Art and censorship: Portrait of an outrageous lady

The trial of DH Lawrence's novel remains Britain's most famous obscenity case. As the BBC screens a new dramatisation, John Walsh recalls how it ignited the passion of a nation
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It was the year Harold Macmillan made his "wind of change" speech in Cape Town, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker hit the London stage, Sylvia Pankhurst died, and the first baby born to a reigning monarch since 1857 was christened Andrew. But in the long perspective of history, 1960 was marked most significantly by a legal event - the trial of a book by a long-dead author, to determine if it was obscene.

The book was Lady Chatterley's Lover. It concerned a woman called Constance married to a landowning knight with a handsome house called Wragby Hall in the Midlands, and a paralysed lower body, the legacy of a wound sustained in the First World War. Partly encouraged by her husband to seek a lover, Connie falls into an intensely sexual relationship with a gamekeeper on the estate and finds herself awakened to hitherto undreamt-of sensations.

D H Lawrence's novel was, in fact, a sustained cry of protest about the passionless, sterile country England had become after the war and a plea for men and women to abandon their denatured, industrialised selves and find a new honesty, starting in their physical relationships. But its higher purpose was eclipsed by the "rude" stuff - 30 pages of purple prose, rapturously evoked sex scenes and Anglo-Saxon bar-room language translated to the bower and the boudoir.

It was first published (uncut) in 1928 in Florence. In the UK you could buy an "expurgated" version published by Heinemann, minus all the good bits. You could buy the full version on the Continent and try to smuggle it home, but HM Customs and Excise were vigilant, and the Director of Public Prosecutions successfully had 17 private printings destroyed, between 1950 and 1960. The water had been muddied, however, by the passing of the Obscene Publications Act in 1959.

This Act, the brainchild of Roy Jenkins, made three important changes to previous rulings about obscenity (whose wording went back to 1868). You couldn't just pull out "filthy passages" if you felt they might shock, but had to consider the book as a whole. You could allow publication if it was "for the public good" in the interests of literature, the art of learning. And you could summon expert witnesses to speak for the book's merits, rather than rely on the common sense of the dolt on the Clapham omnibus. The Chatterley trial represented the first real test case of the new Act - a test of whether a work of literature was to be judged by the same rules as Rhona Whip-Girl.

To many people, the hero of the hour was Allen Lane, founder and chairman of Penguin Books. Certainly he had the most to lose. Had it all gone wrong, he could have gone to jail. It was he who took the decision to publish Lady Chatterley's Lover on 26 August, announced his intention in public and invited the police to help themselves to a dozen copies, pre-publication, while the DPP decided how best to proceed. After taking advice from the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller (who read three chapters on a train to Southampton) and his DPP deputy Maurice Crump (who was puzzled that Lawrence hadn't said more about Lady Chatterley's hobbies and interests - "Whether she rode, hunted, played tennis or golf ...") he elected to go ahead.

The trial lasted a week. Nobody taking part could have foreseen what a position it would occupy in British cultural history. To date, the trial has spawned several books, two TV recreations, a play and a pirated long-playing record. Next week, another incarnation hits the small screen, in the shape of Andrew Davies's The Chatterley Affair. It's not a documentary, but uses the trial as a backdrop for an affair between two members of the jury - Keith (played by Rafe Spall) a working-class, married finance clerk and Helena (Louise Delamere) a posh, fatale divorcee.

Their torrid amour gets under way when, on the first day, the nine men and three women of the jury are ensconced in a court ante-room to read the novel together, in silence. As Connie Chatterley gets in touch with her inner invertebrate ("All her womb was open and soft and softly clamouring like a sea-anemone under the tides, clamouring for him to come in again and make a fulfilment for her"), Helena and Keith exchange glances; she seduces him after an encounter with baby chickens in a market. "I've never done anything like that before," he tells her. "Oh God, don't tell me I've corrupted you," she counters.

As their relationship becomes more sexually all-consuming, and the lovers mirror the behaviour of Connie and Mellors in the book (yes, even the forget-me-nots-in-the-pubic-hair scene and the anal sex, though it's done very discreetly), Davies skilfully interweaves the arguments of the trial with the couple's attempts to decide what to do with the new world of liberation and honesty they have discovered.

The trial began on 20 October with an opening speech for the prosecution that has passed into history. The counsel was Mervyn Griffith-Jones, a sarcastic, pompous and worldly man, who once explained how he decided for himself if a book was obscene: "I put my feet up on the desk and start reading. If I get an erection, we prosecute." Deploying his thin-lipped scorn to best effect (marvellously portrayed on TV by the withering Pip Torrens) he started by telling the jury, "Do not approach this matter in any priggish, high-minded, super-correct, mid-Victorian manner" before proceeding to do just that.

He invited the jury to condemn the book for inducing lustful thoughts, for "[setting] upon a pedestal promiscuous and adulterous intercourse", for commending sensuality as a virtue and for encouraging "coarseness and vulgarity of thought and language". Then he spoilt it all by a lapse into old-fashioned condescension. "Would you approve your young sons, young daughters - because girls can read as well as boys - reading this book? Is it a book you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book you would wish even your wife or your servants to read?" Tittering broke out in the gallery and even in the jury, perhaps the first sign that the old culture of deference and shared moral assumptions might be cracking. More titters greeted the spectacle of Mr Griffith-Jones vocalising the unsayable. Since four-letter words were the subject matter of the prosecution, he itemised them: "The word 'fuck' or 'fucking' occurs no less than 30 times. 'Cunt' 14 times; 'balls' 13 times; 'shit' and 'arse' six times apiece; 'cock' four times; 'piss' three times and so on." In the TV dramatisation, the camera pulls in close-up on Torrens's razor lips as he intones the taboo words and both the courtroom and the viewer are rocked by their (as it were) naked display.

