Theatre Censorship – 24: Oh, Quel Cul T’as

The 1909 guidelines make an interesting comparison with the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act, whose chief points are below:

(a) There should be an abolition of the present system of pre-censorship.

(b) “A play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.”

(c) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) he did so with intent to stir up hatred against any section of the public in Great Britain distinguished by colour, race, or ethnic or national origins; and
    (ii) that the performance, taken as a whole, is likely to stir up hatred against that section on grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.”

(d) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) He did so with intent to provoke a breach of the peace; or
    (ii) the performance, taken as a whole, was likely to occasion a breach of the peace.”

In a nutshell, the chief difference introduced by the new Act is that, apart from the removal of the Lord Chamberlain as the pre-censor, before 1968 plays were liable to be censored if they were likely to offend, whereas after 1968, plays were liable to be prosecuted if they could be proved to have offended. Comparing the two highlights the different preoccupations of the two eras; in 1909 figures of authority were still on guard against immorality, a legacy of the Victorian period perhaps; strict “religious reverence” was still the order of the day; and governments were also keen to be on good terms with foreign powers because of the considerable political tension in Europe. 1968 saw the Swinging Sixties in full throttle, and self-expression and liberation was the name of the game. In 1968 there was, of course, tension as ever, but the new sensitive area was that of race. The 1909 guidelines give a good indication of how controlled life was in those days – there was very little scope for self-expression and the guidelines only served to keep artistic freedom at bay.

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

The chief effect of the lifting of the regulations against indecency was that free, expressive nudity became completely permissible. As has been mentioned, Hair included male and female nudes; after Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! (1970), it was totally acceptable to stage nudity for nudity’s sake. There had been so much pre-production publicity for the play – whose unusual name was derived from anglicising the French phrase “Oh, quel cul t’as” (Oh what an arse you’ve got) – which anticipated the threat (or promise, depending on your point of view) of so much corruption and on-stage degradation, that when it finally appeared at the Round House, its effect was something of an anti-climax. Peter Lewis remarked in his Daily Mail review on 28th July 1970 that “Oh! Calcutta! […] is five years too late to be the great liberating sensation it was obviously intended to be”; however, John Barber, reviewing it in the Daily Telegraph enjoyed its frankness: “there is poetry in its celebration of the human body, and much to laugh at in its mockery of sex. So far as I can judge, I was neither depraved nor corrupted by its impudent humanity.”

Oh Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta! Original Broadway cast

Both these reviews help explain why Oh! Calcutta! was a remarkable box office success, running nearly ten years, whereas Tynan’s 1976 follow-up, Carte Blanche, was a dismal failure, both financially and artistically. By this time “nudity for nudity’s sake” was outdated and Sandy Wilson’s savage review of the production in the December 1976 edition of Plays and Players Magazine summed up critical opinion: “Carte Blanche is billed as “an adult entertainment”, and in describing it thus the producers are guilty of gross misrepresentation, since it is about as adult as the Beano and a good deal less entertaining. They are also guilty, in my opinion, of greed, incompetence, complacency and a betrayal of every standard which… it is their duty to uphold.”

David Storey

David Storey

“Oh! Calcutta!” had heralded the arrival of many other similar revues: The Dirtiest Show in Town, Pyjama Tops, Let My People Come and so on. I am only aware of one show since 1968 that was withdrawn from performance owing to a successful prosecution; this was Manchester’s Dee Jay (1971), and it seems likely that this was because of the extreme youth of some of the performers. In her famous autobiography Spend, Spend, Spend, the late Vivian Nicholson noted that a sixteen-year-old boy took part in a scene involving a simulated rape.

However, titillation aside, the lifting of the ruling against nudity broadened the scope of the theatre to tackle interesting subjects which were not previously possible. A good example of this is David Storey’s The Changing Room (1971), which I’ll discuss in my next blog post.

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