Theatre Censorship – 36: The Romans in Britain trial – and a wrap up.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that although Mary Whitehouse’s prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, director of The Romans in Britain, was within the letter of the law, it certainly the transgressed the spirit of the law. NVALA agreed that it was a loophole in the law which allowed her to bring her suit in the first place. The Sexual Offences Act only provided legislation for men to be prosecuted, because it presumed only men were involved in the kind of sexual practice that the act was originally designed to prevent. Therefore, if the play had been directed by a woman, or if it had featured heterosexual rape, the act would not have been applicable. Lord Hutchinson made this point while cross-examining Graham Ross-Cornes, but it cut no ice with Mr Justice Staughton who felt it was irrelevant to the case in hand. When asked to comment on this point, John Beyer, NVALA’s Organising Secretary, stated in a letter to me dated 10th January 1983 that “the law ought to reflect the fashion for equal rights,” and so rather than close the loophole one may assume that the association would have preferred to widen and legitimise it.

There is one further point concerning the spirit of the law that could do with some clarification. Many people, including Sir Peter Hall, accused Mary Whitehouse of bringing the law into disrepute because, as he said on LBC’s Artsweek programme on 21st March 1982, “the Theatres Act of 1968 was designed to protect the theatre from private individuals or minority sects prosecuting the theatre for their own ends.” Certainly, the act was designed to form some protection for the theatre, chiefly against the ritual submission of new plays to the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It was never the intention of the 1966-67 Committee to protect the theatre from the catalogue of injustices listed in the 1909 report, except that of offending a friendly power (i.e. political censorship) which they recommended should cease. All the other categories would simply rely on the law of the land, and, as Lord Chesterfield said to Walpole, “the king’s courts are open.”

Romans in BritainHowever, the Committee also stated that any legislation should have regard to five common considerations – the right of trial by jury, the admissibility of expert evidence, the effective treatment of obscene plays, the uniform application of the law, and, especially appropriate to “The Romans in Britain” trial, the prevention of frivolous prosecutions. The Committee went on to say, as is stated in their report, “no criminal prosecution whether under statute or common law arising out of the performance of a play should take place without the order of the Attorney-General having been first obtained. Subject to this provision, any individual would have the right to take legal action against a stage performance which he considered contravened the law”.

Therefore, one can claim that when Mary Whitehouse continued to attempt to prosecute Bogdanov after the Attorney-General had specifically refused permission to prosecute under the Theatres Act, it was then that she transgressed the spirit of the law. In fact, it was only the poor wording of the Theatres Act – which in effect permitted other laws to apply to the theatre – that caused the whole legal comedy of errors in the first place. Even Mr Harrington – the magistrate at Horseferry Road who found in favour of Mrs Whitehouse – pointed out that he thought it was extraordinary that the Act had failed to exempt sexual offences at Common Law and under the Vagrancy Act.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

As Bogdanov had his costs paid for him – although Mary Whitehouse and NVALA had to pay theirs – the Theatre Defence Fund money suddenly became a useful financial weapon with which to fight for an amendment to the Theatres Act. The change that would be necessary to prevent a similar occurrence was merely to include the words “and statute law” in its list of items which have no association with the Act. Following the trial, Christopher Price, then MP for Lewisham West and Spokesman for the House of Commons Select Committee on the Arts, pledged to fight for the amendment in Parliament, and until this amendment were to be made, asked the Attorney-General to issue a nolle prosequi in all similar cases, so that, even if the theatre and the law were brought into disrepute, at least the play’s director should not be sent to prison. In a letter he wrote to me dated 14th January 1983 he confirmed that he’d had no success in this venture, saying “there is no prospect of an amendment either to the Theatres Act or the Sexual Offences Act.” Mr Price lost the 1983 general election and was never returned to Parliament.

Christopher Price in 1980

Christopher Price in 1980

Finally, to return to NVALA’s constant assertion that it was not a case about censorship, this is perhaps a rather sweeping statement whose degree of truth depends on how you define the word. Strictly speaking, “censorship” simply means the prohibition or prevention by someone to allow someone else to read or see a particular thing. The word itself implies no particular motivation, not any attribution to good or bad. It does, however, imply that the censor is invested with more power and freedom than the recipient of the material to be censored; an absolute ability to judge what is either acceptable to or required for the recipient. Mrs Whitehouse wished to prevent the general public from seeing a scene of “gross indecency” on stage at the National Theatre for no reason apart from the fact that she thought it offended public morals. Despite possibly well-meaning intent, she invited the law to act as a censor, although she denied it: “If I had the power to go into the National Theatre and stand on that stage and say, “away with all you, I will not have this on this stage”, you could accuse me of censorship.” If she had brought a successful prosecution, the effect would have been virtually the same. Whatever one’s interpretation of the case, it set a sort of precedent, and one which certainly contravened the spirit of the Theatres Act.

As for the play, despite Howard Brenton’s rather over-confident belief that “this play is going to prosper”, no management dared to present it for several years. Was that because of the quality of the play itself, or because no one knew what legal wrangles it might incur? Apart from a student production by the Bristol Old Vic School in 1994, its only professional reappearance on stage has been at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 2006, directed by Samuel West; theatre, cast and director survived unscathed – although the young Celt still felt the pain of invasion.

And that’s as far as my post-grad research took me. Of course, drama didn’t stop in 1982, and plays that would have sent the Lord Chamberlain reeling still took to the stage. The works of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, even One Man One Guvnor’s Richard Bean have challenged their audiences with sex, violence and all forms of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe that’s some research for me to do another day.

If you’re reading this on the day it was published, 26th September 2018, it is exactly fifty years today since the introduction of the Theatres Act and the abolition of stage censorship. But where are all the flags and banners of celebration? Nowhere. So often we take our freedoms for granted! In the meantime, thank you for your time and effort and I hope that you found some of the little nuggets of interest, or enjoyed some detailed lit-crit of the big plays of Osborne, Bond and Brenton. As for me, I’m going to clear my head by watching some Disney.

Theatre Censorship – 34: Simulated sodomy, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 1)

Romans in BritainOn 24th October 1980, the Attorney-General sent a lawyer to the theatre to watch a performance of The Romans in Britain. The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) did the same, asking John Smyth QC to witness the activity on the stage and form his own conclusion. On his return, Mr Smyth said he had been shocked by the play and recommended that NVALA’s legal adviser, Graham Ross-Cornes, should ask the Attorney-General to take action against the play and insist on its withdrawal. A month later the Attorney-General’s reply was received, to the effect that he would neither prosecute the play nor permit NVALA to do so. When asked why, he simply replied that he did not believe that the case would be successful. This split the two sides in the argument even wider. NVALA became even more determined to prevent the play from continuing and the National Theatre regarded the decision as an official condonation of the production.

It is not difficult to see why the case might have failed. The prosecution would have been brought under the 1968 Theatres Act which states “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.” It is very rarely that these woolly words are exposed as the meaningless drivel they are. The problem with any prosecution brought under this paragraph is one of proof and criterion. In these circumstances, what is depravity and corruption? In terms of morality, it’s hard to define what corruption really is. And, even if you can define these terms, how can they be proved to have happened?

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

There seems to be four or five possible reactions to the play and most particularly the rape scene. One can appreciate the symbolic meaning of the rape as signifying invasion by an alien culture and accept the scene as writer Howard Brenton intended it. This would not involve any depravity or corruption, as one would not view the incident in sexual terms, but purely symbolic. Those people who were shocked by it and found it offensive would voluntarily detach themselves from the play, stop watching it, and stop thinking about it. Perhaps they might walk out, in which case they would no longer be present to face depravity or corruption. Some people might feel that the whole scene was ludicrous and either out of embarrassment or simply because of the inept choice of metaphor, find it funny. This reaction would mean they wouldn’t take it seriously, and would mentally block any seriousness about it. Perhaps as a result they might be accused of condoning such sexual violence; but above all, laughter is a defence mechanism to protect oneself, and one would be most unlikely to be corrupted by laughter.

