Thirty years ago today: 'Saved' for the nation, farewell to the censor
Maeve Walsh looks back on the Royal Court production that marked the end of an era
Sunday 21 February 1999
The archaic Theatres Act required all new scripts to be sent to the Lord Chamberlain before a licence for public performance could be granted. It stated that a play must not "contain anything immoral or otherwise improper", which included indecency, incitement to riot and, in the case of Pinter's The Caretaker (1960), the line "piss off". The censor-in-chief's judgement was never explained - but it was final.
Saved, or, if you like, "The One Where a Baby is Stoned to Death in its Pram", didn't have a chance. The Royal Court still put it on, as a "private", members-only production, and it proved to be the beginning of the end of censorship. The theatre attracted 3,000 new "members" - and frequent police attention - during the play's run; and the directors were prosecuted by the DPP in a high-profile test case in February 1966. Within months, discussions on reform were underway and the Lord Chamberlain's power was finally removed in September 1968.
In February 1969, Saved returned, opening the Court's pat-on-the-back Bond season, and Narrow Road to the Deep North - "The One With Five Dead Babies and a Disembowelling" - opened on 18 February. Written in 1968 for Coventry's "People and Cities" conference, it had also been refused a licence but got an eleventh-hour reprieve when Bond agreed to slight amendments. The rep season concluded with Early Morning, or "The One Where Queen Victoria's a Cannibal and Has a Lesbian Affair with Florence Nightingale". This had the distinction of being the last-ever banned play. The Court's plans for another members-only run-in had foundered when the police arrived at the 1968 premiere.
Post-censorship, Bond's status as an important, if notorious, figure in British theatre was affirmed. Many critics humbly revised their original opinions of Saved and accepted the authenticity of its bleak working-class portrait: "Brutish, only in that it reflects a brutish world" (Express); "It's not sensationalism. It is a reflection of modern violence" (Evening News); even the Sunday Times found it "momentous. Excellent in itself". Narrow Road, a Japanese parable on government and authority, was admired, if "cryptic" or "enigmatic".
Early Morning, a surrealist historical satire with an extended, lip- smacking cannibalistic finale, was the real test of the new climate. The public might now have been allowed to judge for themselves, but the critics still wanted to help: "The most disturbing and grotesque piece I have ever seen" (City Press); "The most repellent exhibit of the three" (What's On); "Making an art form of the revolting" (Mirror); "Ugh" (People). The Standard's critic left halfway through; the Sunday Times predicted vomiting in the stalls.
Since 1969, there have been only three calls for the Attorney-General to stop productions. Of these, Oh! Calcutta, Kenneth Tynan's "evening of elegant erotica" (1970), survived, and Mary Whitehouse's case against a simulated homosexual rape in The Romans in Britain (1982) collapsed. Only the five actors in Deejay, a 1971 naked revue, may have wished for the prior intervention of the Lord Chamberlain. They were charged - and ended up in prison.
After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violencefilm
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
- 2 ALS ice bucket challenge co-founder Corey Griffin drowns, aged 27
- 3 A third of employers never check job applicants' qualifications, survey finds
- 4 James Foley beheading: Fox news presenter Megyn Kelly annoyed by Ferguson update during broadcast about murdered journalist
- 5 Paul Scholes: Manchester United need five experienced players who can turn round a desperate situation
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC
The Top Ten: Horrible buildings
JK Rowling writes new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing 'Singing Sorceress' Celestina Warbuck
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
American film board gives gay film Love Is Strange R-rating despite no sex or violence
Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome: 'Abort it and try again – it would be immoral to bring it into the world'
Scottish independence: English people overwhelmingly want Scotland to stay in the UK
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
Scottish Independence Referendum: Salmond described as 'arrogant, ambitious and dishonest' by Scottish women