Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 18 December 2004

The strange world of theatre censorship

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People won’t put it in Books of the Year, but there is no more entertaining Christmas present than The Lord Chamberlain Regrets by Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson (British Library). It is a history of British theatre censorship, and describes the strange system by which, until 1968, the chief courtier, the Lord Chamberlain, pre-censored all plays that were to be publicly performed. The system was always mistaken, and became increasingly absurd, as, well into the Fifties, the Lord Chamberlain tried unhappily to maintain the policy that there could be no jocular portrayal of Queen Victoria or even her son (‘the play shows up King Edward VII in a tiresome light as regards girls’). Two other tough rules were that Christ or God could not be impersonated on stage (perhaps we’re going back to that one) and that homosexuality could not be mentioned. Another was that plays should not depict the current politics of foreign countries, particularly ones which were, in theory at least, friendly. In 1938, for instance, a play called Take Heed had to substitute the word ‘foreign’ for ‘Czecho-Slovakian’, ‘Vann’ for ‘Berlin’ and ‘yellow shirts’ for ‘brown shirts’. The words ‘goose-stepping’, ‘Herr’ and ‘National Socialism’ were cut throughout.

But the authors do not make the mistake of just laughing at the Lord Chamberlain and his readers. They notice that the readers’ reports, written by well-educated men for two guineas per play, were often thoughtful, well-informed and trenchant. Here is the beginning of one on Look Back in Anger: ‘This impressive and depressing play breaks new psychological ground, dealing with a type of young man I believed had vanished 20 years ago... It is about the kind of intellectual that thrashed about passionately looking for a cause. It usually married girls of good family, quarrelled with all their relations, and bore them off to squalor in Pimlico or Poplar where they had babies and spent all their spare time barracking Fascist meetings.’ Another makes the good and often forgotten point about Oscar Wilde (recommending against a play about him) that ‘Wilde was the martyr of his own pride, not of British justice’. The reader charged with Pinter’s The Caretaker (‘This is a piece of incoherence in the manner of Samuel Beckett...’) recommends the following cuts: ‘piss off’ twice in Act I, ‘Would you like me to have a look at your body?’, ‘Bugger it’, ‘up your arse’, ‘buggered’, and ‘from arsehole to breakfast time’. Now that we know what the post-Lord Chamberlain works of Pinter are like, who can honestly withhold a twinge of sympathy for the censor’s blue pencil?

Today, in a world free of Lord Chamberlains, we are told that we can and do say exactly what we think. I wonder. After a piece I wrote here criticising some current interpretations of Islam, I had an interesting letter from Fay Weldon. Four years ago, she said, she had been declared an ‘Islamophobe’ by the Runnymede Trust. Her offence had been committed earlier, at the height of the Salman Rushdie affair, when she wrote: ‘I do not believe the Koran is a suitable poem on which to base a contemporary society.’ Fay Weldon tells me, ‘I’d seen this as something rather nifty to discuss, open to argument: they saw it as an attack. Discussion not allowed. A few hostile questions at book readings, a few nasty remarks, and I was silenced. I never mentioned the Koran again. No one does.’ And soon, thanks to David Blunkett, we shall scarcely be allowed to. On Saturday, I wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph in which I said that, though I thought it a wrong description, people should be free to call the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile (the issue arising because he married a nine-year-old girl when he was 53). The Muslim Association of Britain quickly announced that the piece was ‘a clear incitement to religious hatred’, as well as ‘full of falsehoods, lies, skewed interpretations and poisonous remarks’. Its website helpfully cross-refs to IslamOnline.net, which in turn offers a link to a discussion about whether non-Muslims who insult the Prophet should be killed. The MAB called for my dismissal and reminded the newspaper that it should have remembered the Rushdie affair before printing such ‘filth and drivel’, and invited ‘1.3 billion Muslims’ to be offended, shocked and horrified by what I wrote. The MAB may be a small, extreme organisation, but it knows exactly how to latch on to the fear and self-doubt present in a culture which is not robust about defending freedom of speech. If there is a religious hatred law, the MAB’s threats, implicit in its Rushdie reference, will have some legal backing. So, I should like to ask Mr Blunkett, ‘Under your new law, will it be an offence to call the Prophet Mohammed a paedophile?’ If so, what other historical figures will be protected from any inquiry deemed insulting? Will it be an offence (because insulting to atheists) to call Socrates a paedophile, as his accusers did?

There seem to be two main purposes to recycling as now being promoted by local government under EU orders. The first is to satisfy the Northern European belief that by doing something inconvenient to oneself one must automatically be doing good. The second is to transfer much of the burden of rubbish collection from dustman to householder. A reader from Newcastle-under-Lyme has sent me her schedule of collections — ordinary rubbish bin every Thursday at 1 p.m., blue bag paper-recycling collection every second Thursday 11 a.m., blue box for bottles and tins every other second Thursday at 11 a.m., garden rubbish collection every second Monday 8.30 a.m. Is this a good use of time (or, indeed, of petrol for all the separate collections)? One of the key features of a successful civilisation is what economists call the division of labour. This is being sacrificed to the division of rubbish.

It must be true, as people are saying once more, that books can sometimes rescue you from depression more effectively than pills. The chance to get outside one’s own experience, and into that of another, helps preserve sanity, and it is what literature offers. Which books are best, though? Works of reference are very comforting, as Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, found with the Baronetage. Who’s Who and a good dictionary provide constant variety and surprise. Funny books are good, of course, but if they are purely jokey, one starts to agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that ‘as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of a fool’ and feel even gloomier. Some Experiences of an Irish RM is very good, not least because you can open it at any point and start reading with equal pleasure. The same applies to The Diary of a Nobody. But the most cheering of all is something more serious. This bleak mid-winter, read George Herbert’s short poem ‘The Flower’, and realise how you can come out the other side of despair.