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
When Edward Bond's Saved was first seen at the Royal Court in 1965, one outraged critic claimed the play was "nothing short of propaganda for sadism and sexual peversion, and seeing it has left a scar which will remain with me for the rest of my life". Meanwhile, the Sunday Times fumed that it was "a clear demonstration of what is permissible and what is not and why ... there comes a point when both life and art are irretrievably debased. [Saved] is well past that point". More to the point, its production wasn't "permissible" at all; it had been banned under a censorship act dating back to 1843.

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.