and Orwell gave him a lecture saying: 'The thing is, Peter, you will never be accepted by the working classes if you speak in that way and wear that tie'.

"The publican immediately referred to Orwell as Sir and called Peter, Peter.

"He was a toff and there was no way he could get away from it."

Orwell last visited Southwold in 1939. "I think it is a marvellous Orwellian moment - the last time he went back," said Mr Taylor.

"His father died - they were reconciled before the end as his father had just read a favourable Sunday Times review of his book Coming Up For Air.

"In the fashion of the time they put a couple of copper pennies on his father's eyelids.

"After the funeral it didn't seem right just to put the coins in his pocket, so Orwell walked down to the front at Southwold and he just chucked them into the sea."

  • To commemorate the centenary of George Orwell's birth, biographer DJ Taylor will be at Ottakars Bookshop in Norwich on 25 June at 1900 BST. Tickets 2 from the shop.

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