Even if the scene were to excite a member of the audience sexually or pornographically, one could claim – and this a matter of much debate – that that person was already depraved and corrupt anyway and that the play made no particular difference to their already established outlook. Only if a dangerously impressionable person with no criminal record were to go out and commit homosexual rape as a result of the performance could the play decisively be said to have been proved to have depraved and corrupted this person. In any case, this mythical miscreant would have to be so impressionable; reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery would be as likely a cause for them to commit murder. The legal viability of the Theatres Act obviously has its limits.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

After the Attorney-General’s refusal to prosecute or grant permission for others to prosecute, NVALA was left with two options. Either they could drop the case and admit defeat, which is certainly what the Attorney-General would have preferred, or they could take out a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Section Thirteen of this Act stated: “It is an offence for a man… to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.” At the time, the charge of procuration carried a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. This was the course of action that Mary Whitehouse took. It’s interesting to note that Section Thirteen of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act was repealed by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and the charge of procuration is no longer an offence.

Michael Bogdanov’s reaction was one of surprised annoyance. In the LBC Artsweek programme broadcast on 21st March 1982 he stated: “I felt that she was pursuing to an illogical end a case that she had got obsessed with, and therefore had not due regard to the circumstances and the occasion of the play.” This comment is at odds with Mary Whitehouse’s denial after the trial that she would prosecute “The Romans in Britain” again if it were to be presented at a different theatre. Her words were: “I’m not interested in chasing a particular play”.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

There were two aspects of the case which captured the attention and imagination of the public. The first, which was frequently used against Mary Whitehouse, was the fact that she was going to all the trouble of privately prosecuting Michael Bogdanov, and running the risk of incurring very expensive legal costs if she failed, when she had never actually seen the play herself. This struck many as hypocritical and censorial, because she was attempting to influence what other people could see from a position of ignorance, depriving herself of first-hand knowledge of the matter in question. She defended her position by saying that she had been told in full by her representatives who had seen the play all about it, and that therefore she knew enough. She said that quite simply she had no wish to see it; and she considered that if she did go to see it that would benefit her opponents in the argument. They would say that she’s been to see it and she hasn’t been depraved and corrupted by it, so why should anyone else? I’m sure she was right on this particular point.

The second aspect which stirred public interest was to what extent was the homosexual rape on stage “real”. It had always been taken for granted by the public that the rape had been simulated, but accounts of the scene made it sound very real indeed. Bogdanov cavilled over the use of the term “simulation”. From the Artsweek programme: “I don’t believe you can simulate buggery… like you don’t believe the woman can really be sawn in half, you can’t simulate that, you can only create the illusion of it… a leading lady and a leading man are not necessarily in love; in fact they might hate each other, and one might have bad breath and the other a pimple on the upper lip and neither of them actually likes kissing each other but one says to the other “I swear I will love you for ever” and he kisses her, and that is the simulated kiss. But actually, you can create the illusion of a kiss; you can take somebody’s face in your hands and you can appear to kiss them but actually your thumbs have masked the fact that you’re kissing your thumbs, not their lips.” He preferred to use the term “illusion”, because “simulation” refers too closely to physical appearance instead of how the act appears to the mind. Bogdanov also insisted that the physical positions of the actors meant that “biologically it was impossible for it to have occurred”.

Six months after the decision had been taken by Mary Whitehouse to prosecute under the Sexual Offences Act, in June 1981, the charge was heard at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in London. Bogdanov was represented by Lord Hutchinson who was the defence lawyer in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, which gave the whole affair an additional frisson for the general public. It also, subconsciously, emphasised the censorship nature of the case. Much to the surprise of theatrical and legal commentators, the magistrate decided that the theatre was not exempt from the Sexual Offences Act and that there was, indeed, a case to answer. Therefore, he committed Michael Bogdanov for trial at the Old Bailey. The legal commentators were especially baffled since the paragraph cited from the Sexual Offences Act, under which the charge was brought, was originally designed to prevent sexual acts taking place in public lavatories.

The theatre world generally regarded this decision as an insult, and it became a matter of pride for bodies such as the National Theatre Board, the newly-formed Theatre Defence Group and the Actors’ Union Equity to fight the charge tooth and nail. A fund was set up, called the Theatre Defence Fund, whose chief object was to raise money to fight the case and pay for Bogdanov’s trial costs if necessary. A most lucrative way of raising this money was the organisation of a chain of readings of “The Romans in Britain” at theatres up and down the country, at which audiences would donate however much they wished. Interestingly, NVALA made no comment about these readings, which showed that it wasn’t their intention to silence the play itself. It was also evidence of the fighting spirit of the theatre world who saw it as a legal way of showing defiance. This was especially true of the group of actors at the Oxford Playhouse who daily staged a reading of a transcript of that day’s proceedings in court, thereby creating theatre out of the theatre, so to speak. This continued despite a warning from the judge Mr Justice Staughton that they might be in contempt of court.

More about the trial in my next blog post.

Theatre Censorship – 33: Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

“It was an illusion… a point that was made to illustrate the main theme of the play… that invasion by an aggressive force is wrong; that a territorial acquisition, the destruction of one culture by another, invasion by forces who are stronger than the country that they are invading is absolutely immoral. And therefore, what we were doing was showing a moral act, not an immoral act.” With these words Michael Bogdanov justified the scene of homosexual rape in Howard Brenton’s notorious Romans in Britain which opened at the National Theatre on October 16th 1980. As director of the play, Bogdanov was at the centre of what could have become the most thrilling theatrical trial of all time, and one which did, at any rate, question the freedoms which had been granted to the theatre in 1968.

LBC, the news radio station that now broadcasts nationally (and all over the world thanks to the Internet) was, in 1982, confined to coverage in only London and the surrounding satellite towns. On the schedules was a regular weekly programme called Artsweek, a digest of what was happening in the arts scene in London; and on 21st March 1982 they transmitted a programme purely devoted to The Romans in Britain, and its famous trial that never was. I recorded the programme onto cassette, transcribed it, and it provided a wealth of first hand accounts that today are of invaluable help in remembering what happened and explaining what all the fuss was about. Alas I no longer have the recording, or the full transcript; but I do have several quotes from the key players in the story – Howard Brenton, Michael Bogdanov and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association supremo Mary Whitehouse – which I will use to bring this extraordinary episode in theatrical history back to life. All the comments quoted in this chapter are taken from this radio transcript unless stated.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

For four days in March 1982, the No 1 Court at the Old Bailey heard about the scene which caused all the fuss. Three Roman soldiers approach three naked young Celts, kill one, wound another, and attempt to rape the third. For reasons of biological impracticality there was no penetration (a question of haemorrhoids, apparently) and from that point of view the rape does not actually take place, but neither Brenton nor Bogdanov regarded this as a “get-out clause” in the trial because it never occurred to either of them that they would have a case to answer. “I have always believed implicitly in the integrity of the play and indeed in the integrity of the National Theatre in asking me to produce this play,” Bogdonov stated. In retrospect, this seems obvious, as the National did not consider it necessary to take any legal advice on the production until the rumours of prosecution began to circulate after it had opened. Brenton’s attitude to the production was more ideological, and perhaps naïve: “I believe in a free theatre… you should be able to stage everything that happens in life, and say indeed what you will about it.”

However, then as now, the theatre is subject to laws and if the laws are broken, then inevitably justice must take its course. Brenton wanted to change the theatre and confer on it an even greater freedom than it already possessed, by stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable on stage. As such, he did not shy away from his responsibilities towards the play and was in fact annoyed and disappointed when, in the end, the law did not require him to defend his own play.

Romans in BritainThe play itself tries to make a very simple point. Brenton suggests that the presence of Roman soldiers in England in 55BC creates a parallel with the presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1980. This ambitious play deliberately muddles reality and fantasy to prove its point. Part One is set in 55BC, but in its final scene Caesar and his legates appear on stage in the dress of the British Army of 1980. Similarly, Part Two, ostensibly set in modern day Northern Ireland, is interspersed with scenes set in Britain in 515 AD. The relevance of this date escapes us, the audience, until the end of the play. Brenton uses this complicated time scale to illustrate Caesar’s central belief. Caesar says: “it’s an affliction to see in any one act its consequence… in any predicament, its opposite. To build a tower, knowing brick by brick, how it can be destroyed. Even in the victor of an enemy, I see his defeat”. Caesar may be enjoying a glorious victory in 55 BC, but Brenton also shows us Britain in 515 AD, the date of the death of the last Roman lady on the island of Great Britain. This was the heinous murder of a wretched noblewoman, riddled with plague and paranoia, by her treacherous lover, a mere steward.

