Dominic Cooke on why we must guard against a self-perpetuating climate of fear and timidity
Forty years ago, the Theatres Bill removed from the Lord Chamberlain his centuries-old power to censor the British stage. Under a law unchanged since 1843, every work intended for production in British theatres had first to be submitted to, and approved by, his office. Each work came back with a report from one of the censors, who became renowned for their hypersensitive ability to read sex and subversion into the most innocent of dialogue. Kenneth Tynan quotes some choice reports in his famous 1965 polemic The Royal Smut-Hound: the phrase ‘balls of the Medici’ is banned, for example (although the report does give the helpful suggestion that ‘testicles of the Medici’ would be acceptable’). Another personal favourite, also quoted by Tynan, is the following masterpiece of straight-faced absurdity: ‘Page 14: Omit “the perversions of rubber”. Substitute “the kreurpels and blinges of the rubber”. Omit the chamber pot under the bed.’
As well as Tynan, the Royal Court Theatre, under its artistic director William Gaskill, fought bitterly against the Lord Chamberlain’s office, even, on occasion, openly flouting the censor’s demands. At performances of Edward Bond’s Early Morning, Royal Court patrons were charged a ‘membership fee’ on the door, rather than being sold a ticket, thereby exploiting a loophole which exempted private theatre clubs from censorship.
Aside from the more comical aberrations of the censor’s pencil, there is, of course, a sinister side to the limiting of freedom of speech by a government-appointed official. Peter Hall has written wisely about the function of censorship as ‘a means of exerting power, preventing debate and discouraging challenge’. It is a despicable form of bullying, made all the more hurtful and infuriating when legitimised by the state, or other institutions.