Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 3 May 2017


A Return to Orwell's Café

There was very little on the board to play with
apart from love.
She'd used him before but never to any great effect.
He was always last to go.

The glasses were still empty.
There was no meaning left to it all
as I peered in the window.

6 April 1991

This is a follow-on to ‘Orwell’s Café’ (#592). When I wrote this I was thinking about the scene in the final chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four:
The Chestnut Tree was almost empty. A ray of sunlight slanting through a window fell on dusty table-tops. It was the lonely hour of fifteen. A tinny music trickled from the telescreens. Winston sat in his usual corner, gazing into an empty glass. Now and again he glanced up at a vast face which eyed him from the opposite wall. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption said. Unbidden, a waiter came and filled his glass up with Victory Gin, shaking into it a few drops from another bottle with a quill through the cork. It was saccharine flavoured with cloves, the speciality of the café.
A waiter, again unbidden, brought the chessboard and the current issue of The Times, with the page turned down at the chess problem. Then, seeing that Winston's glass was empty, he brought the gin bottle and filled it. There was no need to give orders. They knew his habits. The chessboard was always waiting for him, his corner table was always reserved; even when the place was full he had it to himself, since nobody cared to be seen sitting too close to him.
This is where Michael Radford’s film adaptation (staring John Hurt), the extremely popular 1954 BBC version (staring Peter Cushing) and the 1956 adaptation (staring Edmond O'Brien) all differ from the novel. In the book as Winston’s sitting alone in the café he remembers his last meeting with Julia is in “the Park”:
He had seen her; he had even spoken to her. There was no danger in it. He knew as though instinctively that they now took almost no interest in his doings. He could have arranged to meet her a second time if either of them had wanted to. Actually it was by chance that they had met. It was in the Park, on a vile, biting day in March, when the earth was like iron and all the grass seemed dead and there was not a bud anywhere except a few crocuses which had pushed themselves up to be dismembered by the wind. He was hurrying along with frozen hands and watering eyes when he saw her not ten metres away from him. It struck him at once that she had changed in some ill-defined way. They almost passed one another without a sign, then he turned and followed her, not very eagerly. He knew that there was no danger, nobody would take any interest in him. She did not speak. She walked obliquely away across the grass as though trying to get rid of him, then seemed to resign herself to having him at her side. Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection from the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm round her waist.
The 1956 film comes the closest but you’d hardly call the setting a park—just a few isolated trees and benches (more of a garden than a park)—although it is March and so you’d expect it to be bare. In this version Winston finds himself in the park and notices Julia sitting by a tree. So it’s very much an accidental encounter.  
The 1954 version is set in the café. Julia’s already seated when Winston arrives and is shown to her table as if he’s been expected but he's surprised to see her there. No chess set and the waiter’s a bit too chatty for my taste. In this version the couple both look as if they’ve been through the mill; Winston walks with a limp and Julia seems like she’s aged twenty years.
In the 1984 adaptation—what most people regard as the definitive version—it’s Winston who’s in the café with a chess set in front of him when Julia arrives. He thanks her for coming and so clearly he’s gone out of his way to make contact. That bothers me because although they talk about meeting again we know (and they know) they never will, not purposefully in any case, so the idea that he’s arranged a reunion doesn’t quite work.
I can understand why scriptwriters do what they do—their time’s limited—and so we shouldn’t be surprised when they try to do two things at once but what’s missing from them all films is Winston’s sudden and urgent need to get back to the café:
He was overwhelmed by a desire not so much to get away from Julia as to get back to the Chestnut Tree Cafe, which had never seemed so attractive as at this moment. He had a nostalgic vision of his corner table, with the newspaper and the chessboard and the everflowing gin. Above all, it would be warm in there. The next moment, not altogether by accident, he allowed himself to become separated from her by a small knot of people. He made a half-hearted attempt to catch up, then slowed down, turned, and made off in the opposite direction. When he had gone fifty metres he looked back. The street was not crowded, but already he could not distinguish her. Any one of a dozen hurrying figures might have been hers. Perhaps her thickened, stiffened body was no longer recognizable from behind.
I can imagine Hurt acting the above scene and I’m a little sad it was lost even if I do understand why.

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