In the same way that Caesar looks to the future, British Army Officer Thomas Chichester, his unorthodox 1980s counterpart, looks to the past and relives in his mind the 515 AD scenes that we see on stage. He is in Ireland to kill Republican activist O’Rourke, but like the invading Saxon of Part Two, Scene Four, Chichester is killed instead. How often do we cry that we never learn the lessons of the past? Chichester learns this lesson; that the sequence of consecutive invasions has to be broken. This is why he does not kill O’Rourke when he has the chance. O’Rourke, on the other hand, not having reached Chichester’s same state of awareness, takes his opportunity and has Chichester shot.

These balancing mirror images between the past and the future are not only found in the main elements of the play. There are minor occasions on both sides of the time-gap which reflect the same mental processes and attitudes; for example one of the soldiers in Part Two thinks “we’re just in Ireland to dig toilets”, while in 55 AD a soldier is not particularly proud of his war effort. He sums it up with the words: “I dug a shit hole on the edge of the world”.

Romans in Britain - Celts

The Celts in the original production of The Romans in Britain

However, all these images are secondary to the chief theme of invasion. The rape of the Celts is not the only example of sexual assault symbolising territorial gain. Caesar, the supreme expansionist, sends a legate back to his mistress in Rome with the instruction “tell her to guard with this knife, what I would enter as a knife”. Sex is replaced by violence from the top down, so to speak, so it is not surprising that the soldiers’ attitude to the Celts should also be a confusion of sex and violence. Furthermore, the invasion gives rise to the destruction of the native culture, as Bogdanov stated in the opening paragraph of this chapter, and it is worth noting that it is not the attempted rape that drives the young Druid priest to suicide, but the imposition of wearing Caesar’s Venus pendant around his neck. For him that creates taint beyond redemption and thus he ends his life; in the same way, incidentally, as a Roman would traditionally take the honourable way out. The play makes the point that Caesar inflicting Roman gods on the Celts is the same as England inflicting Protestantism on Irish Catholics, a source of conflict that has troubled Anglo-Irish relations since Cromwell’s time.

The play’s two sections are individually titled; Part One is called Caesar’s Tooth and Part Two, Arthur’s Grave. Caesar suffers with toothache, which, on a symbolic level, might represent an sickness within the body politic. During the first act, the problem tooth is removed. This represents Caesar’s ability to see disaster in the future; the pain is perhaps a warning system, telling Caesar that all will not be well in the future. Similarly, “Arthur’s Grave”, a title that represents the ideological downfall of England, is, Brenton argues, the consequence of the country’s meddling in Ireland. Moreover, the play ends with the birth of Arthur; not the legendary mystic arrival as lyricised by the likes of Malory and Tennyson, but simply an idle arbitrary invasion by a couple of cooks. In terms of the year 515 AD, the cooks represent hope for the future; seen from 1980, this hope is replaced by conflict. In any case, the revelation that he did not exist but is purely a work of fiction symbolises the total destruction of England’s misplaced national pride. “A king who never was” – as described by the First Cook – of the great country that also never was.

One final point concerning the play is the general tone of the language that occurs within it. As I mentioned when referring to the works of Arnold Wesker, the writer David Zane Mairowitz has said “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”. From the opening speeches, the tone of the language and the words used are frequently a mix of the sewer and highly sensuous imagery, designed to disconcert the audience. In the middle-class comfort of the Olivier Theatre, the language may have felt more offensive than if it was staged in, say, the Young Vic or the Donmar Warehouse. In fact, Brenton has successfully used the device that Handke failed with in “Offending The Audience” (see Chapter Five). The opening conversation between Conlag and Daui – two rather superfluous characters – feature words such as fuck, shit, leeches, boils, dogshit, arse and pus. Although this sets the scene quite successfully, it acts as a barrier to the audience from gaining any real sympathy with these characters. You could say this is unfortunate as Conlag, throughout Part One, is a common man on the run, requiring our sympathy. The whole exchange between the two involves a very sensuous linguistic construction. Consider what you feel with the sentence: “Lying in a boat with salt round the back of my eyeballs”. It conjures a very vivid picture of discomfort and unpleasant taste, blurred sight and a rocking movement. Another example; Conlag’s description of how he reacts to this alien environment: “smell their food. Smell how their teeth went into it. The little squirts of fat in the meat. The spit that washed it down”. It suggests a sickly taste and you can almost hear the sound made by the teeth as they sank into the meat.

The sensuous language works very hard to create images that prepare the audience for the violence later in the play. As an example, Viridio’s eloquent hatred for the Romans -which causes his death – involves a good deal of sensuous invective: “with my fingers in the sockets of your eyes, I will hold up your skulls, wet with the flesh of your eyes and your blood!… I will hold your bloody hearts… up to the sun as it sets, and squeeze, and your blood will run down my throat, and I will drink you, get pissed on you! And vomit on you and drink more of you!” There’s no limit to Viridio’s expressions or his intentions.

The production earned generally bad reviews across the whole spectrum of critical comment. Most reviewers could find nothing at all to praise in it, and many were shocked by the homosexual rape – indeed even those who were not themselves shocked were alarmed at the play’s capacity to shock others. Some commentators were startled by the simplistic equations made in the play – especially the reappearance of Caesar’s army in modern British uniforms. Others found the standard of the production generally feeble and an insult to the audience – considering the great reputation of the National Theatre that had produced it. Typical of some of the comments on some of the scenes was that singled out by John Walker in his review in the now defunct Now! magazine: “there is one scene of total unintentional hilarity in which a fugitive, running from Irish wolfhounds, is seen wrestling with a stuffed dog which, after much effort, he bravely subdues. It seemed aptly symbolic for an evening of nursery theatre, of self-indulgent shock-horror fantasy.”

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

By concentrating too heavily on the shocking and violent nature of the presentation, Bogdanov appeared to destroy any serious intentions the play originally had. Some believed the Olivier Theatre should be the pinnacle of art of the highest standard; and this idea was central to the indignation felt by Mary Whitehouse who believed that “Britain is judged in part by what goes on at the National Theatre.” The production was considered a threat to the country’s reputation; and of course, as a recipient of public money to fund the National Theatre, the scandal just grew and grew. Indeed, Sir Horace Cutler, at the time Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, said that the National Theatre’s grant from the Arts Council should be withheld until the play was withdrawn from the repertoire.

In my next blog post, I’ll recount the story of the trial.

Theatre Censorship – 32: Political Extremism in Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In comparison with David Edgar’s Destiny, Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields is one stage nearer to reality; although the English People’s Party, which features in the play, does not exist as such, and we know it’s not just another name for the National Front because they also get a mention. By using radio news broadcasts from Doncaster and Newcastle – places that we know do exist – Poliakoff increases the atmosphere of realism.

“Strawberry Fields” tells of the journey made by Charlotte and Kevin, two representatives of the English People’s Party (EPP), from London to the North of England, meeting other party members at pre-arranged spots and distributing leaflets. Things don’t go quite according to plan because a young teacher, Nick, cadges a lift in their van and as he finds out more about them, he tries to undermine their cause and their confidence. At first he only succeeds in being an irritation to them; but after Charlotte shoots the policeman who catches Kevin and Nick raiding a hot dog stall he – unsurprisingly – becomes a nervous wreck who slows them down. Because he witnessed the murder, his presence threatens the as-yet-untarnished reputation of the party; and the play ends with Charlotte’s shooting Nick, symbolising the death of the “reasonable voice” against right-wing extremism.

Poliakoff is a little clearer about the policies and stances of the EPP than Edgar is about Nation Forward in his play Destiny (see previous blog). They seem to have three major political beliefs: they are an ecology party, taking a stand against pollution and the mauling of the countryside; they propose to improve the lives of inner city dwellers by making “urban wastelands” a thing of the past and by improving town planning; and finally, they are opposed to “impersonal government”. None of that sounds very controversial, although they’re light on practical policies. However, one suspects that in order to reduce the “crammed populations in city centres” they would enforce repatriation of all immigrants, creating racial tension and feeding racist tendencies.

