Untrue Stories

4. How a Nation Is Exploited

Episode Summary

How a power-crazed junta of 20th-century dystopian authors overthrew Western democracy — and what went wrong.

Episode Notes

How a power-crazed junta of 20th-century dystopian authors overthrew Western democracy — and what went wrong. 

In the fourth exciting instalment of the time-travelling adventures of George Orwell and H. G. Wells, 1984's Big Brother himself has appeared before our heroes to relate the story of his rise to power at the head of a team of dystopian visionaries — Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley and Yevgeny Zamyatin. 



Zamyatin's We, often credited as the inspiration for dystopia as a modern genre, is in the public domain and you can find an English translation at Project Gutenberg. Huxley claimed not to have read We before he wrote Brave New World. Orwell definitely read both. Huxley really was Orwell's French teacher at Eton. 

The Oceanian National Anthem, Oceania, 'Tis For Thee, with lyrics extrapolated by Robin to the tune of The Internationale, can be heard on our soundcloud, sung by several of Robin and two of Eve. 

While this episode was in production, the US Supreme Court struck down the federally protected right to abortion. This directly endangers and removes bodily autonomy from tens of millions of Americans, and sets a terrifying example for the rest of the world. Of all the dystopian novels discussed in the episode, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is now the most horribly relevant. Untrue Stories is free, but if you've enjoyed it as much as something you'd pay a few dollars for, you could donate those dollars to an organisation like the National Network of Abortion Funds, and/or perhaps to an organisation that will help the queer and trans people whose rights the Court has more or less promised to dismantle next. (You can even make those donations if you haven't enjoyed the show.) Love and anger. 

2022-07-27: This episode has been updated to adjust volume levels.

A transcript of this episode is available here.

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Robin can be contacted at robindouglasjohnson@gmail.com. Share and Enjoy!

Episode Transcription

VOICEOVER: The story you are about to hear is untrue. All characters and events portrayed are fictitious, especially the real ones, and any resemblance to actual persons is a lucky guess.

[Theme music starts]

VOICEOVER: Previously, on Untrue Stories...

WELLS: Ah, you feel that? That’s the future changing.

JULIA: I'm in rags! What’s this on my nose?

[FX: twang!]

JULIA: Ow! It’s a safety pin.

WELLS: And your hair! It’s green!

[FX: sci-fi "time travel arrival" noise]

RUTHERFORD: Deputy Chief Rutherford, Thought Police, Temporal Division. Who controls the time machines controls the past.

[FX: time travel arrival noise. Pneumatic pump.]

ORWELL: Wells... did a large iron lung just materialise in the room?

BIG BROTHER: [Voice of ORWELL, through a Darth Vader-esque voicebox] My name is Big Brother.

WELLS: George! It’s you!


VOICEOVER: Untrue Stories. Season One: The Adventures of George Orwell and H. G. Wells. Episode Four: How a Nation Is Exploited.

[Theme music stops.

FX: Pneumatic pump]

BIG BROTHER: Now. I expect you’re wondering why I’ve come back here.

WELLS: No, I don’t think we’ve got to that yet. We’re still wondering why the future overlord of a third of the world happens to be a geriatric version of George here.

ORWELL: I’m not. What? I clearly deserve it.

BIG BROTHER: Shut up, George. God, I used to be arrogant.

ORWELL: Of course I’m arrogant. I’m right all the time.

BIG BROTHER: Well, I’m telling the story anyway.

JULIA: But Wells and I changed the future again, didn’t we? Why did my clothes change?

RUTHERFORD: You’re a punk.

JULIA: And you’re an arsehole, copper.

RUTHERFORD: No, you’re a punk rocker. It was a brief anti-establishment music and fashion movement in the original timeline. They made some good tunes. Forty years later they’re all on Question Time defending the oppressors. But it’s just a ripple. Like I said, we placed chronometric anchors. You’ll be back in your overalls any second now.

