Director’s odyssey over George Orwell’s wife

SEARCHING ... Eileen O'Shaughnessy, filmmaker Gary Wilkinson and, inset, the house in Beach Road where she once lived.
SEARCHING ... Eileen O'Shaughnessy, filmmaker Gary Wilkinson and, inset, the house in Beach Road where she once lived.

A FILMMAKER’S international pilgrimage to re-tell the story of the South Shields-born wife of writer George Orwell is nearing its end.

Gary Wilkinson has travelled to Barcelona in Spain in his attempt to uncover more about Eileen O’Shaughnessy, the woman who deeply influenced the writer of 1984 and Animal Farm.

He’s also filmed at Parliament Hill in London and is soon to complete his journey with trips to both Oxford and New York.

And a real coup came when he secured an interview with the couple’s adopted son, Richard Blair.

It’s hoped the finished work – called Mrs Orwell – will be released in April.

The project has proved a labour of love for South Shields-based Mr Wilkinson.

He said: “I first came across Eileen when there was a display of her life in the reference and local history library in South Shields.

“I saw a birth certificate, census records of her family and where they lived and a photo of her husband, George Orwell.

“Then I saw a black and white photo in the middle of the display, which had about eight men in a field with a large machine gun in the middle and a woman kneeling next to it.

“On closer look, I saw that it was Eileen. At that moment the magic happened, it was like an explosion going off inside and all the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“That was the moment I realised that I wanted to find out more, and make a film about her and the achievements she has made through her life.

“I wanted to show how much she influenced George Orwell, arguably the most controversial and important writer of the 20th century.”

Mr Wilkinson is trying to cover most of the important parts of Eileen’s life.

He said: “I filmed David Harland at Westgate House in Beach Road, South Shields, who now owns the house where Eileen and her family lived until 1924. I interviewed and filmed Sylvia Minto, an ex-school teacher at Sunderland High School, who got to know about Eileen being an ex-pupil and researched her life.”

After marrying Eric Blair (Orwell), the couple went to Spain as part of the International Brigades to fight against the fascists.

Orwell was on the frontline and Eileen was based in Barcelona working as an interpreter and doing admin work for the P.O.U.M., who rallied against Franco.

Mr Wilkinson added: “I went to Barcelona and interviewed Alan Warren, who is an expert on the Spanish Civil War.

“Eric and Eileen adopted a son, Richard, who I interviewed in his home in Warwickshire. He added important details about his adoption and early parts of his life.

“When Eric was reporting on the end of the war for The Observer, Eileen and her son lived in Greystone House in Stockton with her sister-in-law Gwen O’Shaughnessy.

“The house is still there and I visited and filmed the owner, Franklyn Medhurst, 75, who when he first moved in shared the same housekeeper, Mrs Blackburn, who passed on some stories to him about Eileen.

“Sadly Eileen died in 1945, at only 39, and I went to Jesmond Cemetery where she is buried and interviewed local historian Alan Morgan as he wrote a book about the graves of notable people buried in Newcastle

“Soon I’ll be travelling down to Oxford and filming at St Hugh’s where Eileen took a masters degree in English, then onto New York where I will interview Sylvia Topp, an author who is writing a new book about Orwell, and her first couple of chapters are about Eileen.

“I met Sylvia in May last year when she was in South Shields researching.”

Mr Wilkinson filmed in London at University College, where the Orwell Foundation is based.