Sex, censorship and the real Mrs Henderson

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The Independent Culture

She was a doughty upper-class widow who shocked high society 70 years ago when she bought a redundant theatre, the Windmill, and launched nude revues.

This month, the story of Laura Henderson will be seen on the big screen in a Stephen Frears film, Mrs Henderson Presents, starring Judi Dench as the proprietor and Bob Hoskins as her manager, Vivian Van Damm.

For the purposes of the film, Mrs Henderson bulldozes Lord Cromer, the Lord Chamberlain responsible for stage decency, into a lavish lunch to persuade him that he should not strike out the nudes she needs for her show to turn a profit.

But documents at the British Library show the official discomfort over the tastefully presented titillation went on for years after Mrs Henderson launched her first Revudeville show in 1932. Concerns increased because of opposition mounted later in the decade by the Public Morality Council, led by the Bishop of London.

New rules were devised in about 1940 under which theatre-owners were obliged to submit photographs of planned nude poses, and scripts detailing the performances by any clothed singers, dancers and comics.

Mrs Henderson stayed on the right side of the law by having nude performers stand stock still - it was considered less indecent - while others, fully clothed, stood and sang around them. This resulted in an archive of black and white photographs showing the Windmill's naked "tableaux", now in the library's hands.

Kathryn Johnson, curator of the library's modern drama collections, said: "There had to be subdued lighting and the girls couldn't move. They couldn't smile and they had to have their front foot forward so you could not see anything in what they called 'the fork'." But, she said: "Something carefully draped was a great deal more erotic than anything full frontal."

Yet there appears to have been some leniency. "There's a strong implication of a modus vivendi, that [both Van Damm and the Lord Chamberlain] agreed lines in the sand. And after Mrs Henderson died [in 1944], letters from the Lord Chamberlain's office say she had been able to twist people in the office around her little finger."

Mrs Johnson points out that despite public perception, there had been nudes in the West End before, but the Windmill became the most famous. "Most people, if they know anything about the Windmill, know it did nude revues and it stayed open through the war," she said. Its notoriety was often based on slim grounds, however. The censors objected to material such as the lines "she'll lead you up the garden path, but you won't get a sprig of parsley".

"What seems to have lit the blue touch was in 1937. In coronation week, Van Damm had engaged a photographer to do photographs for a souvenir programme and the photographer sold one to the Mirror of a line of girls who look like cancan dancers quite clearly topless," Mrs Johnson said. "There was a real fuss and people writing to Windsor. In papers in the Royal Collection someone says, 'London has become a new Babylon'."

Van Damm seems to have regarded the process as something of a game. He defended any exposed flesh by explaining it was inferior war-time elastic that had contributed to possible sagging of the girls' costumes.

The personal peccadilloes of the censors also emerge in the papers. "The [main] examiner was obsessed by boobs," Mrs Johnson said. And in what looks like a rather bad joke, one of the senior officials was a George Alfred Titman.