[FX. Brief sci-fi "time ripple" noise]

RUTHERFORD: There you go.

JULIA: At least it’s more comfortable. And I’ve got my hair back.

BIG BROTHER: I’m trying to tell a story here.

JULIA: Grandad... you died.

BIG BROTHER: No, dear. I’m dying. I’ve got a short temporal window before this modified iron lung pings me back to 1984, then I’ll snuff it in your arms and you can cremate me all over again. So if nobody minds, I’d like to get on with the story. And pay attention, because there are going to be time skips.

It started thirty-five years ago for me. I remember it as if it was yesterday, because it was. I’d just finished my manuscript...

[FX: Pneumatic pump fades out]

WELLS: Probably best pop it in the post before you forget, eh?

ORWELL: You’re absolutely right, Wells. Care to accompany me to the pillar-box?

WELLS: You go alone, old boy. I’ll stay here and recuperate. Just had a bit of a bumpy bike-ride. Off you go.

[FX: Door opens and closes.]

WELLS: [Fading] Safe walking. Try not to doom any worlds.

[FX: Rain and distant bagpipes, continuing for the rest of the scene]

ORWELL: What a day. I’ve got the century’s greatest novel in my pocket, it’s blowing a gale and –

[FX. Wind picks up for a moment. Rustle of papers.]

ORWELL: – oh, balls! Oh well, fortunately all the pages have been blown into that one tree... what a day.

[FX. Footsteps on tree branches, rustling of leaves]

ORWELL: What a tree. Here’s page 1... “It was a bright cold day in April and the... the clocks were striking thirteen”? I don’t remember writing that. It’s good though. Maybe I did. Hm. Here’s page two... “The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.” I’m sure I wrote fondue and prawn cocktails. This is pretty good though... page three...

[FX. More climbing, paper ruffling. Background noise fades out and back in to indicate passage of time]

ORWELL: ...page ninety-five...  page two hundred and ninety-eight... I certainly don’t remember this bit with the rat. Ugh.

[FX. Time travel noise]

RUTHERFORD: That’s my favourite bit.

ORWELL: Oh, hello, didn’t see you there.

RUTHERFORD: Who, me? I was just... birdwatching.

ORWELL: What bird?

RUTHERFORD: Er... that one.

ORWELL: Where?

RUTHERFORD: Down there?

ORWELL: What, the pigeon eating out of the bin?

RUTHERFORD: Yeah. I mean, it may look like a pigeon but it’s a rare lesser spotted... rarey-bird. Disguises itself as a pigeon so as not to tip off predators.

ORWELL: What predators?

RUTHERFORD: Oh, you know, tigers and that.

ORWELL: I wasn’t aware there were many tigers in the Inner Hebrides.

RUTHERFORD: Well, they don’t exactly advertise it. Wouldn’t be great for the tourist trade, would it?

ORWELL: And you climbed the tree to watch it? Even though it’s clearly some distance from the tree and I can’t help noticing a lack of binoculars.

RUTHERFORD: That’s right. But while I’m here, can I help you gather up your manuscript pages? Saw your little mishap there.

[FX: Paper rustling]

ORWELL: That’s the thing. I’m not certain this is my manuscript.

RUTHERFORD: Now look, Big – Mr Orwell.

ORWELL: How d’you know my name?

RUTHERFORD: I’m a fan. Loved all your other books. What was that one about the pigs or aspidistras or whatever. [More seriously] I’m not exaggerating when I say, your writing changed my world.

ORWELL: Well, er, thank you.

RUTHERFORD: Now, what’s this nonsense about this not being your manuscript?

ORWELL: Well, I wrote a book about the year 1984.

RUTHERFORD: And this is a book about the year 1984.

ORWELL: Yes, but it’s a different one. I said it’d be all rampant capitalism. This is about an authoritarian communist superstate. I said we’d be wearing garish tracksuits. The characters in here dress more like – you.

