‘Oh, God, you couldn’t buy that publicity!’ people exclaimed as Mel Smith appeared on the front page of a clutch of newspapers, on radio and TV and finally on the world news channels.
Mel is Winston Churchill in my play Allegiance (which depicts the night that Churchill and Michael Collins got drunk together in 1921), and a fracas had arisen about his entitlement to smoke the Churchillian cigar. Heroic Mel was insisting on lighting up the Havana on stage, in defiance of Scotland’s draconian anti-smoking laws. Just before curtain-up on Monday morning, a rumour went around that the police were standing by, the heavies of the Edinburgh Council were waiting to pounce, the Assembly Rooms venue would be closed down, the theatre’s director, William Burdett-Coutts, would be fined £5,000, everyone would be put out of work and any fees earned would be confiscated. To save everyone being fired and all productions closed down, Mel relented, at the last moment, by not actually lighting the cigar. The next day the Scotsman bannered the decision ‘The law 1, artistic freedom 0’, and the evening papers splashed with ‘Mel Smith climbs down over smoking ban’.
But it wasn’t a publicity stunt — although it did generate publicity — and by mid-week the show was gratifyingly selling out. This was a genuine protest against Scotland’s anti-smoking laws, which are carried to a more fanatical extreme than Ireland’s. In Ireland, smoking is permitted for dramatic performances where the text calls for it: fags to be herbal, but cigars can be real. And the text does call for it. In Allegiance, Churchill offers Collins a cigar as a gesture of male bonding — and also to encourage him towards a more sybaritic approach to life. Later, Collins is directed to take out a Three Castles cigarette — to show that he is under stress, as he smoked only when worried.
Actresses used to say, ‘I only take off my clothes on stage if the character requires it.’ But with smoking, this artistic justification is censored: even where smoking is an integral part of the action and character, it is absolutely forbidden.
My analysis of Scotland’s fanaticism is that the spirit of John Knox never died: but instead of raging against the sins and wickedness of the world, it now rages only against the evils of tobacco. It follows that because every other former transgression — the foulest language, sexual acts of every description — is now permitted on stage, there has to be one area where moralistic outrage can express itself. This human scolding urge is now concentrated on the single sin of smoking. And possibly paedophilia.
But local Edinburghers were giving a different interpretation. ‘The Assembly is composed of a lot of jumped-up county councillors who are totally ineffective,’ I was told. ‘So anti-smoking is their displacement activity.’ Others say that picking on smokers is easier than addressing real crime. David Johnson, the producer of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, was moved along by the anti-smoking police while he was having a puff on the street. He wasn’t far enough into the street, they said. Meanwhile, he observed just across the way from him, a man was being beaten up by an assailant.
Except for the smoking Stasi, Edinburgh is fabulous at Festival time. I never appreciated before what a beautiful city it is, pulsating with life. It is terrific to see huge queues forming for every conceivable kind of live theatre. Anyone who fears that theatre is dead should come to Festival Edinburgh where theatre is immediate, accessible, inexpensive and full of choice. Not impossibly expensive, inaccessible and snooty, as it sometimes is in the West End.
I did, however, have to raise some supplementary funds to support the production of Allegiance. And I am hugely grateful to the kind benefactors and dear friends who helped me. Rich people get a lot of begging letters, and they can’t respond to all charitable appeals.
I am trying to encourage the rich panjandrums in the BBC to share their enormous salaries with good causes. After all, they must feel some twinges of conscience claiming to be so left-wing while hauling home the benefits of monopoly capitalism, culled from a coercive tax. I have, however, drawn a blank in extracting any patronage funds from either Terry Wogan (my blarney didn’t work), Jonathan Ross (who, when I once worked with him, told me an entertaining tall story about his grandmother having been a prostitute) and Annie Robinson, whom I took to lunch at the Reform Club when she replaced me as the resident Glenda Slagg on the Daily Express. It was quite nice of me to do so, particularly since she got a story out of it, and I didn’t. However, £10 million-a-year Annie sent me away with a flea in my ear. ‘No go,’ she scrawled, as though I were trying to sell her a dodgy time-share. ‘But good luck.’ Well, I had the luck, if not the donation. But I still consider she owes me lunch. At the Ritz. In Paris.