Scandal in the 1960s: A long, strange trip into the past

Oz was the hippie periodical which provoked the longest obscenity trial in British history. But a new film which recalls the events stands accused of rewriting history. By Kathy Marks
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It was the Swinging Sixties, and London was in the grip of free love, flower power and psychedelic drugs when a group of young Australians arrived and began making waves in the underground arts scene. They produced a magazine that led to the longest obscenity trial in British legal history.

Contributors to Oz included the future author and academic Germaine Greer, the art critic Robert Hughes, and the artist and illustrator Martin Sharp. It was edited by Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and the Englishman Felix Dennis, who later founded a publishing empire.

Those colourful individuals, and the bohemian environment they inhabited, are the subject of a new British-made film, Hippie Hippie Shake, directed by Beeban Kidron. Although not due for release until late next year, it has already stirred up a whirlpool of controversy, with many of the original protagonists complaining about the manner in which they are portrayed.

Chief among those excoriating the film, perhaps predictably, is Greer, who wrote recently: "You used to have to die before assorted hacks started munching your remains and modelling a new version of you out of their own excreta... Reducing the person to excremental artefact before she is dead is worse than cannibalism."

But more sober voices have also spoken out. After expressing serious concerns about the script, Martin Sharp, who lives in Sydney, was shown a revised version in which he counted 55 scenes featuring his character, all of them fictitious. "It's a form of theft," he said yesterday. "They're stealing your identity for their own purposes, without bothering to even inquire whether you mind or not."

Other protagonists have signed waivers allowing the production company, Working Title Films, to use dramatic licence with their names and characters reportedly accepting fees of about 10,000 apiece.

The film tells the story of Richard Neville and his girlfriend, Louise Ferrier, who posed naked on one Oz cover with her friend, Jenny Kee, a fashion designer. Ms Ferrier, who is played by Sienna Miller, is among those cooperating with Working Title.

Oz was founded in Australia in 1963, and within a year had landed its editors all fresh out of university in legal trouble. But it was not until Mr Sharp and Neville moved to Britain in 1966 and launched a London version that the satirical magazine achieved international notoriety.

The counter-culture of the 1960s was at its height, and Oz tapped into it, tackling subjects such as sex, drugs and the Vietnam War. In 1970 the editors invited a group of secondary school pupils to edit an issue, called Schoolkids Oz. Mistaken for a children's publication, it featured a parody of Rupert Bear with a giant erection. The Obscene Publications Squad swooped and Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Andersen were arrested.

The trio were charged with conspiracy to corrupt public morals, which carried a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. At their Old Bailey trial in 1971, their defence lawyer, John Mortimer, QC who later created the Rumpole of the Bailey series declared that the case "stands at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write what we please".

The prosecution claimed the offending issue of Oz dealt with "homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking". Defence witnesses included the musician George Melly who in one of the trial's more memorable moments was asked by Justice Michael Argyle to elucidate the term cunnilingus to the jury. "They may not have done Latin," he said.

The comedian Marty Feldman, the disc jockey John Peel, and the academic Edward de Bono also appeared for the defence. Outside court, meanwhile, protest marches were organised with John Lennon and Yoko Ono speaking out against the prosecution. The defendants were found guilty and jailed. Although the convictions were later overturned on appeal, the magazine had lost its lustre and it closed in 1973.

Oz and the obscenity trial became history until in 1995 Richard Neville published his memoir, Hippie Hippie Shake: The Dreams, the Trips, the Trials, the Screw-ups: The Sixties. Not long afterwards, he sold the film rights to Working Title, which has been working on the chequered project on and off, with a variety of directors and a succession of scripts, for the past decade.

The current director, Ms Kidron, whose previous films include Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, flew out to Australia earlier this year and met some of those unhappy about their portrayal. But Martin Sharp said his concerns had not been allayed. "I wouldn't sign a contract. I said 'Just leave me out of it, make up some other character'. They said they couldn't alter certain things because they'd already shot them. I had a falling out with the film company and I haven't been in touch with them since."

Mr Sharp said an early version of the script depicted him as "a cursing drunkard maniac". The fictionalised scenes include one in which he goes for a romantic night-time swim with Ms Ferrier on London's Hampstead Heath. "I never had a swim on Hampstead Heath in my life, let alone with Louise. If they want to make a fictional film, I have no objection. But I don't like the way they use me as a character in their fantasy of what happened. If you want to make a fantasy, why use real people? It's uncomfortable when someone is fiddling with your persona and portraying you as doing things you didn't do."

Others critical of the project include Philippe Mora, an Australian artist who worked on Oz who is now an acclaimed film director based in Los Angeles. "I couldn't believe it when I read the script, knowing the people involved," he said yesterday. "It would have been very easy to talk to everyone and get the story straight, instead of making false images of people. The truth is what made this a great story."

Mora added: "They've got people bonking the wrong people, and they're using real names. Why not change the names?" He said it was "extremely odd", given the story's uniquely Australian perspective, that non-Australian actors were being used. Emma Booth, who plays Greer, is Australian, and so is Nina Liu, who plays Kee. But Neville is played by Cillian Murphy, the Irish actor, and Martin Sharp by Englishman Max Minghella.

According to Mora, Felix Dennis is also unhappy. Mr Dennis was travelling yesterday, and could not be reached. But Mora said: "Felix contacted me. He was terribly upset. He said 'it's a lie from beginning to end'."

Meanwhile, Neville described by Greer as "one of the least talented people on the London scene in the '60s" is trying to lie low. "I wrote the book a long time ago, I sold the rights, and I wish the movie well," he said yesterday. "The latest script I read I thought caught the spirit of the era pretty well, and it has detached itself from trying to be a documentary, which is all to the good."

Neville said most of his friends and former colleagues were "feeling pretty positive", adding: "There are certainly one or two people that don't believe in the concept of real life humans being portrayed in the cinema, but I think that's a pretty specialist view." He described Greer's reaction as "a mixture of madness and malice". Neville said: "Speaking with Germaine Greer would be a waste of both our times. Why would Germaine listen to reason?"