The defence countered by emphasising the virtues of Allen Lane and Penguin Books, drew a distinction between pornography and literature and announced they would call many witnesses to attest that Lady Chatterley was very much the latter and by no means the former. One by one they trooped into the witness box to attest that no, the sex in the book was not "dragged in at every conceivable opportunity" and no, the circumambient stuff about civilisation was indeed "more than padding".

The spinsterish academic Helen Gardner, the novelists E M Forster (small and mole-like) and Rebecca West (leonine and fluting), the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, the historian C V Wedgwood, the humorist Stephen Potter, the film critic Dilys Powell and many others offered their two penn'orth. T S Eliot waited outside Court No 1 for his name to be called, but fruitlessly. The newspapers reported their amazement at finding the Bishop of Woolwich not just sympathetic to a dirty book ("what Lawrence is trying to do is portray the sex relationship as something essentially sacred") but happy to recommend it to his flock ("Is this a book which in your view Christians ought to read? "Yes, I think it is.") The front-page splash in the Evening Standard was "A BOOK ALL CHRISTIANS SHOULD READ".

In his later memoir, A Very English Voice, Richard Hoggart (author of The Uses of Literacy) described the procession of defence witnesses: "There were some Lawrence experts, but even they tended to be provincials; there was a Church of England priest, a psychiatrist, a young Catholic undergraduate girl, some elderly lady university dons impregnable in tweeds and sensible shoes, some earnest Guardian-reading types and so on."

Hoggart himself turned out to be the star of the show. He assumed (quite rightly) that he'd been chosen by the defence as being a down-to-earth, bluff, northern, proletarian - ie, Lawrentian - type, far removed from the bluestockings and posh chaps. His brilliantly paradoxical thesis was that Lady Chatterley's Lover was not a "vicious indulgence in sex and sensuality", it was, au contraire, "highly virtuous and, if anything, puritanical."

Griffith-Jones was visibly flummoxed. "I thought I had lived my life under a misapprehension as to the meaning of the world 'puritanical,'" he said. "Will you help me?" "Yes," said Hoggart kindly. "In England today and for a long time the word 'puritanical' has been extended to mean someone who is against anything which is pleasurable, particularly sex. The proper meaning of it, to a literary man or to a linguist, is somebody who belongs to the tradition of British Puritanism, generally, and the distinguishing feature of that is an intense sense of responsibility for one's conscience. In that sense, the book is puritanical."

It was, many said, the turning-point of the trial. After Hoggart, the prosecution's interventions became fewer and were confined to "No questions"; eventually the judge, Mr Justice Byrne, called a halt and sent the jury off to consider their verdict. But why had no "expert witnesses" been called upon to assist theprosecution? F R Leavis, the god-like Cambridge don, was known to hate the book; likewise John Sparrow, the homosexual Warden of All Souls, and a leading publisher and eminent bookseller. It turned out that the prosecution had searched high and low for witnesses but had found no one to denounce the book. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to come across as narrow-minded and censorious. This was, after all, 1960.

After dozens of liberal testimonies, the judge sought to invoke the spirit of the ordinary, Clapham-bus-riding Englishman, shocked by rude behaviour and by people saying "fuck" out loud. "The judge and Griffith-Jones were a well-matched pair," wrote Hoggart. "Both seemed to think they were trying not so much a book as Lady Chatterley herself, for letting down her class; and Mellors for getting above himself (and by getting on top of her.)"

The jury found Penguin Books not guilty. Joy was unconfined. A party was held in celebration at the Arts Council. The judge awarded Penguin no costs, which was fair because now every reader in the land wanted to buy it and acquaint him or herself with Connie's inner flame and Mellors's relentless loins. Huge queues began to form outside bookshops. Three printers worked together to mass-produce copies of the book in batches of 300,000 (three million were sold in 12 months). The right-wing press thundered with disgust and denounced the verdict. Fourteen MPs demanded the abolition of the Obscene Publications Act. And a Mr Lane from Bath wrote a fuming letter to the head of Penguin Books calling him "a disgrace to the name of Lane".

Look for a symbol of how the Chatterley trial changed the culture, and you might choose the testimony of an often-forgotten witness; one who appears, however, in the TV treatment. She was the last witness called, one Bernardine Wall, a 20-year-old English student at Cambridge. In the witness box, she said she had read both the expurgated and the whole versions of Chatterley and much preferred the latter, which had more realistically (she felt) evoked relations between men and women. It wasn't the most exciting moment in the witness box, but it brought something important to the trial - the spectacle of a young woman who had read the dirty book and about whom the jury might ask, "Has she been depraved and corrupted?" before looking at her calm, sweet, clever face and concluding: perhaps not. Was this the moment whenthe British decided they were no longer susceptible to depravity and corruption? And that they no longer needed moral guardians to tell them what they could do, or think, or read, or say out loud?

After the trial, the liberalisation of culture we associate with the Sixties began in earnest: the Lord Chamberlain stopped trying to censor the theatre, John Trevelyan took over at the British Board of Film Censors, the liberal Hugh Carleton Greene moved into the BBC. The Ginger Man, the Karma Sutra, Tropic of Cancer, The Naked Lunch and Last Exit to Brooklyn could all be published. A new dawn had broken, possibly due to one girl student in 1960. She is now a 66-year-old psychotherapist living in London. She doesn't generally let her patients know about her part in transforming English socio-sexual life forever.

The Chatterley Affair will be screened on BBC4 on Monday at 9pm.