RUTHERFORD: Isn’t it much of a muchness? I mean, state tyranny, market tyranny? When the boots are stamping on your face, it’s all the same whether they’re made by Hugo Boss or a commercial brand, right?

ORWELL: No. No, that’s what Jean-Pierre Faye called horseshoe theory, and I call –

RUTHERFORD: Horseshit theory.

ORWELL: Yes. How did you know?

RUTHERFORD: Well, partly because it’s a bit obvious, but – also because I know you, Mr Orwell. In fact, you’re sort of a big brother to me.


[FX: time travel noise]



RUTHERFORD: Watch this.

[FX: time travel noise, a few tones higher]

ORWELL: What the –

RUTHERFORD: I’m not a birdwatcher, Mr Orwell. I’m a time traveller.



RUTHERFORD: This manuscript. It’s your name on the front, isn’t it?

ORWELL: Well, yes.

RUTHERFORD: And you may not remember writing them, but... they’re your words. You can tell that.

ORWELL: Yes. It’s hard to describe. Reading it – I’ve never seen these words before but it felt like I should have written it. Like it was written by a better version of me. A more mature version of me.

RUTHERFORD: That’s because it was. With a bit of a help. It’s a long story. Actually, it’s not that long. You get old. You write it with your granddaughter. She brings it back here.

ORWELL: I don’t have a granddaughter. I don’t even have a daughter.

RUTHERFORD: Mr Orwell, this is the book you’re supposed to write. Now let’s get it back in the envelope –

[FX: Paper rustling]

RUTHERFORD: – and get it posted. We will meet again –

ORWELL: -- in the place where there is no darkness?

RUTHERFORD: No. In your cottage, tomorrow. I’ll be trying to arrest Wells. That one really is a long story. But you’d better act like you don’t recognise me, ’cause this bit here won’t have happened yet, for me. Causality can be a dick.

[FX. Time travel noise.]

ORWELL: Hang on, you couldn't give me a hand out of this tr–

[FX. Branch breaking. Grassy thump.]

ORWELL: Ow! [Sigh] What a day.

[FX. Rain and bagpipes fade out.

Pneumatic pump fades in.]

BIG BROTHER: So, I sent in the manuscript and the book was a hit. But as the years passed, I saw it was inaccurate. Oh, I’d got a few details right. The normalisation of lying. Television. Surveillance. Bad pens. But communism went out of fashion when the first generation of dictators started to die. Tyranny wasn’t coming from that direction. And by the sixties – well, there may not have been any puffball skirts or synthpop yet, but I could see which way the wind was blowing. My original manuscript had been right. A woman I met in a tree had robbed me of becoming the next Nostradamus.

RUTHERFORD: Had my reasons, sir.

BIG BROTHER: And if there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s being wrong. So I decided to fix it. I decided to go into politics.

ORWELL: I run for office?

BIG BROTHER: No, you stupid boy, you don’t have to run for office. You went to Eton! You make a few phonecalls and you walk into office.

[FX: pneumatic pump fades out.

Ambient noise of a pub – glasses clinking, inaudible chatter – fades in, accompanied by 1960s style background music, an arrangement of the Untrue Stories theme tune on bouzouki and ocarina.]

ORWELL: Mr Huxley. Mr Huxley! Over here!

ALDOUS HUXLEY: [Upperclass English accent] Hello. Blair, isn’t it?

ORWELL: It’s George Orwell now.

HUXLEY: As-tu pratiqué ton Français?

ORWELL: [Slowly, with poor pronunciation] Je m’apelle Eric. J’ai dix ans.

HUXLEY: Well, you can’t teach them all. What on earth did you call me for, after all these years? Not help with your homework.

ORWELL: It’s about your book. Brave New World.

HUXLEY: What, the one you copied?

ORWELL: I didn’t copy it. Might have referenced it a bit.

HUXLEY: Oh yes? Like you used to ‘reference’ Cyril Connolly’s test answers? Common trope, is it? Boy in dystopian society meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets tortured by mentor figure...

