Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Big Brother telescreen for sale in London - expected to fetch more than 5000 pounds at auction.

An historic piece of television gear is coming up for auction this month in London. The earliest surviving British television set, it has a 12 inch B&W screen and a hardwood table top cabinet. In order to get a true image, the picture was reflected off a mirror set in the top of the wooden lid. In late 1936, when this TV receiver was purchased, there was one channel available in London, and that for only one hour per day. When war was declared in September 1939, BBC television was switched off. Broadcasts only resumed in June 1946. By then George Orwell had pondered the potential of television and how quickly the technology would seep into every home. In his chilling novel Nineteen Eighty-four, automobiles have no role in people's lives and are virtually absent, but the telescreen is ubiquitous and a vital instrument of government repression. This is a 1936 Marconi Model 702. It was purchased new for just under 100 British pounds. It has had two owners, and has been kept repaired and in full working order for 75 years. The set predates George Orwell's two-way, wall mounted telescreens by twelve years. It will be auctioned by Bonhams and is expected to sell for over 5000 pounds.

At the time this television set was sold, George Orwell was involved in the Spanish Civil War, where he learned the true nature of communist and fascist ideology and witnessed their competition for a mass audience. It was also in Spain where Orwell was shot by a sniper; a nasty bit of life experience which few urban wordsmiths manage to pick up. During WW2 Orwell wrote for and read on air for the B.B.C., England's government broadcaster. All of his scripts were filtered by censors, every word and phrase having to be checked for security reasons and for his adherence to official policy. It is no accident that Orwell's literary masterpiece is a story which tells us we are doomed if we let governments mess with our language and set the narrative.

In the grim novel Winston Smith sits in a shallow alcove, to hide his first act of defiance against Big Brother - writing in a diary. Of course he must conceal himself from the telescreen, which is both a viewer and a surveillance camera. Nineteen Eighty-four has been filmed many times, but no director has ever thought it necessary to recreate the alcove, or to illustrate Orwell's point that much can be deduced from body language and posture.

One of the great ironies of modern political literature is that television, as an instrument of repression, is identified with the British, and not with Stalin's Russia or Nazi Germany. This is largely do to the power and worldwide influence of Orwell's dystopian novel. It is also a fact that while the Nazis used television to spread propaganda, they never considered it as a tool of surveillance, as it certainly became and still is used in England. There is no question that television became more advanced in Germany during WW2 while the Brits had their transmitters turned off. The German people were still able to watch television programs in their homes until 1944, at which time the Allies began crossing their borders. Hundreds of hours of Nazi television news and dramas still exist, and a sampling is available on Youtube here.

No comments: