In 1968, plays put on in theatres were no longer censored by the government, and an exhibition is looking back at the turbulent years following that change.
“There must be no indecent business with the balloon”
Until the Theatres Act of 1968 was passed, the Lord Chamberlain would review every play put on in a theatre, and had the power to censor or even ban the ones that the government felt were an affront to public morality or could incite anti-government feeling.
However, while the theatres were now free to put on plays without seeking permission, many other publications found themselves in the firing line of angry moralists, and this exhibition looks at what happened.
An exhibition that opens with a warning sign that it may cause offence is a good sign that there’s going to be no censorship within of what it was that so outraged the blue-rinse brigades of the 1960s and 70s.
It starts, appropriately enough with the beginnings of state censorship, when politicians got tired of being lampooned, so used their lawmaking powers to curtail such things, but it quickly jumps into the main act, the permissive 60s and the outrage caused by ground breaking court cases.
The lyrics are overtly obscene
Although the government no longer censored plays, there were plenty of other laws that could be used – famously the laws on gross indecency and blasphemy.
A copy of that obscene publication by the disgusting Penguin Books is here – and in case you’re wondering, it’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The public appetite fired up by the ground breaking court case causing all 200,000 printed copies to sell out on the first day after the court case was defeated.
Oz magazine is here as well, as you might expect, with its possibly provocative imagery that was more offensive for the fact that it was produced by a teenage girl. The trial almost saw the editors jailed for obscenity, until an appeal overturned the verdict, a reminder to us just how fragile our freedoms of expression can be.
What do you suppose is the effect intended to be of equipping Rupert Bear with such a large sized organ?
Morality campaigner, Mary Whitehouse is here, a specter of horn-rimmed glasses and floral outfits, who became as famous as her targets, with her determination to sue publications and theatres who offended her, even though she herself rarely saw the offending material herself.
Posters line the walls reminding us of daring plays that sometimes seem tame to our modern eyes and ears, but shocked polite society at the time.
I consider it offensive to bring this king of entertainment into peoples homes
Censorship is still around today though.
We still have the watershed, a 9pm barrier to offensive material that is increasingly immaterial in an age of watching anything you want whenever you want on YouTube.
The regulator, Ofcom can still reprimand broadcasters if they break the watershed, and the BBC will still bleep out lyrics it finds offensive. Although they probably don’t bleep out George Fromby as they used to in the 1930s due to the double entendres in his songs.
Films are still rated and censored by the British Board of Film Classification, although it’s less well known that it’s rulings are not mandatory – just advisory and it’s down to local councils to decide who can see what films are shown in their area.
That’s how London’s Scala cinema was able to flout the rules so widely when it operated, as the local council gave it largess to show whatever it wanted.
Still, do you feel comfortable knowing that technically, your local council can decide what films your local cinemas will show? Do you trust them with that sort of power?
The most pernicious form of censorship today though is self-censorship caused by the fear of what happens when the pitchfork wielding twitter mobs descend upon a quote taken out of context — or worse, religious and political extremism leading to violence retribution.
Uproar as viewers jam phones
I have always argued that for you to have the right to be offended, I have to have the right to cause offense. One cannot exist without the other, and if you censor me, you silence yourself.
Unfortunately, most offended people don’t see it like that and may even see enforced silence of everyone a goal to be achieved than avoided.
Today the freedom of speech is under attack as it has never been before, less so from the state, but from activists and pressure groups seeking to use mob-rule to enforce their views on people they disagree with.
This exhibition is a wake up call to everyone how precious our freedoms are — and needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
The exhibition, Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50 is on at the V&A Museum until 27th January 2019. Entry is free.