ORWELL: Aldous Huxley, meet Yevgeny Zamyatin. I believe you may have read his book, We.

YEVGENY ZAMYATIN: (Russian accent) I believe you both steal my We.

HUXLEY: Er, well...

ORWELL: Of course we all draw ideas from the, er –

HUXLEY: I mean, there are only six basic plots –

ORWELL: Cultural zeitgeist, you know –

HUXLEY: Everyone makes their cake from the same ingredients.

ORWELL: Are there any truly original ideas? I mean –

HUXLEY: Great minds and all that.

ORWELL: Great minds think alike.

HUXLEY: Hang on, haven’t you been dead for thirty years?

ORWELL: And this is Ray Bradbury –

RAY BRADBURY: [American accent] Howdy.

ORWELL: And Margaret Atwood.

MARGARET ATWOOD: [Canadian accent] This place is so retro.

HUXLEY: And...?

RUTHERFORD: Don’t mind me, I’m just what you might call the designated driver.

ORWELL: Now, I’ve brought you all here because I think we have something in common, something we don’t like to talk about, but something that I think it’s fairly important we do talk about. I’ll start. My name is George. [Pause.] And I wrote a dystopian novel that turned out to be broadly inaccurate.


ORWELL: Well, according to my predictions, we should have had a nuclear war and a few Great Purges by now. According to yours, Aldous, we should be cloning babies in test tubes. Ray, in Fahrenheit 451 you said we’d be burning all books. Margaret, in The Handmaid’s Tale, you said –

ATWOOD: Actually, I think I might be winning.

ORWELL: All right, well, your book has a lot of applicability, I’ll grant you. They all do. But the details –

HUXLEY: It’s not about the details. We all wrote great books. They don’t have to be perfect in every detail.

ORWELL: And what if they could be?

ATWOOD: Then we’d be living in hell.

ORWELL: But we’d have been right about it.

[FX: Time travel noise]



ZAMYATIN: Bozhe zh ty moy!

BRADBURY: What in the blue blazes?

ORWELL: Rutherford, show these people your party trick.


[FX: Higher time travel noise.]




BRADBURY: Holy Martian Chronicles!

ORWELL: My friend Rutherford is a time traveller.


HUXLEY: Really?



ORWELL: She’s from a future that is very much like all of our predictions, and all of you can help build that future. Now she and I have been working on this for some years. Between us, we’ve got influence. She has a personal time machine and infallible knowledge of the future, and I went to Eton. But we need more than political pull and money and time travel. We need visionaries. People at the top who really want this to happen.

ATWOOD: I don’t want it to happen! That’s why I wrote it!

ZAMYATIN: How’s that working out?

BRADBURY: This is nuts. If my future comes true, they’ll burn all our books anyway. And then I’ll say I told ’em so.

HUXLEY: [Chuckling] We’ll all say we told ’em so.


ORWELL: So, esteemed writers of speculative political fiction... do you want a few people to read your books, put them down, and years later when some government in real life does something a bit like something in your plot, they might think “This is almost like that novel I read once”? Do you want to maybe tell a few cautionary tales and hold off humanity’s worst impulses for a decade or two before they forget you ever warned them?

Or do you want everyone to know you were right?


ATWOOD: Keep talking.

[FX. Pub noise and music fades out.

Pneumatic pump fades in]

BIG BROTHER: And from there, it was easy. A few nights spent getting drunk with the right students at Oxford and we had blackmail material on every future leader. By the next election cycle...

[FX. Pneumatic pump fades out.

Click of a button. Radio static fades in.

BBC ANNOUNCER: [Passable impression of Sir David Frost, with an AM radio effect] Sir Archibald Fearmley-Grippet, Conservative, one hundred and eighty-two seats.

[Polite applause on the radio.

Volume of the radio fades down; the ANNOUNCER continues reciting numbers, which BRADBURY and ORWELL speak over]

BRADBURY: I got my guys in place, sir. If this doesn’t go to plan, we can take power by force, you know that.