Strawberry FieldsEdgar’s play may have a better worked-out structure, and possibly more thoughtful themes, but Poliakoff’s has sharper characterisation. The character of Kevin tells you a lot about why someone might want to join the EPP. Kevin is a romantic at heart; he sees glamour and excitement in the most mundane things and can use language to express the awesomeness of his appreciation. He sees the journey along the motorway as a celebration of the expansiveness of England; the pictures of “landscape with road” which he takes along the way acquire a strange beauty through his eyes. Later, when local activist Mrs Roberts and Charlotte are discussing political matters and Nick is concentrating on the fruit machine, Kevin romanticises about an open air concert which he has suddenly remembered: “there were jugglers, people lighting bonfires along the way, sword swallowers, a whole fayre”. The use of the word “fayre” with its archaic spelling summons up everything that is beautiful and traditional about England; at this stage of the play Kevin’s idealism has not yet been shattered. Unfortunately, because of his blindness, both actual and metaphorical, Kevin cannot discern the beautiful from the ugly. He romanticises equally keenly about the sordid horror films that run through his brain and which he almost believes he can project onto walls, so vivid is his imagination: “he blows his head off, and it bursts open, it bursts right open, splashes all over them… they throw him into a dust-cart shredder, you know, and he’s squashed, and eaten, and shredded up, you know, by the spikes, screaming his head off, screaming so loudly, really loudly, and they pick up little pieces of him, they do, collect him in their hands. RAW PIECES OF HIM. YOU SAW IT.” Steady, Kevin.

So Kevin’s blindness, coupled with his love of all things “fayre”-like, creates a right-wing desire to return to the England which has not been ruined by modern technological and sociological developments. Nick realises the danger of the “grenade in the hamburger box”, the evidence of warfare peddled out in a most acceptable and convenient form, which has infiltrated the country. Lurking similarly beneath the surface are the many party members who do not necessarily make their activity in politics obvious, but who, according to Nick, can still supply Charlotte with arms and ammunition wherever she goes.

Mrs Roberts, for example, is a pleasant, perfectly ordinary woman, who shares the same anxieties as most people about missing coaches to Preston and what to cook for her family that evening. Her story about suspecting the presence of a bomb behind the radiator shows her paranoia about safety and her need to be on guard against all forms of terrorism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has also turned her into a nervous wreck. Nick remarks: “she’s the sort of person that thinks there are bombs and landmines in every litter bin, illegal immigrants everywhere, drugs in the lining of every car, isn’t she?” Her anxiety has made her extreme, for she believes that the people who make her nervous should be punished severely: “I really think people who… leave bombs and think up these terrible hoaxes, have to be really dealt with now. I think they have to be shot really, don’t they? Shot on sight.” Mrs Roberts’ form of justice is clinical and unforgiving: shoot first, ask questions afterwards. Her obsession with it is shown by her keeping a book of cuttings from newspapers, illustrating the points she likes to make and the beliefs she holds. For instance, she refers to a Mr Relph, who was a real person in real life, who came from Leamington and wasn’t a creation of Poliakoff, who insisted that his house was only for sale to a white English family. He advertised it as such, and was subsequently prosecuted under the Race Relations Act. By introducing real references such as this, Poliakoff clearly places the play within our world and is not a mere work of fantasy. Mrs Roberts is also a member of the National Front – again real – an organisation, according to Charlotte, which is led by “pathetic nonentities”.

Jane Asher as Charlotte in Strawberry Fields

Jane Asher as Charlotte in the original National Theatre production

Charlotte herself is the embodiment of the terror that lurks beneath the surface, the grenade in the hamburger box. Whilst appearing a gentle, well-mannered, friendly (to Kevin), tasteful young lady, she is, in fact, pure terrorist through and through, using a gun, she says, as protection against the armed left-wing groups sweeping the country. She doesn’t see the irony that, by doing so, she has become a member of an armed right-wing group. She feels she has no choice but to shoot the policeman because she does not want the party to be involved in anything illegal which might damage its reputation. Of course, shooting the policeman, and later Nick, compound the problem; they are actions far worse than simply raiding a hot dog van. Her absolute confidence about using her gun – not merely as a bluff – also shows that she has no compunction about taking the law into her own hands, positively advocating anarchy; nothing is ever going to defeat her. It might be an ominous warning that Charlotte predicts guerrilla-style warfare within two years. The play’s grim view of the future can only be averted by tolerance and understanding, and Poliakoff’s hope is for a more moderate trend in politics in the future. Sadly, from today’s point of view, I’m not sure the evidence is there to support it.

Destiny and Strawberry Fields are, I feel, two great examples of highly contemporary plays that simply would not have been possible under the regime of the censor. It would be fascinating to see them revived.

We’re coming in to the home straight now! In my next blog I’ll be starting our look at that famous cause célèbre of the 1980s, The Romans in Britain.

Theatre Censorship – 31: The portrayal of fascism in David Edgar’s Destiny

David Edgar

David Edgar

Karn, the detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (see previous blog), probably wouldn’t care for the political alternatives offered in both David Edgar’s Destiny (1976) and Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields (1977). Inspired by the rise of the National Front in the early 1970s, “Destiny” begins with the granting of India’s independence in 1947 and the expectation of an influx of Indians into Britain. Then the action comes forward to 1968 as we watch the preparations for the Taddley by-election, fought by the three parties, Labour, Conservative and “Nation Forward”. This new party, just getting off the ground, is apparently an attempt to offer an alternative to the usual pendulum of Labour and Conservative; as such they make glib comments like “under capitalism, man is exploited by man. Under communism, it’s precisely the other way round.” But Nation Forward is not a centre party. It is a highly extreme right party. The introduction of Nation Forward in the play takes place, Edgar is careful to note, on 20th April 1968. The significance of this is lost on us until we realise that the party members are celebrating Hitler’s birthday. They all swear allegiance in German to Hitler’s portrait on the wall: “Ich gelobe Dir und den von Dir bestimmten Vorgesetzten gehorsam bis in den Tod, so wahr mir Gott helfe” – which translates as “I vow to you, and to the superiors appointed by you, obedience to death, so help me God”.

Later, at a Nation Forward rally, the party’s supporters sing “Land of Hope and Glory” whilst hecklers chant “Nation Forward, Nazi Party”. The play helps us to understand how a pseudo-Nazi party can gain quick support, by trading on people’s fear and ignorance and by creating an atmosphere of paranoia where anybody of a different race, religion or colour from one’s own is automatically regarded as the enemy because of that fact. Also, because of the fear of going against the grain, constructive criticisms are overlooked, swept aside, or simply not made. Turner, Nation Forward’s candidate at the election, wants to argue their campaign organiser, Richard Cleaver, out of the party’s anti-Semitic stance, but he backs down through fear. I’m not going to make any comparisons with real political parties of today, but, personally, I find it both fascinating and scary in its potential accuracy.

Nation Forward was obviously conceived as a reaction to an overwhelming immigration problem, hence its slogan “Stand Up For Your Race, Stand Up For The Future”. But Mrs Howard, loyal Conservative Party member for forty years, has decided to leave the party because they have become: “infiltrated. From the left. The cryptos. Pale-pinks” to join Nation Forward, is also worried about “the people on fixed incomes. With inflation. No big union protecting them. What about the people without a union. What about us?” Inflation is certainly a major problem. Mr Attwood is concerned about unemployment: “with the business like it is… if it’s a British firm it’s going bankrupt, and if it’s American, some great Detroit tycoon picks up his phone and says, more profit if we shift the lot to Düsseldorf… what jobs there are, we’re not going to get”. Nation Forward say they care about these problems and lull the electorate into a false sense of security. On the question of race, moreover, Sandy Clifton, the wife of the Labour candidate, talks of a “widow I visit. Only white face in the street. No English shops any more. Can’t buy an English newspaper. The butcher’s gone. The kids smash up her windows. Yes, of course, you’ll say all kids do that, but when the street was white it didn’t happen… so I call her “racist”?” That doesn’t sound like an ideal environment in which to live, and it’s easy to see how a nation can lurch to the extreme right.

When Turner refers to the Community Relations Council at the second Nation Forward meeting, he regards it as “very nearly just a black power front… most of these groups are immigrant groups or left-wing groups like the Family Planning Association and Shelter. Not much chance of any of these being in the slightest anti-coloured or pro-British”. The dated and dubious phrase “anti-coloured” is seen as virtually synonymous with “pro-British”; and this ugly character is prepared, as a prospective Member of Parliament, to condemn the positive efforts of the Family Planning Association and Shelter. In the end, the Conservatives win the election and Nation Forward come third, although they received 6,993 votes, which is 23.8% of the vote, showing a dangerously high number of supporters for such extreme politics.

