Skip to main content


Posted by: Posted on: Categories:

Today's blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.

This summer, the Parliamentary Archives, Norman Porch display in the Palace of Westminster exhibits documents celebrating the 50th anniversary of theatre censorship being lifted. You can see the exhibition if you book on a tour of the Houses of Parliament,

A source of debate for social historians is the question of what was the most significant year in that most illuminating of decades, the Sixties. Some will say, 1963 which brought us the Profumo Affair, others will argue the case for 1967 when the summer of love blossomed but for those who have smelt the greasepaint it would have to be 1968, when Parliament passed an Act that abolished the censoring of theatrical performances. But to know the full story we have to go back four centuries.

Act 1: The Chamberlain
To set the story, we find ourselves in the Tudor court of Henry VIII. The infamous King was a man who demanded vociferously to be entertained. Such entertainment needed stage management and the Master of the Revels was given the ominous responsibility of making sure everything went smoothly with nobody finding offence, most importantly, his Majesty. This thankless task was soon passed over to a more shadowy figure who worked under the title, Lord Chamberlain, who would enforce a moralistic grip on the world of plays, players & playhouses. The restoration was a period where the shackles of Cromwellian puritanism was thrown off. King Charles II was a celebrated patron of the arts, especially those from the Nell Gwynn 'Charm School' but this rebirth of the stage saw the Chamberlain' role become more prevalent & theatrical doyens of the time had to bend to his auspices for the privilege of treading the boards.

Act 2: The Cavalry
Prime Ministers can be sensitive souls and Robert Walpole was no exception. He took severe umbrage to Henry Fielding's satirical play, The Historical Register where he was savagely lampooned. He exacted his revenge by passing the Licensing Act of 1737 which subjected even more draconian rules upon the theatrical community to be administered by his Lord Chamberlain. The second half of the 19th Century saw an explosion of genius in the world of playwrights illustrated by the likes of George Bernard Shaw. Such brilliance was greatly constrained by this creative suppression and abuse of executive powers. In 1909 they were given a platform to air their grievances through a Parliamentary Committee chaired by the sympathetic, Herbert Samuel. Even the creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker gave evidence but the Edwardian sensibilities & establishment deference that the protagonists exuded somewhat deflated their erudite argument resulting in no recommendation being made for ripping up the censorship copy book.

Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship), Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/33


Act 3: The Chrysalis
The city of Leicester was the birthplace of a man who had infiltrated British theatre to his whims by the mid-1960s. Joe Orton's plays such as Loot were riddled with subversive themes characterizing the era. In the summer of 1967 he was tragically killed whilst a new Parliamentary Committee discussed the prospect of finally making the Lord Chamberlain, exit stage left. The protagonists were now provocateurs led by Peter Hall, the visionary head of the Royal Shakespeare Company who was supported by theatrical pugilists, playwright John Osborne & critic Kenneth Tynan. Contemporaries within the corridors of power, such as Michael Foot threw their weight behind the cause & unlike his historical predecessor Robert Walpole, Prime Minister, Harold Wilson granted a Theatres Bill to be read in Parliament and a year later abolition was achieved. In a slight anomaly, the first production to enjoy these first fruits of creative freedom was American counter-culturalism classic, the musical Hair.

Theatres Act 1968, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1968/c54

Well as the narrator of this blog I can choose whatever I want to fill this epilogue....So rather shamelessly I'm going to plug that fact our Archives holds all the Committee papers & written evidence from 1909 & 1967. So you can come visit us to read the opinions of Bernard Shaw, Galsworthy, Chesterton or Osborne, Hall, & Tynan and also see the censored copies of scripts by the aforementioned Orton, J.P Dunleavy and many more. For a fan of British theatre it’s a must.

THE END (Curtains fall)

Sharing and comments

Share this page