ORWELL: Hold off your dogs, Bradbury.

[Radio fades back up]

BBC ANNOUNCER: And the newcomer, George Arthur Orwell, English Socialist and Totalitarian Party... fourteen million, fifty-eight thousand, one hundred and eighteen votes, three hundred and thirty-two seats.

[FX: Loud applause and cheering on radio]

BBC ANNOUNCER: A surprise landslide victory for the Ingsoc party. We’ll now go over to our Westminster correspondent, who appears to be being arrested.

[FX. Button click. Radio static and dialogue stops.]

BRADBURY: I’m almost disappointed.

ORWELL: Democracy is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? A boot stamping on a human face forever, while the liberal press prints an editorial about the need to compromise with the boot’s very real concerns. Save your army for America. I can’t see them applying to rejoin the British Empire any time soon.

BRADBURY: Oh, we got America already, sir. Had a bunch of militia storm the Capitol last night. Atwood’s over there now. They do whatever she says, as long as it’s terrible.

ORWELL: Excellent. Huxley, draft me a Constitution. I want that election to have been the last. Bradbury, take out the monarchy. From now on, total power vests in this cabinet.

BRADBURY: You got it, prime minister.

ORWELL: One more thing. “Prime minister”? I don’t think I like that title. If I’m going to be dictator I need something... familial, but also threatening. Like, er, Il Duce or Uncle Joe.

HUXLEY: Well, as a teacher I had my share of nicknames, but I don’t think you’d like them.

ORWELL: Hm. Had any nicknames, Bradbury?

BRADBURY: Well, my big brother used to call me Poopnose.

ORWELL: That’s it!

BRADBURY: I’m not sure I see it working on the posters, sir. “Poopnose is Watching You."

ORWELL: No, not Poopnose, the other thing you said. Big Brother.

HUXLEY: (Thoughtfully) “Big Brother is watching you.”

BRADBURY: I like it!

[FX: pneumatic pump fades in]

BIG BROTHER: Our power was absolute and eternal. For about two and a half years.

[FX: pneumatic pump fades out.

Music fades in: a slightly 'radio'-distorted orchestral version of The Internationale. Over it are barely-audible speech-synthesised directives such as "times 3-6-68 chocoration malreported rectify". The music and directives continue throughout the scene.]

ORWELL: So we’ve agreed to cut the chocolate ration by 20 grams, tell them we’ve raised it by 30, and eat the surplus ourselves. Any other matters arising? No? Then this meeting of the People’s Glorious Board of Dictatorship is hereby –

[FX. Click of a pistol being readied]

BRADBURY: I’m afraid I have to raise a point of order, Big Brother.

ORWELL: What are you doing?

BRADBURY: I believe it’s called a coop-dee-tat, sir.

HUXLEY: Coup-d’etat.

ORWELL: Security!

[FX: single tramp of ironshod boots]

ORWELL: Shoot Minister Bradbury immediately.

[FX. Several rifles being readied]

ORWELL: Oh, bollocks.

BRADBURY: Nothing personal, sir. Happens to the best of ’em eventually. Caesar, Stalin. You’re in good company. Bag him. Take him away.

[FX: rustle of a canvas bag. Struggling.]

ORWELL: [Muffled] You know they’ll come for you next, Bradbury. Once this starts, we all go down like dominoes.

[FX: thump]


[Violent thumps and ORWELL's muffled cries of pain continue in the background]

BRADBURY: I don’t think so. I have the complete confidence of the military, and –

[FX. Pistol being readied]

ATWOOD: Point of order.

BRADBURY: Oh, shit.

ATWOOD: Did you bring another bag?

SECURITY GUARD: [Female, English accent] Yes, ma'am.

[FX. Canvas rustling. Scuffling.]


ATWOOD: Good. Take them both away.

GUARD: Yes, Big... Sister?