DestinyTo put the opposing view, Edgar creates the character Khera. We first see him as an eighteen-years-old servant in India, under the command of Colonel Chandler, Major Rolfe and (as he was then) Sergeant Turner (yes, the same horrible man). The Colonel encourages Khera to celebrate India’s independence with them, as an equal, and the scene ends with Khera relishing his new status, proudly and prophetically proclaiming “Civis Britannicus Sum” (I am a British Citizen). Sure enough, Khera came to Britain in 1958 in search of the protection promised by the mother country. Act One of the play ends with Khera working for Platt, the works manager at the local foundry, and the Conservative constituency chairman, but still receiving exactly the same contempt – even the same words – that he did in India in 1947.

Khera is a Labour voter, and therefore asks Labour candidate Clifton to support the strike he has organised to protest against “promotional discrimination”. This support may well be one of the reasons why the Conservatives eventually won the seat. But Khera’s political and union activity is due to his constant subjugation, and in the scuffle that follows the election result, Khera is attacked by Tony and Attwood, both of Nation Forward. Khera surprises them with his flick-knife and the last image we have of him in the play shows him finally wielding the power.

Khera’s ascent is paralleled by Turner’s downfall. Turner is comfortable in India, with some power, despite having more people above him than beneath him. By 1970 he has built up a relatively successful antique business and he is pleased that a new Conservative government has just been elected: “at last, the little man will get his chance against the big battalions”. Ironic, because his new neighbour Razak appears and explains that his landlord has been bought out by the Metropolitan Investment Trust and that Turner’s “particular retailing zone is pencilled in as a Zen macrobiotic luncheon take-away”. The developers have chosen to force Turner’s rent up so ridiculously high that he cannot afford to stay. The whole episode, because of its immediate relevance to himself, instils in him a hatred of developers – what Maxwell refers to as “speculative profiteering” – and kindles his racial prejudices as he believes Razak, a Pakistani who has (Turner thinks) the gall to carry a Union Jack carrier bag, is in charge of the development. That’s what motivates him to play an active role in Nation Forward. It is not until the end of the play that Turner discovers that ex-Major Rolfe, expressing his support for Nation Forward, has been in charge of the Metropolitan Investment Trust all along, and with this knowledge Turner’s political motivation crumbles.

What relevance does this have to a discussion about theatre censorship, I hear you ask? I merely offer it as an example of an insightful and constructive play that could not possibly have been staged under a censor’s regime.

Nation Forward and the National Front are clearly the same in all but name; even the initials are the same. Destiny is a fantasy; there is, in real life, no “Nation Forward”, no Taddley, and Adolf Hitler could not suddenly turn up in real life to close the play. “Destiny” is primarily a work of the imagination. In my next post I’m going to discuss Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields, which feels one stage closer to reality.

Theatre Censorship – 30: Race Relations (or not)

I think it’s fair to warn you that there’s quite a lot of offensive racist language quoted in this blog, purely for illustrative purposes.

The 1968 Theatres Act created a new category of potential problems in drama – that of racial conflict. Now it would be wrong to suggest that any of the plays I’m going to discuss here goes as far as to “stir up hatred” against any minority distinguished by colour, race or ethnic origins. What these plays mainly achieve is either siding with a minority or condemning an oppressor. Occasionally they poke fun at the minority. Over the years, poking fun at a minority has become more and more unacceptable, as audiences now recognise it as the prejudicial banter that it is. An audience is now required either to detach themselves from the play and condemn those that ridicule minorities; or they can play along with this prejudicial type of humour. No question, this is a challenge for the modern audience.

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

Sometimes it’s not clear what a playwright intends. A good example is Goose Pimples (1980) devised by Mike Leigh. Four English characters of varying degrees of unsavoriness are confused by an Arab’s inability to speak English and his bewildered tones feed their prejudices to make an evening of diverting comedy for them and of abused misery for him. I remember seeing the play at the time, and, despite laughing occasionally, feeling thoroughly violated by it; two hours of relentless racism. With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing that it’s Mike Leigh, I presume the audience is meant to disapprove of the four English characters. But we certainly seem to be invited to laugh along with them. No wonder audiences felt uncomfortable, even in the early 80s. The play was far from being the box office success that the critics expected of it, which says more about the decency of the audiences than the critics.

Antony Sher in the 1980s

Antony Sher, who played the Sheikh in Goose Pimples, in the 1980s

In a comparison with Edward Bond’s Grandma Faust (1976), “Goose Pimples” comes across as the more unpleasant play, as it takes the respectable mantle of West End comedy, and insinuates its sordid content where you might not expect it. “Grandma Faust” is, at least, outwardly shocking from the start and doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Set in a world where rich, white ladies and simple country folk alike enjoy the taste of “N***er Foot Pie”, Bond’s intention is to set the Faust legend in the Deep South of the United States. Faust is mingled with stereotype characters such as Uncle Sam and the well-to-do Southern Belles, and all of them are satirised by the character of Paul. He is the underdog, sold not as a slave but as pie ingredient, who tricks his captors with the strength of his soul. At the end of Grandma Faust, Paul survives, Bond leaving us with a tableau of him fishing, to create a hopeful note for the future. Nobody particularly “survives” at the end of “Goose Pimples”, where all the relationships are soured.

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings, in the 1950s

Neither of these plays presents racial conflict in any kind of constructive or positive way. Michael Hastings’ Gloo Joo (1978), a comedy about the attempts of two immigration officers to return an illegal immigrant to Jamaica, won the Evening Standard’s Comedy of the Year award in 1979. Meadowlark – the aforementioned Jamaican – attempts to find loopholes in the law by arranging marriages and changing religion, so that he may remain in Britain; and the play deals not only with racial prejudices between the indigenous white people and the West Indians, but also between different sectors of the black community. When Meadowlark telephones Mr Brucknell to organise the wedding at the airport, he defends his “telephone voice” against the bewildered look of the immigration officers: “Haffta mekk as if yeh the telkin the Queen’s language with her Priestman, case is tinkin yeh some half bred bad ass Nigerian n***er juicing de palm wine craze an talkin red lobster sea food rubbish back the Africa roots, mon.” Meadlowlark assumes superiority over Nigerians without the slightest desire to conceal his prejudice against them, although he is very quick to hit upon racism against himself:

Gerry: “Mind your nose, son, I can put it out of joint.”
Meadowlark: “Threatening to beat me up and insult me on account racial hatred am hearin?”

Hastings gives Gerry, a keen and vindictive newcomer to the Immigration Office, a foreign surname, Radinski, so that Meadowlark, with his fine English surname Warner, can justify (as he thinks) some racial retaliation: “An what kind of name is dat? Radinski? Is Polish or am a Chinaman. Is bleddy not true blue British stake a woolly top on at”. You can see how much fun Hastings must have had creating this play.

Somewhere along the line, racism is always a consequence of ignorance, and Meadowlark gives us plenty of opportunities to recognise his own ignorance. Pretend fiancée Irene unleashes his racism when she tells him that they will be living in Dublin, where Irene was born. Meadowlark explodes: “Mon, heff yeh ev bin to Ireland? En noffin but streets full of potato eatin people wid big ears and green eyes mon, walkin along de pavemen talking dere tongues off drinkin dat warm black beer wid de white froth’n mon! Dat fockin Ireland for yeh.” Meadowlark picks on stereotypical Irish connections, like potatoes and Guinness, and exaggerates them into a nightmarish scene of zombie-like figures aimlessly walking along streets, eating and drinking. One can laugh at the picture he creates; but you are nevertheless laughing with a racist.

Elsewhere, Meadowlark shows himself to be a clever and quite well-educated person – perhaps best demonstrated when he answers all the questions put to him by Mr Brucknell about Judaism. So it is not merely his ignorance about the Irish that give him this perverse view of Ireland; it is chiefly his “gift of the gab” which lands him in so much trouble under normal circumstances, but which also enables him usually to outwit his opponents. When Irene tries to make him feel guilty about the way he has treated her – she has pleaded “I was a Catholic virgin when I first met you” which we do not really believe – he starts on a tirade against the Pakistanis from whom he says he “rescued” her: “Pakis just dog-an-cats Indian and day covered with lice heff yeh ever seen a Paki tekk a bath?”

