Two actresses who stripped for art

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The Independent Culture
Jenny Runacre made her debut in Oh, Calcutta! in 1971. Looking back on it now, she says that she enjoyed the experience and thought "stage nudity was relevant to the time". But she worries about what has come after, which she now sees as a commercial exploitation of sex.

"I don't think we, the cast, were being exploited - we were very well paid and did it by choice. But it was an exploitative image of women." "Men too," interjects her teenage daughter, Mariel. She's right, in so far as male actors also disrobed (one being Tony Blair's father-in-law, Anthony Booth). Runacre concedes that it is not just young actresses who are pressured into taking their clothes off in public. "I've known guys who were so desperate for work that, if they were told to hang their dicks out on stage, they'd do it."

That said, adds Runacre, the sketches in Oh, Calcutta! were all "male fantasies", while Voyeurz, too, for all its focus on lesbian sexuality, is, she points out, written by a man. Yet more sleazy male imaginings about female sex, she suspects, rather than the real, liberated thing. "A show about lesbians should be written by women. I'm not saying that Oh, Calcutta! should have had all women writers, but at least there should have been one or two." As it was, the one female contributor, Edna O'Brien, had her sketch dropped from the English run of the show.

Linda Marlowe is also an Oh, Calcutta! veteran. By contrast with Runacre, she believes that its effect was liberating rather than degrading. "It was a show about sex and it showed nudity, which had never been seen before on the English stage. It seems rather tame now and there haven't been incessant nude sex shows on the serious stage since, have there?"

In fact, Marlowe worries more about violence in the movies than the frank depiction of sex on stage or screen. "Rather a thousand Oh, Calcutta!s than violence. When the Dowager Lady Birdwood complained about Oh, Calcutta! the police came for a week, took notes and decided not to prosecute. So they must have thought it was harmless."

She also thinks that Ken Tynan, who devised the show, genuinely believed that it was important to break the taboos. "I don't think he was doing it for sensationalism. That it made a lot of money for some people is another matter."

As with Jenny Runacre, who went on to have a distinguished acting career in films by such art-house masters as Pasolini, Antonioni and Derek Jarman, Oh, Calcutta! did Linda Marlowe's career no harm. Soon afterwards, she took the lead in a shocking, powerful fringe play, Dynamo, which later became an "underground" film. This in turn brought her to the attention of Steven Berkoff, who cast her in his own versions of The Trial, Metamorphosis, Greek and Decadence. Lately, she has taken to directing herself, most recently at the Leicester Haymarket theatre.

But it was Dynamo that Marlowe counts as being her real breakthrough to serious acting - and in that she was also required to appear naked. (Jenny Runacre, incidentally, played a stripper in the same show.) "I have been asked by a producer to revive Dynamo and direct it myself," says Marlowe. "But I won't. It was, like Oh, Calcutta!, very much of its time, a very Seventies play. To revive it now might be for the wrong reasons."