The moral outrage barely mattered

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The Independent Culture
`A n evening of elegant erotica" was how Kenneth Tynan described his musical Oh! Calcutta! "This is the kind of show to give pornography a dirty name. There is no more innocent show in town - and certainly none more witless than this silly little diversion," countered Clive Barnes in the New York Times when the controversial show rolled into New York on 17 June 1969.

Tynan had succeeded in persuading Samuel Beckett, Jean-Luc Godard, Tennessee Williams, Edna O'Brien, John Lennon and Gore Vidal to write sketches illustrating their observations on sex, which were then set to music. The resultant two-and-a-half hours of stripping and a bit of singing and dancing led James Davis of the New York Daily News to fume that the show was "hard- core pornography - a stag show open to the general public". He probably wouldn't have approved of the meaning behind the show's title either (phonetic for "Oh, quel cul t'as", generally translated as "Oh, what an arse you've got").

If the critics called it "filthy, rotten and perverted", the public morality organisations were apoplectic. "Full-frontal nudity was only one of the objections," explained Jack Bentley in the Sunday Mirror. "The simulated sex act, fetishism, voyeurism, wife- and underclothes- swapping made up just part of a show which, 10 years ago, would have landed everybody concerned in jail." Although the New York police's public morals squad did attend some of the previews, they found nothing to induce any arrests. The actors in the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions were not so lucky: they were arrested on obscenity charges which were then dropped.

The public obviously didn't share the critics' reactions as the show ran for nearly 2,000 performances. Demand was such that the promoters increased ticket prices and the play transferred from downtown to Broadway.

The show's reputation with the punters didn't extend to venue managers: when the producers started on the London production, they had great difficulty finding a place in which to rehearse. The manager of the Westminster Ballroom initially agreed, then changed his mind: he thought it would be living off "immoral earnings". The producer, Michael White, saw it differently. He told the Sunday Mirror: "I am convinced that Oh! Calcutta! is immoral only for those who want to be immoral ... I think Anglo-Saxons are one of the most sexually repressed races in the world, and audiences will find much to help them sort out their sexual problems."

One of the London cast members is now Tony Blair's father-in-law. Tony Booth admitted to the Sunday Mirror that he wasn't certain of what his mother's reaction would be. "I wouldn't be surprised if she only went out at night," he joked.


Maeve Walsh returns next week