Meadowlark uses his rhetorical gifts to heap blame and scorn on any sector of society but himself. By portraying Meadowlark as a lovable rogue – lovable chiefly because of his language – Hastings avoids falling into any didactic traps about presenting him as all good or all bad; he is as fallible a man as any, with as many foibles and prejudices as one would care to mention, making him both credible and human. His constant assertion: “am British thru an thru” makes us question our own understanding of what it is to be British, through humour and challenging stereotypes. Far from erecting racial barriers, this play broke them down.

Barrie Keeffe

Barrie Keeffe

In the 70s there were also some more serious plays which attempted to show how politics can change with a rise in racial tension and prejudice. They frequently harked back to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, and looked to the growth of the National Front in the 1970s as evidence of a resurgence of a similar mentality. No coincidence that the group at the other end of the political spectrum from the National Front called themselves the Anti-Nazi League. Karn, the mentally sadistic detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (1979) looks forward to a Conservative victory in the General Election, hopeful for the day when he need no longer be (and I quote) “sick of civil fucking liberties, and Anti Fucking Nazi League having riots in our decent streets and thousands of honest cops having to be dragged out to stop fucking Yids and Pakis and Indians and God-Knows-Who bashing hell out of half a dozen stupid, inarticulate red-necked fascists.” His obvious racial hatred is never going to permit a fair treatment of the unfortunate Delroy, the totally innocent black suspect he is detaining. The character of Karn is a typical product of its time; he hates both socialists and fascists, both the oppressors and the oppressed. The only sector to receive his approval are his own kind, the “honest cops”, because that allows him to justify his misuse of his own power. Keeffe wrote the play partly to demonstrate the iniquity of the “sus” laws, and in 1981 they had been repealed.

In my next blog post I’ll be considering the political extremism depicted in David Edgar’s Destiny.

Theatre Censorship – 29: More real people and national stereotypes

Anyone for Denis?John Wells’ farce Anyone for Denis? (1981) was set in the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, and was supposed to show a typical hair-raising weekend with Russian spies and insulted delegates… you know the kind of thing. The play was notable for its highly topical script which changed daily – which of course would have been impossible under the Lord Chamberlain’s regime – and actually it was the Falklands campaign which caused the play to close because, basically, topical references on that subject simply weren’t funny. There was a minor publicity campaign founded on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to see the show – with photographs afterwards of herself with Angela Thorne, the stage Margaret, and everyone looking distinctly uncomfortable apart from the real Denis Thatcher who seemed to have a whale of a time. To see the Prime Minister of the day standing next to a satirical version of herself would have had Robert Walpole turning in his grave. After all, he had introduced censorship to prevent this kind of thing going on.

Alma Rattenbury

Alma Rattenbury

Other plays that featured “real” people, included two plays, in the late 70s, that were based on the case of Alma Rattenbury who was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1935; Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre (1977) which concentrates on the trial, and Simon Gray’s Molly (1977) which tells the story by means of analogy. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara as well as the less well-known Henry Carr for a skit on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and Robert David Macdonald’s Summit Conference (1978) shows Eva Braun and Clara Petacci (Mussolini’s mistress) holding an imagined conversation in 1941.

Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn

On the subject of national origins – the last of those categories mentioned in the 1968 Theatres Act – despite any acrimony between Britain and Argentina at the time, the Falklands War did not bring about a deluge of anti-Latin American drama. Today we can see that Brexit has shown that there is always scope for – shall we say – international rivalry. Playwrights still satirise whatever nationalities they choose. As an example, and plucked from nowhere in particular, Sven, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart (1978) is described as “terribly solemn, terribly Scandinavian, a sweet person but never ever wrong”. In fact, Ayckbourn characterises him as infuriating and pompous, someone who takes the pleasantly Home Counties atmosphere of the play and sours it into something dark, gloomy, and over-serious. Young Mandy, who just likes a bit of painting for relaxation, may just be sketching a drawing of the side of the house for her own enjoyment, but Sven has to turn the whole exercise into an inflated lecture about art: “I would like you to think about this. Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth. Do you know who said that? It was Picasso who said that… I think in some ways you are trying to be too truthful. The result being, at the moment, that your picture has no truth. Think about that.” His instructions sound like those of a part-time art critic who thinks he knows it all but in fact knows nothing; an inflated ego, vain and boorish. Ayckbourn chooses for Sven a particularly unpleasant ending: “one middle-aged mediocrity… who has fought and lost. …The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.” Sven is, of course, an exaggeration of those gloomy Finnish traits – Ayckbourn is actually very popular in Scandinavia – but nevertheless he is a totally believable character.

PlentyIn Plenty (1978) David Hare points out how one associates Scandinavians with gloom and despondency and how people from different Scandinavian countries are indistinguishable from one another, as in this conversation:

Susan: “Apparently it’s about depression, isn’t that so, Mme. Wong?”
Mme Wong: “I do feel the Norwegians are very good at that sort of thing….”
Darwin: “Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede”.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Unlike Sven, Agatha Christie’s Paravicini from the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap (1952) is a totally larger-than-life creation, an exaggeration of the most ridiculous Mediterranean elements, who creeps around stagily and suspiciously, appears to wear rouge make-up, and makes a big mystery of himself: “I turn up saying that my car is overturned in a snowdrift. What do you know of me? Nothing at all! I may be a thief, a robber, a fugitive from justice – a madman – even – a murderer.” Christie has drawn on legendary Italian lasciviousness and added a touch of camp to accompany her character’s ingratiating and fawning behaviour towards his hostess in a good example of parody over characterisation. Of course, as it was written in 1952, this famous play would have been subject to the old rules of censorship. I’m sure it didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain one jot.

In my next post I’ll look at some other plays that might – but probably might not – be considered to “stir up hatred” based on colour or race.

Theatre Censorship – 28: The portrayal of real people

Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell

The laws of libel and defamation remained largely unchanged from 1968 until 2013 – and this meant that dramatists still had to exercise caution if they wanted to incorporate a non-fictitious character into their work. Many represented real-life characters by implication. In Another Country (1981) Julian Mitchell took one aspect of each of his chief protagonists to create an amalgam of a real-life person. His character Guy Bennett, who is gay (and named Guy), and his character Tommy Judd, who is a Marxist, together add up to an implied portrayal of the spy Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. As if to confirm this implication, Bennett at one stage announces: “I think perhaps I’ll be a spy when I grow up”; and at the end of the play both characters become outcasts as a result of those characteristics. Guy Burgess had actually died way back in 1963, so could not be libelled; but Julian Mitchell’s device of creating a non-fictional character out of two fictional characters is a fascinating piece of invention.

G F Newman

G F Newman

Another 1980s play took a much more hard-hitting and topical scandal for its basis. The Attorney-General was called upon to decide whether a production of G. F. Newman’s Operation Bad Apple should go ahead as planned at the Royal Court in February 1982. The author, known for his tough police fiction both in novels and dramatised on television, had based his play on “Operation Countryman” – an official investigation into corruption in the Metropolitan Police Force. The police lawyers were not deceived by the change of name from Countryman to Bad Apple. They requested that the Attorney-General should insist on its withdrawal because it could prejudice a fair hearing in the Operation Countryman trials which were taking place at the same time. Newman, naturally, insisted that all the characters in the play were totally fictitious, but the atmosphere of the play is one of intense realism with many contemporary references. For example, it included criticism of the Scarman report, which had been commissioned by the UK Government following the 1981 Brixton riots, and had been published on 25 November 1981. According to the lawyers it was the persuasive nature of the realism that could have influenced the trial.

Operation Bad AppleThe main theme of the play is that corruption in the force is not confined to just one bad apple, but that it is widespread; indeed, the play claims that the number of corrupt police exceeds 95% of the entire force. As if to prove the point, two of the play’s most crooked characters end up actually in control of Operation Bad Apple – nice work if you can get it. After consultations between the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, both of whom feature in the play, it was decided to let it continue as planned. As the critic Charles Spencer remarked in the April 1982 issue of Plays and Players Magazine: “The opening… has brought a most welcome whiff of controversy back to the Royal Court. Merging from the underground station you can almost smell the smoke of battle wafting out of the theatre and over Sloane Square. It has been quite like old times… with the Attorney-General keeping an anxious beady eye on the production.”