ATWOOD: I think I prefer... Aunt.

[FX. Background music picks up – dropping the 'radio' effect and newspeak directives – into the rousing finale of The Internationale, against which the sounds of scuffling and violence, and screams from both ORWELL and BRADBURY, increase.]

BRADBURY: [Muffled, distant, becoming more and more frightened] Get your goddamn hands off me... wh– what do you think you’re doing? What’s going on?

GUARD: [Distant] Let's go.

BRADBURY: [Muffled, distant] What's going on?

ORWELL: [Distant, sobbing] I never thought the boot... would stamp... on my face!

[The music finishes on a rousing crescendo.

Helicopter noise fades in.]

ORWELL: (Muffled) Where are you taking us? Untie me.

RUTHERFORD: Can’t do that just yet, sir.

ORWELL: Rutherford?

RUTHERFORD: Only doing my job.

ORWELL: I want a lawyer!

RUTHERFORD: Well, maybe you should have thought of that before you had them all executed.

ORWELL: Oh, yeah. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Still does, to be honest.

[FX: the helicopter blades slow down and stop]

RUTHERFORD: We’re here.

ORWELL: Where?

[FX: rain and distant bagpipes]

RUTHERFORD: The Island of Jura. I’ve seen worse places to retire. Your face will remain on the posters, ’cause it’s nice to have a figurehead, but you are no longer personally involved in the front line of Oceanian politics. Men! Unload the prisoner.

[FX. Tramp of ironshod boots. Rustle of a canvas bag]

ORWELL: [No longer muffled] Hm.

RUTHERFORD: And the other one.

[FX. More boots, rustling]

ORWELL: Well, Bradbury, this is a fine mess you’ve –

[FX: Canvas rustle]

ORWELL: You're not Bradbury. I thought you were dead.

RUTHERFORD: Enjoy exile, you two. Bear in mind your sentences could be commuted to execution at any time, so do not attempt to contact anybody on the mainland. Move out!

[FX. Tramp of boots. Just before they fade out, the sound of glass breaking, and:]

POLICEMAN: Where d'you even find that window? 

[FX. Helicopter starts, gets louder, then fades away]

ORWELL: Wells?

WELLS: Hello, George.

ORWELL: But it’s been thirty years.

WELLS: We have unfinished business, you and I.

[FX: Thunder rolls. Rain fades out.

Instead of the usual end theme music, we hear a choral anthem to the tune of The Internationale, backed by the same orchestral recording used in the episode:]

CHOIR: O glorious state of Oceania,
Thy people resolute and bold!
We seethe with patriotic mania
And we do as we are told!

Imbued with brilliance and brave'ry
Across thy width and breadth and length;
Where war is peace and freedom's slavery
And our ignorance is strength!

We're at war with Eurasia/Eastasia [several voices sing each word]
And so we've always been;
How do we know? It tells us so
Upon the telescreen!

VOICEOVER: [Over the music] Untrue Stories: The Adventures of George Orwell and H. G. Wells was written and produced by Robin Johnson, and starred Robin Johnson as George Orwell, Patrick Spragg as H. G. Wells, Tara Court as Julia, Liselle Nic Giollabhain as Deputy Chief Rutherford, Simon Beck as Aldous Huxley, Alex Walsh as Yevgeny Zamyatin and the BBC Announcer, David Court as Ray Bradbury, Alex Noussias as Margaret Atwood, and Eve Morris as the security guard. Sound effects were sourced from freesound dot org. Oceania, ’Tis For Thee was performed by the Airstrip One Mandatory Spontaneous Choir and accompanied by an unattributed public-domain recording of The Internationale. Abortion is a human right and I am certain that the real Margaret Atwood would much rather have been a lot more wrong.

[The anthem concludes:]

CHOIR: Oceania is noble!
Oceania is free!
With loyal salutes, we lick thy boots;
Oceania, 'tis for thee!


Script by Robin Johnson (c) 2022. No reproduction without permission.