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29 January 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:06pm

Meeting the “real” George Orwell

A new series of BBC radio programmes hope to introduce us to the man behind the stories.

By Antonia Quirke

A week of adaptations and essays about George Orwell, marking 70 years since his death, made me certain that after him the next good thing to happen to Britain was the Beatles. Nothing that came in between was so clear, or visionary. Comprising four episodic biographical dramas by Jonathan Holloway and Mike Walker, The Real George Orwell (20-23 January, 2:15pm) was patchy, yet addictive. The series followed incidents in Eric Blair’s life from killing an elephant to wrangling with lovers – all interrupted by Orwell (played by Joseph Millson) coughing, ominously.

Some lines were pretty terrible (“I’ve got a notion of writing… something about animals”). But the death of the elephant in the first episode, “Burma”, caught some spirit of Orwell’s famous essay on the incident – the spreading of colonial poison, the bloody awfulness, the infantilisation. And in the third episode, “Loving”, as Orwell and his future wife Eileen O’Shaughnessy stood flirting on the pavement (“Can I kiss you?” “Where?” “There.” “No.”) came a flicker of what Orwell did better than anybody: capturing the mindset of a past time. It’s incredibly difficult to really know what people felt in the past, but Orwell had an intuitive understanding of exactly what mattered (see the opening line of his essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”: “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me” – it’s so quintessentially 1941).

But, God, all the coughing made me sweat, as Orwell rolled and rolled his beloved black French tobacco. At one point, Millson did something exquisite – he turned a terrible cough into a laugh, as Eileen praised The Road to Wigan Pier, with its “poor men selling newspaper subscriptions and living off bacon fat”. All of Orwell’s works act as a reminder of how tough it was then; perpetually skint and ill, going home to water for dinner. How quickly one could be declassed. Nothing to do but sit in the dim light hiding from the landlady (Landladies! Orwell is obsessed by them). You really could feel that here. The grey, but seductive Keep the Aspidistra Flying air of terrible English food and buses and (no) change for the gas meter. I shivered and weakly cheered. 

The Real George Orwell
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out