Royce Ryton

Royce Ryton

The lifting of restrictions on presentations of members of the Royal Family on stage enabled Crown Matrimonial (1972) by Royce Ryton, a serious dramatization of Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, to enjoy a long and successful run. In 1981, however, the same author collaborated with Ray Cooney on Her Royal Highness?, a play which jumped on the bandwagon of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. John Barber referred to it in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd February 1982 as “that tasteless farce about the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Lord Chamberlain would never have licensed that – but it didn’t last long.” According to Ray Cooney’s website, “owing to subsequent events in the tragic life of the real Diana, this play is not available for performance at the present time.”

Happy as a SandbagOne renowned personage who has been subjected to perhaps more than his fair share of satire and abuse is Sir Winston Churchill. It’s not hard to see why. He became synonymous for everything strong, patriotic and magnanimous; for the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” which made Britain great. His victorious cigar was an obvious choice for the centrepiece of the logo which advertised Ken Lee’s musical Happy as a Sandbag (1975). His influence and renown was so strong that to question his greatness was – or maybe still is – also to bring Britain’s greatness into question; especially in those early years after censorship was withdrawn. In Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the successful search for Churchill’s missing penis at the end of the play acts as a blessing for the themes of sexual liberation that Orton examined so thoroughly in the rest of the play. This discovery is made when all the apparently unresolvable events of the play are, somehow, resolved; just as Nick and Geraldine are twins and Prentice and his wife are lovers, the missing part of Winston Churchill has been literally staring us in the face all along.

The Churchill PlayCast your mind back, if you can, to 1974. Britain in recession, the three-day week, power cuts, miners’ strikes, unstable governments, IRA bombings… it wasn’t the best of times. It was also the year that Howard Brenton wrote The Churchill Play, which opens with the surreal vision of Churchill, presumed dead, springing from his coffin, brandishing cigar and Union Jack. At first you might expect the embodiment of Churchill to represent a spirit of greatness, arriving like the cavalry to rescue Britain from the doldrums. However, as the play unfolds, you realise that Churchill shoulders the blame for everything wrong with the country. The play is set in a British Concentration Camp in 1984 – the Orwellian reference is by no means coincidental – where prisoners of conscience are sent. Their crime? To question the justice of the Con-Lab government which is, as Jonathan St. John (M.P., Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Ways and Means) describes himself, “more Con than Lab. Very much more.” The camp is proudly referred to as the Churchill Camp; so the country has seen fit to pay tribute to its “great man” with an edifice that represents, symbolises and embodies fascism. You don’t need me to point out the irony that it was Churchill who successfully waged the 1939-45 war against the Nazis and their concentration camps. Gerald Morn, a representative of the last vestiges of socialism in Britain, calls the camp “the English Dachau”; to prove it, Colonel Ball, the military mastermind of the camp, and who appears to believe implicitly that “Winston Churchill saved this country from one thousand years of barbarism”, continues to implement this barbarism and taint Churchill’s reputation by naming it after him.

The internees of the camp look upon the production of the Churchill play (within a play) as a diversionary tactic, helping them to stage their planned escape, which shows that they see him in a different light from the Colonel and the politicians. They regard him as symbolising a possible salvation from fascism, rather than a justification for it. In the end, the security arrangements are tighter than they thought, and the prisoners’ rebellious spirit disintegrates as they realise that the strength of right-wing militancy sweeping the country. This new regime will not permit them any reintegration back into society. The probable result is that, after the curtain falls, they will either “be dumped”, or received Julia Redmond’s (a most suspicious PPS) white-box torture: “you are tied in a white room. The eye cannot focus. The white… an ionized paint… is infinite. Like the dark sky of a moonless night… in the end you become a white, three-D void… there are drugs. And surgery… You cut the brain… butchery… against the butchers.” Elsewhere in the play, when Churchill is not being used to represent this kind of savagery, he is ridiculed in an imaginary presentation of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where he met Stalin and Roosevelt to complete plans for the defeat of Germany and the foundation of the United Nations. Brenton has him taking a bath with Stalin, with the bath-water representing Europe, displaced in Archimedean fashion by their discussions. Churchill is the unifying thread which runs throughout the play, and a good example of the portrayal of a non-fictitious public figure on stage, with inventiveness and originality.

In my next post I’ll look at some more “real” people on stage and the use of national stereotypes.

Theatre Censorship – 27: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and Mary O’Malley

Narrow road to the Deep NorthIn the opening scene of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Basho the poet watches a woman abandoning her baby by a river, prepared to sacrifice the weakest of her children so that the five others may live; an act that shows the harsh reality which governs their way of life. Basho’s attitude is clinical; but he feels no further responsibility towards the baby and does nothing to rescue it from its fate. Later, Shogo, the leader of the city, and indeed this abandoned baby now an adult – somehow it survived – entrusts Basho with the responsibility of looking after the son of the deposed and dead Emperor. Again, Basho attempts to shun the burden, but Shogo blackmails him into accepting the responsibility. Basho sets himself up as a pillar of the community only to be pilloried himself. As a responsible adult, he is later to come back from his search for enlightenment in the deep north thirty years later, having decided that “enlightenment is the awareness that there is “nothing to learn in the deep north”. Zen, or ridiculous? As a master of haiku, Bond’s version of his famous verse appears as: “Silent old pool, Frog jumps, Kdang!” Reprehensible or brilliantly comic? You choose.

In his 1977 book The Plays of Edward Bond, Tony Coult refers to how “terrified” the young Bond was “to think how God was love, and he killed His son for us and hung him up and tortured him and washed us in his blood”. Hardly surprising, then, to find so many anti-religious themes in his plays. Narrow Road to the Deep North contains good examples of the use of religion and freakish religious supporters towards attaining selfish material ends. These are all encapsulated in the horrifying character of Georgina. As an evangelising Christian she deprives the peasants of their own sacred religion and enforces hers, infected with hypocrisy, upon them. Bond quickly shows her insecurity and selfishness; when Basho verifies that the city is prosperous, Georgina’s tambourine trembles to show her sudden excitement at the whiff of money. Aware of the noise she is making, she apologises, thereby confirming her guilt all the more. Bond’s portrayal of her is that of a gross parody of a Salvation Army general, continuously banging her tambourine, her symbol of Christian joy, with a hearty meaninglessness that is comic in its tedium. When she permits warfare ostensibly in the name of Christ her stipulations are ridiculous: “We will give you soldiers and guns to kill your enemies – and in return you must love Jesus, give up bad language, forswear cards, refuse spicey foods, abandon women, forsake drink and – and stop singing on Sundays… except hymns and the authorised responses.” The phrase “guns to kill your enemies” is fairly unequivocal in its intentions; it does not even hide behind the easy excuse of self-defence. Loving Christ and forsaking drink are fairly conventional demands; “refuse spicy foods” is mere nonsense.

The character of Georgina is a good example of how to get comic mileage out of religion. Ossian Flint’s irreligious behaviour sparks off a great deal of humour based on deflating hypocrisy. The comic master of the 1960s, Joe Orton, recognised the potential in religious adherence to make people laugh – frequently with considerable savagery, and although it was never really a central theme in any of his plays, he incorporated it in many. For example, the opening conversation in his television play Funeral Games (1968) takes place between two ostensibly religious men, one a leader of a dubious sect called “The Brotherhood”, who wrote a brochure called “Blessings Abound” and who owns a hot water bottle in the shape of a cross; the other is a frequenter of the blue bookshop next to Tessa and McCorquodale’s “love nest”. Of course, these people have no relief belief in God or the scriptures at all. When faced with a tricky situation, Caulfield suggests “perhaps we could pray”; and Pringle replies: “I’d be obliged if you’d treat this matter with due seriousness.” I’m also personally fond of the line: “He’s a preacher of note. They sell the Bible on the strength of his name.”

