A Look Back: British Intel Animal Farm Comic Strip

From The National Archives of the UK:

George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, first published on [August 17] 75 years ago in 1945, is a work familiar to many. The fable (or ‘fairy story’ as Orwell described it) of a gang of animals who take over their farm, overthrowing the cruel Farmer Jones, only to end up in an even more brutal state of slavery under the new regime, is a standard part of the school curriculum. As a satire on Soviet Communism, it is famous. The story of ‘Animal Farm’ gained even wider currency through an animated film version in 1954 by Halas and Bachelor.

But did you know that, before the film materialised, a cartoon strip version had been created? This was at the instigation of the Information Research Department (IRD), a department of the Foreign Office set up to counter Soviet propaganda.

The plan was to tell the story ‘in approximately 78 cartoons, each cartoon containing three or four panels. Thus, if the feature were run by a daily paper, it would take about 13 weeks to tell the whole story’.

One of our files contains some very interesting correspondence which is illuminating about the production process for the strip cartoon. It is correspondence between Mr Lt. Col. Leslie Sheridan of the IRD, Don Freeman, an artist who lived in East Grinstead who provided the ‘roughs’ of the drawings, and the cartoonist Norman Pett who lived in Crawley (who produced the final versions of the cartoons).


Aside: Norman Pett is known to me as the creator of Jane,
“one of the most infamous erotic comics of the 20th century.”


Back to The National Archives:

The IRD clearly recognised the value of Orwell’s story: from their perspective, it was a powerful instrument in the Cold War: ‘this work has been translated into many languages, and has proved to be not only a best seller, but also a most effective propaganda weapon, because of its skilful combination of simplicity, subtlety and humour’. The IRD contacted the international network of Information Officers to encourage them to secure publication of the cartoon strip in a newspaper in their territory.

By April 1951, with the cartoon strips completed, the IRD contacted their network of Information Officers across the world, from Asmara (Eritrea) to Tokyo, encouraging them to do all they could to secure publication in a newspaper in their territory, and this endeavour met with a good measure of success, judging from reports in FO 1110/392.

Mark Dutton writes the article for The National Archives.

Josh Saunders, for the Express, gives a bit more insight.

[Animal Farm] tells the tale of Middle White boar Old Major and his companions’ rebellion against alcoholic Farmer Jones – in their bid to create a free, equal and happy society. But the revolt is betrayed by Napoleon, a Berkshire boar, and the story concludes with the animals living as slaves under their new regime. The book reflects the 1917 Russian Revolution that saw Joseph Stalin rise to power under Soviet Communism.


About that 1954 animated film mentioned above:

Eventually Dyer was taken over by John Halas and Joy Batchelor’s animation studio. In 1954 they directed an animated adaptation of George Orwell’s famous satirical novel ‘Animal Farm’. The picture was notable for being the first feature-length animated film made on British soil. It also aimed at an adult audience, rather than children.

Apart from working on the film itself, [Harold] Whitaker also drew a comic strip adaptation of the film, which was published in many British regional papers to co-incide with the movie’s premier.

Unbeknownst to most of the animators the project was financed by the C.I.A., who liked its criticism of Stalinism.

Of course by the time of these comic strips political cartoons had, for a hundred years, proven their effectiveness in promoting ideas and propaganda.

Further reading: CIA and The Media