George Orwell, described by John Humphreys as ‘the patron saint of the BBC’
Published: 30 August, 2012
Despite the ‘too left-wing’ row, Ben Whitaker tells GERALD ISAAMAN how plans for a statue to George Orwell are progressing
NEXT year, maybe. That’s the hope of Ben Whitaker, Hampstead’s first Labour MP, in his bid for a statue to go up in London in tribute to George Orwell, the iconic author of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
“There is tremendous enthusiasm and support for the statue across all the political parties and beyond because Orwell is so admired all round the world,” he told me.
“A meeting is now being arranged with Westminster Council by the BBC and the sculptor Martin Jennings to seek planning permission for the statue to go up in Portland Place itself, where it can be seen by everybody.
“So, with luck, it could happen next year.”
A row erupted when Dame Joan Bakewell revealed that Mark Thompson, the outgoing BBC director-general, had declared that Orwell was “too left-wing” for a statue to be erected in the newly extended BBC site off Portland Place.
Dame Joan, a supporter of the project, who lives in Primrose Hill, had mentioned it to Thompson at a reception earlier this year. And he responded: “Oh no, Joan, we can’t possibly. It’s far too left-wing an idea.”
But they both appear somewhat out of touch with the latest development of the Orwell Memorial Trust project, initially launched two years ago by Ben Whitaker, who lives in Adamson Road, Swiss Cottage, with his Labour peeress wife, Janet.
Indeed, Hampstead has considerable links with Orwell, who wrote his second novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, while working at Booklovers’ Corner, in Pond Street, where a now-damaged plaque to Orwell was erected on the initiative of Whitaker, the late Hampstead bookseller Ian Norrie and me when I was editor of the Ham & High.
There is plaque too at the house in Parliament Hill where Orwell lived for a short time in the 1930s and where he met his first wife, Eileen.
TB victim Orwell died in University College Hospital, St Pancras, in 1950, aged only 46, and it was his then widow, Sonia, who unveiled the plaque at my invitation.
Now Whitaker has amassed a fund of £90,000 to pay his chosen sculptor, Martin Jennings – creator of the applauded John Betjeman statue at St Pancras International – and the casting costs for an Orwell statue.
Already he has the agreement of Orwell’s adopted son, Richard Blair, who grew up in Islington.
There is also a magical cast list of contributors to the cause, among them former BBC director general Christopher Bland, Lord Waldegrave, Christopher Tugendhat, Ken Follett, Andrew Marr, James Naughtie, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Ian McEwan, Lord Rothschild, Lord Kinnock, and local residents such as the BBC’s official historian Professor Jean Seaton, Arts Council chairman Dame Liz Forgan, playwright David Hare, plus John le Carré.
“Le Carré suggested we demolished the London statues of old fogeys and used the bronze for the Orwell statue,” said Whitaker. “John Humphreys described Orwell as the patron saint of the BBC. And Tories support it because Orwell was such an anti-Communist.”
Orwell, aka Eric Blair, was part of the Eastern Service talks team at the BBC for two years from 1941, and based Room 101 in Nineteen Eighty-Four on the conference room at Broadcasting House, as well as creating Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth (ie, propaganda).
That is why Whitaker earmarked the New Broadcasting House piazza as the site for a statue. But Mark Pimlott’s major work, called World, is already the main feature there.
This dilemma resulted in the BBC reluctantly turning down the original request and also a suggestion of putting the Orwell statue inside the building – because it feared demands for other famous broadcasters to be similarly honoured, though Orwell has amazingly sold more books than any other 20th-century author.
“The BBC has been sympathetic to the cause; Lord Patten, the chairman, an admirer of the idea,” added Whitaker, who was a minister in Harold Wilson’s second Labour government.
“With their support we can now go to Westminster Council and seek consent for the statue to go up in Portland Place. But we will need to raise another £20,000 to pay for the plinth and the cost of the planning consent – hopefully one hit from some generous benefactor.”
Even Eton College, where both Orwell and Whitaker were pupils, is playing a role in the project.
“Orwell was always my hero at Eton, he and Shelley,” he recalled. “He is such a marvellous example of honesty and integrity in writing. Animal Farm is my favourite book, a classic that is there to be read for all time.
“I wish Orwell was here with us now, to hear his views on the mess that we are in, the media and the evidence of the Leveson inquiry. We need heroes like Orwell but there aren’t any with his vision in the world today.”