Once A CatholicMary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic (1977) is a very funny satire poking fun at Catholicism – perhaps destructively so. The virtuous pupil Mary Mooney is the unfortunate product of a combination of a too-trusting, too-innocent imagination, foolish ignorant parents and hypocritical nuns. She does not suspect anything remotely evil of anyone, so she has no qualms about accompanying the mischievous Derek back to his rooms. However, after the “J Arthur Rank”, she is so terrified that she might go to hell, that she visits Father Mullarkey at home, where the father’s concern for her is overshadowed by comments such as “Help yourself to the Lot’s wife”, and “You can’t go to confession tonight. The church is all locked up and I have to get down to the Off Licence”. His attitude is comic, but is most unfeeling for poor Mary Mooney. O’Malley shows here how the church sets you up to be terrified of mortal sins but offers no practical assistance. Mary Mooney simply feels abandoned. The Church’s attitude to crime and vice is fascinating; there is a peculiar ranking of severity of different crimes such as the grouping of both eating meat on a Friday and murder as mortal sins, or: “A person who lies in bed and refuses to get up for Mass is committing a far more serious sin than a person who lashes out and murders his wife in a fit of fury”. How would that go down in a court of law?

The hypocrisy of the nuns is best shown in the biology lesson taken by Mother Basil, a violent and vengeful woman. She is dissecting a rabbit, but unfortunately, as soon as she mentions the vagina, the Angelus, like a psychological alarm bell, calls nuns and girls to prayers which are said at double-quick speed, totally lacking in any expression. Immediately after the prayers are over, they return to the vagina. This humorous juxtaposition prepares us for the end of the scene when the innocent Mary Mooney asks: “Please Mother Basil, could you tell us how the sperm from the male gets introduced into the vagina?” Her question is not designed to shame or embarrass or cause laughter, but nevertheless it does all these, and Mother Basil, not being one of God’s caring creatures, cannot believe her innocence can extend this far. Later Mary Mooney asks Father Mullarkey “what is the sin of Sodom?” Twice then she is punished for her unfortunate innocence, whilst the complacent nuns don’t do their job properly. Music teacher Mr Emanuelli’s attitude to them is straightforward enough: “I loathe and detest nuns. I despise every one of them in this building. They should be tied up with string, laid out in a line and raped by the local police.” This is law and order of Ortonesque sexual savagery.

A short break now from stage censorship blogs whilst we enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe! Back at the end of August, with another blog post where I’ll be looking at the representation of real-life characters on stage.

Theatre Censorship – 26: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and David Mercer

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

Edward Bond’s Black Mass was written for the Anti-Apartheid movement in 1970, and contains that unforgivable sin of two years earlier, the representation of the deity on stage. In this play, which was written to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African Prime Minister is receiving communion from a priest in a church in Vereeniging. During the service, you hear the rifle fire of the police shooting seventy “Kaffirs”; the Prime Minister interrupts the communion so that he, the priest and a Police Inspector can go and congratulate the police on their fine work. Christ is so infuriated at the bigotry of the Prime Minister and the Inspector, and the weakness of the Priest, that, unseen, He leaps down from the cross and poisons the Communion wine. On their return, the Prime Minster drinks the wine and dies. In this act of basic revenge, Christ shows Himself also to be capable of committing a crime, to be capable of evil; indeed, as the wine represents His own blood in the Communion service, He poisons part of Himself and therefore you can consider it an act of self-mutilation or suicide. Justice must then be seen to be done, so Christ is questioned, and, as in the Bible, He offers no defence. With delicious irony, the Inspector asks Christ to account for His presence on the premises.

Christ’s treachery reflects very badly on the Priest, who turns on Him and dismisses Him from His post with the hilarious (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) words: “I can’t risk your contaminating the young people we have here”. Christ’s place on the cross is then taken by a stupid fascist policeman who is suited to the task because it is “a nice easy job”; thus, the symbol of Christian love has been replaced by a symbol of corruption and torture. Even today it’s quite shocking to hear the phrase “wank in your own time” used about the Christ figure, especially in a church. By the end, Christ has been subjugated and finally eliminated by the evil of the bigoted South African authoritarians. It is a simple, emblematic play, designed to show the hypocrisy of those who undertake persecutions in the name of religion. However, the treatment of Christ in the play might well be offensive to many people, including those who were vehemently opposed to Apartheid. Bond’s strong imagery might have alienated them, but it certainly shows up the topsy-turvy morals of the Apartheid regime.

David Mercer

David Mercer

Persecution and hypocrisy also feature in David Mercer’s Flint (1970). The eponymous character’s first words are “Do not go into the Church, Ossian, my grandmother said to me – because God is not fun”. Fun is the Reverend Flint’s main occupation and therefore he always leaves a string of lovers and ex-lovers in his wake, like Miss Biggin, the organist. Swash, the curate, pours scorn on Flint’s enjoyment of the bowling alley because he feels it’s demeaning for a vicar to behave like this. However, there is nothing morally wrong with bowling alleys, and his enjoyment of them is one way in which Flint bridges the gap between the church and the people.

Michael Hordern as Flint

Michael Hordern as Flint

The dual aspect of Flint’s character is instantly shown in this first appearance. First, having heard reports of his behaviour, you’re immediately struck by the fact that he’s not a young man. Secondly, his motorbike apparel, which (certainly in those days) was associated with the rowdiness of youth and a fast life, contrast with his being a member of the clergy, which you might think should be a life of quiet contemplation. He cannot be both young and old, quiet and racey; one must be false. The crux of his difficulties is expressed plainly in the line: “I’ve been an agnostic for forty years”. We already sympathise with him because he is tied to a job for which he is scarcely suited, although it is revealing that he is able to give Dixie, his current lover, the comfort she needs and which the “standard Christianity” of Swash’s service totally failed to give her. His only outlet is to disrupt the meaningless ritual of Christian hypocrisy which surrounds him, choking his every move. Therefore, he takes on mistresses, sets fire to buses and to the church, and other such irreverent actions.

At one point he talks about how he has hosed down some little boys; his Ortonesque explanation for their nudity: “It would have been aggressive to hose down four little boys with their clothes on!” has that outrageous yet undeniable logic you’d attribute to the best of Orton’s works. For example, when Mrs Prentice in Orton’s What the Butler Saw announces that she will take an Indian lover in New Delhi, her husband is shocked, but for the wrong reason: “You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling” is his response. Again, it’s logic, but it’s the wrong kind of logic. And both Flint and Mrs Prentice believe their explanations are perfectly reasonable.

Flint’s life is full of tragedies and crimes, not because he is wilful or malicious, but simply because he is careless and getting old. One can imagine that any intrigues set up in Bishop Auckland (we never know quite what happened there) came as a result of his mistaking the name of the town for that of a senior colleague. He is, nevertheless, kind to Dixie, which creates a direct contrast to his wife, Esme: “You are a monster, Ossian”, she says. “The best thing that could happen to you would be a sudden coronary.” Despite this malice she assumes a godly superiority and even takes the virginity of Mary to extremes in her refusal to consummate her marriage. When Esme dies, Swash tries to comfort Flint with his belief that “she is with God”; Flint replies, “they certainly deserve each other.” Esme’s religion is kept firmly in its respectable place and never allows her to become a good person. “Earl’s Court is an underground station and not a place where one finds Jesus”, she grumpily explains, conveniently forgetting that He is, apparently, everywhere.

However, in Flint’s keenness to cross lines and not to draw them, he is most definitely open to the charge of blasphemy. When he feels the need for a quick drink, he suggests taking some of the Communion wine: “I believe we have a few untransmogrified bottles; mere wine until somebody does the abracadabra bit on it”. Dixie, a devout but easily misled Catholic, cannot take Anglicanism seriously as a religion, and Flint is not the right person to help her out. His religious idol is usually “the incumbent Biggin”, in this case Dixie herself: “The flesh tints of Rubens. The ribald calligraphy of Rowlandson. The sensuality of Renoir. All combined for the terrible sacrament of my disintegration”.

The play ends with Flint, flustered by the responsibility of having to find some midwifely assistance for Dixie, rapidly plummeting over a hill on his motorbike “into an army truck full of something explosive”. Perhaps Flint’s death comes as a salvation for the “sentiment of religious reverence”; alternatively, his death comes at a moment of selfless risk; this could be Mercer’s way of ensuring that Flint is not eternally damned. Whichever interpretation one places on Flint’s death, it feels like a highly moral end to the play.

In my next blog, there’ll be more blasphemy from Edward Bond, and from Mary O’Malley.