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Censored on stage

The Golden Generation: British Theatre 1945  1968 in The Folio Society Gallery at the British Library
Pictures of nudes in the 1957 production of The Entertainer had to be approved
It wasn't just nudity and homosexuality which fell foul of the censor's red pen.

A reference to the poet Walt Whitman didn't get past the Lord Chamberlain either.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Theatre Act, when theatre censorship was abolished. Until then, theatre productions were subject to rigorous rules.

Theatre managers wanting to produce a new play were required to submit their scripts to that arbiter of moral taste - the Lord Chamberlain's office - for a licence.

While bare breasts on stage were bound to agitate the censor, even something as seemingly innocuous as a reference to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass in John Osborne's Personal Enemy was disallowed - because it was seen as a codified reference to homosexuality.

Reflecting reality

But changes in society were beginning to grate - and the authorities were forced to revise their attitudes. There was the pressure of a more permissive society in the late 1950s and 1960s; there was also the pressure from inside the theatre itself.

Drawing room comedies were giving way to gritty plays about social reality - key figures in the movement were the playwright John Osborne and critic Kenneth Tynan, both of whom gave evidence extensively to the House of Lords on the issue.

The reason theatre censorship unravelled are many - and 1968 was the end of a long road, says Jamie Andrews, the curator of The Golden Generation; British Theatre 1945 - 1968 exhibition at the British Library.

"There was the opposition from the young turks, whose mantra was waking people to social realities. Kenneth Tynan had a phrase that they were 'coming to terms with life'. They were reflecting reality on stage."

And the pressure from a society which was more liberal and more accommodating began to make itself felt, not least in the subject of how homosexuality was depicted.

Lord Chamberlain's office
Scrawled comment on a picture submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's office
Readers would judge the production on the script
The officials were not civil servants but members of the Royal household
In 1956, 1,085 plays were submitted for approval
There were only ever two or three readers at a time

Following the Wolfenden Report, published in 1957, the Lord Chamberlain admitted that changes must be made in the attitude to how homosexuality was depicted on stage.

In a memorandum from 1958 to his officials he wrote: "For some time the subject of homosexuality has been so widely debated, written about, that it is no longer justifiable to continue the strict exclusion of this subject from the Stage."

But there is no suggestion that a free-for-all would be tolerated. "Licences will continue to be refused for plays which are exploitations of the subject," he chides.

Embraces would still be forbidden and: "We would not pass a play which was violently pro-homosexuality."

Finally: "We will allow the word 'pansy' but not the word 'bugger'," the report decreed.

The playwrights never saw the reports the Lord Chamberlain's readers produced but were merely told whether or not the play had passed.

There was a degree of "horse-trading" says Jamie Andrews - one word would be banned while another was allowed.

The English Stage company letter
The Royal Court theatre was at the vanguard of the movement
And there was an element of excitement to the job. Occasionally, anonymous spies were sent in undercover, to see whether a play had passed their eagle eyes. There is a sense of suppressed excitement about the thrills of subterfuge, Andrews says.

Eventually, of course, the idea of censorship was unsustainable and the Theatre Act was passed. The American hippy musical Hair opened in London just one day later.

The musical featured scenes containing nudity and drug-taking as well as a strong anti-war message at the height of the Vietnam conflict and the desecration of the American flag on stage.

A new era for the theatre? Perhaps. WA Darlington, the 78-year-old critic of The Daily Telegraph, wrote that he had "tried hard", but found the evening "a complete bore". He was to be proved wrong - it ran for 1,997 performances until 1973.

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