Wednesday August 16, 2017

The Orwell Tapes, Part 1

Steve Wadhams reveals the changes that Orwell made while editing 1984. 4:26

Listen to Full Episode 53:59

He was a brilliant, eccentric, complicated man; a colonial policeman, a critic and journalist, a dishwasher, a fighter in the Spanish civil war, a teacher and a shopkeeper - and one of the most influential writers of our time. His name was Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. Who was the man who gave us 'big brother', 'thoughtcrime', 'doublethink', whose name looms so large in this era of mass surveillance? Steve Wadhams delves into recordings he made with the people who knew Orwell from his earliest days to his final moments. Part 2 airs Wednesday August 23; Part 3 airs Wednesday August 30. **This episode originally aired April 4, 2016.


CBC is the only media organization with a comprehensive archive of recordings of people who knew George Orwell from his earliest days to his final moments.  There are fifty hours of recordings.  Some of this oral history was included in "George Orwell, A Radio Biography" which aired on CBC radio on January 1, 1984 - the first day of Orwell's famous year. But much of it is being aired now for the first time.  

1984 by George Orwell
Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed -- no escape.  "Big brother is watching you."

"Big brother is watching you" might be Orwell's most famous line from his most famous book -- 1984. But there are so many more.  

Lines about language: "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words" 

Lines about truth: "In time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act"

Lines about freedom: "If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they don't want to hear"

1984, Animal Farm, Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia – Orwell's account of the Spanish Civil war – that's an impressive list of books. It gets more impressive when you add his important essays, like Politics and the English Language:  

"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously and accepting both of them" 

One of the last things he wrote was a short entry in a notebook: "At fifty everyone has the face they deserve".

But Orwell didn't make it to fifty. He died from tuberculosis in a hospital bed. He was 46 years old.

For two years, during the second World War, Orwell was a producer at the BBC in London. But there are no known recordings of his voice. We know him through his writing and – as you'll hear – through the testimony of friends, critics and family members.    

Orwell was a very private man - skilled at keeping the people in his life in different compartments. Each had only part of the bigger picture.  To get that you have to piece together the memories and insights of many people. 

Orwell Tapes - Steve Wadhams

Producer Steve Wadhams (right) with associate producer Edward Trapunski (left). They worked together on "George Orwell: A Radio Biography". The series aired on January 1st, 1984. (CBC)

And in 1983, as Orwell's fateful year approached, it was still possible to do that. That summer CBC producer Steve Wadhams spent a couple of months travelling through England, Scotland and Spain – recording interviews with the people you'll hear in this series.

Part 1 of this 3-part series is called To Burma and Back. It's the story of how a child born Eric Blair became a man called George Orwell.  It's a journey from privilege to poverty - and it ends with a rising young writer finding the love he feared would always elude him.

Participants in this episode:

  • Jacintha Buddicom, childhood friend of Orwell (she knew him only by his real name Eric Blair)

  • Dennis Collings, friend of Orwell in Southwold.

  • Jack Denny, Orwell's tailor in Southwold.

  • Christopher Eastwood, went to Eton with Orwell.

  • Kay Ekevall, one of Orwell's girlfriends.

  • Adrian Fierz, son of Mabel Fierz.

  • ​Mabel Fierz, helped Orwell get his first book published.

  • Joan Mullock and Nancy Fox, knew Orwell in Southwold.

  • John Grotrian, was at Orwell's first school – St. Cyprian's.

  • Jon Kimche, worked with Orwell in London bookshop.

  • Jane Morgan, Orwell's niece.

  • Roger Mynors, knew Orwell at Eton.

  • Steven Runciman, knew Orwell at Eton.

  • Brenda Salkeld, teacher in Southwold.  Friend of Orwell.

  • Stephen Spender, became friend despite Orwell calling him a "parlour bolshevik and pansy poet".

  • Geoffrey Stevens, Orwell was his teacher at a small private school.
  • Julian Symons, friend.