Terence Blacker: The fear of causing offence in our stupidly timid age

Those concerned about our health will soon turn their attention to behaviour, language, ideas
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Half a century after it sent out trills of outrage and delight from the Royal Court Theatre, Look Back in Anger will soon be causing trouble again. John Osborne's play famously attacked the stodgy, dim certainties of post-war Britain. Now, in a way that would have given its author an apoplectic fit were he alive today, it is in danger of offending different modern sensibilities.

Jimmy Porter, the angry young man who is the play's protagonist, is an unusual rebel by today's standards, not least because he is a resolute smoker of a pipe. It is this habit, rather an important indicator of the character and the times in which he lived, which has been causing problems for Sir Peter Hall as he prepares a 50th anniversary production. Pipe-smoking has been permitted at the Theatre Royal, Bath, where the play opens, but is likely to fall victim next year of the new smoking legislation when it becomes law.

"There aren't any good, brave causes left," Porter complains during Look Back in Anger and, for most people, the right to stink out a theatre with pipe tobacco would rank low on any list of causes that are good or brave. All the same, there is something paradoxical about putting on a play that rages about the restrictions of the past, of class and of gender, only to see it fall victim to our own nannyish constraints on citizens.

Peter Hall has, with commendable mildness, commented that there was a whiff of political correctness about banning smoking on stage - it was a form of censorship, he said - and his remarks cover other media. The law against lighting up at work or in a public place will, we are told, affect film and television studios. An actor playing Winston Churchill may have to do without a cigar. Great tobacco-based comic props, the ridiculous fat corona on which Boycey chomps in Only Fools and Horses, the cigarette which for Patsy of Absolutely Fabulous is a sort of life-support machine, will be lost. In film, as perhaps in life, the post-coital smoke will become a historical curiosity.

It is possible, I suppose, that children will learn from the screen that tobacco is an evil, socially reprehensible substance and that smoking is not funny, clever or sexy, but once the law starts sanitising the life and humour out of stories and characters, something creepy is taking place. Those who are so concerned today about our health, vulnerability to temptation, the future of innocent little kiddies, will soon turn their attention to other areas of on-screen inappropriateness - behaviour, language, ideas. After all, if a studio is to be deemed a public place, virtually any kind of deviance from polite normality can presumably be banned.

Yet it is the theatre, and Jimmy Porter's pipe, that are particularly enraging. Apart from the hysterical stupidity of the idea that a man exhaling a bit of smoke will be doing terrible things to the health of those in the stalls and the circle, there is the small but not unimportant question of choice. A person who does not wish to risk contamination by watching an actor smoking a pipe (or, for that matter, is anxious not to be offended by what is said or done on stage), is faced by a simple matter of choice. Plenty of inoffensive, smoke-free evenings are available elsewhere.

We have become habituated to the idea that the world described by John Osborne is repressed and backward-looking. Certainly Look Back in Anger is not the masterpiece that it was once thought to be, and its author's later writings served to confirm the suspicion that there was something misogynistic and mean-spirited about its rage. On the other hand, it was at least free of the fearfulness that has become part of 21st-century life, our society's need to play safe under the guise of protecting the vulnerable. There are, after all, not that many plays in today's West End which address head-on contemporary shibboleths of class, power and gender.

In fact, looking back without anger, it is possible to conclude that there was a brave idealism in the late 1950s and early 1960s that was subsequently lost. Five years after that production of Look Back in Anger, the new spirit of cultural liberalism was challenged in the courts and, as Andrew Davies's television play The Chatterley Affair recently reminded us, a real and united spirit of courage was shown by those who testified in court - not just academics and writers, but churchmen, too. Would there be that degree of uncompromising solidarity in defence of free speech today? The evidence of the past few weeks suggests not. In a dirty-minded age, the idea advanced in court that DH Lawrence's view of sexuality, and the language in which it is expressed, is sacramental and at the very core of our humanity would be regarded as overblown and pretentious. No bishop would dream of standing up to defend a sexually graphic novel.

Lawrence himself, presented in court back in 1960 as one of the great novelists of the 20th century, has fallen profoundly out of fashion. With dubious attitudes towards politics and gender, he lacks that contemporary relevance which is thought to be important on university campuses today.

Perhaps these are small matters of sex and cigarettes. Possibly John Osborne and DH Lawrence have fallen from favour for good reason. But, in their different ways, these two angry men and those who stood up for them have something to teach us in our timid, sophisticated age.