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A Royal Assent Performance



John Osborne, Benn Levy MP, Kenneth Tynan, Joe Orton, Jean Straker, The Earl of Annan & Cameron Cobbold as Lord Chamberlain!!!

This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.

It’s part of the course that every cause requires a historical martyr to hang its hat on. For the post-war theatrical community calling for the abolition of the censorship laws, this pedestal was bestowed upon a rather obscure eighteenth century politician called Robert Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield. The noble Lord had been at loggerheads with Robert Walpole since entering politics. When the Prime Minister decided to censor the theatres, it was Chesterfield who proclaimed his opposition vociferously from the stalls. Walpole’s 1736 Playhouse Bill was getting great reviews in both Houses gliding its way to the statute book when Chesterfield made a speech that centuries later still put fire and brimstone in the bellies of playwrights. He said;

‘If poets and players are to be restrained let them be restrained by the known laws of their country. Do not let us subject them to the arbitrary will and pleasure of any one man. A power lodged in the hands of one single man to judge & determine without any limitation, without any control or appeal is the sort of power that is inconsistent with our constitution.’

The man in question was the Lord Chamberlain and, in this blog, I’ll tell the tale of his long-awaited censorship downfall.

Image of parchment role, showing the first membrane (page) of a handwritten act.
Theatre Licensing Act, 1736, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1736/10G2n31


Angry Young Men

In 1957 Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said that, ‘most of our people had never had it so good’ painting a picture of an aspirational Britain. But a faction of British theatre was having none of it and this group were given the title of ‘Angry Young Men’. The de-facto leader was a repertory actor turned bullish dramatist called John Osborne. His play Don’t Look Back in Anger was a working-class calling card that took London by storm leaving the Lord Chamberlain’s Office greatly concerned about what was to follow in its wake.

Peter Hall was a less belligerent character who, as director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, had brought this traditional institution into the progressive sixties. As the decade unfolded, he allied himself with Osborne to apply pressure on a Labour Government more sympathetic to their creative plight.

But this wasn’t just a ‘boys club’. Shelagh Delaney’s kitchen-sink dramas were an instant phenomenon and director Joan Littlewood had nurtured a hugely influential team of actors and playwrights at the Stratford East Theatre. The annals of time have somewhat forgotten the vigorous campaigning of photographer Jean Straker who in 1966 took the platform at a Censorship of the Arts event at Hampstead Old Town Hall saying;

‘There is a need to understand the nature of the forces in our society which seeks to control and suppress artistic, visual and literary expression’

The ‘New Wavers’ were unwilling to consider compromise it was change or nothing. A Time for Anti-Heroes.

Image shown a document with printed black text on a beige background.
An example of Lord Chamberlain Office Instructions, c 1965, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JT/TC/1


Bleeding Hearts

The question of censorship had always divided Parliamentarian opinion. Back in 1909, a Committee was set up to discuss the issue, Liberal members such as Robert Harcourt and Herbert Samuel expressed their support to abolish the censoring powers of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. As the wheel turned again in the second Elizabethan age, it was the Labour Party who took up the reformist reins personified by the likes of Benn Levy and Michael Foot.

Levy was a playwright in his own right and a leading light of the ‘Hampstead Set’ which included numerous patrons of the arts. Foot had unsuccessfully tabled a Private Members Bill calling for abolition that never got past the Second Reading stage. A barometer of these changing perspectives was highlighted by a House of Lords debate motioned by the Earl of Annan taking place in February 1966. Annan was a Peer who stood outside the establishment with a sensibility to think on his own terms as shown the following year when he assisted the campaign decriminalising homosexuality.  His speech referred to John Osborne and the anomalies of the present system;

‘One of the most interesting and most important dramatists in England to-day is John Osborne. He is in perpetual trouble with the Lord Chamberlain's Office. Mr. Osborne is a devastating critic of the society in which he lives, as Bernard Shaw was of the society in which he lived. But the difference between them is that, while Shaw wrote in an Irving style, Mr. Osborne employs the full range of the vernacular. But is it really necessary to censor the wording of his plays as severely as they are censored?

(Read the debate in full;

Adding to the intrigue was the fact that both a former and present-day Lord Chamberlain took part in proceedings. The Earl of Scarborough had held the post for eight years previously and was determined to not let its good name be dragged through the mud. He followed Annan on the Speaker's list replying with this broadside;

If I may express my own view, I do not think it is practical politics to abolish censorship entirely. I should not like to set myself up as a prophet—it is a dangerous occupation; but I think one must try to consider what might be the immediate result if censorship were entirely lifted. I believe that there is quick money to be made from obscenity, from indecency and from representation of cruelty on the stage, and although I would not for a moment suggest that the theatre, in its fullest sense, would be lured by that, I have little doubt that some persons would be so lured. And what would be the result of that?

(Read the debate in full;

Desperate times called for desperate measures and the current Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobbold broke with protocol by making a chamber appearance. In a previous life, he’d been the Governor of the Bank of England. He gave an economical oratory that addressed some home truths proposing that a Joint Committee of both Houses should convene to find a resolution. Though unlike the last time this occurred nearly sixty years earlier modern forms of entertainment had to be considered.

‘I trust that the Select Committee, or whatever other form of Committee may be appointed (it may be a Royal Commission, or a body of any other form: I express no view on the merits of one as against the other), even if its terms of reference are limited to the theatre, will continuously bear in mind the relevance of cinema, broadcasting and television. I do not believe that the problem of theatre censorship can sensibly be examined to-day in a narrow context. Finally, may I express the hope that the question will be dealt with, as it has been to-day, as a non-Party matter, and will be handled as speedily as possible?’

(Read the debate in full;

Cobbold sportingly accepted the protagonist’s fate as the bleeding hearts had won the day.


A Statistical Interlude 

As the censorship power struggle started to attract media attention some observers questioned what all the fuss was about? This followed figures being released to the press by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office showing the rarity of plays banned altogether. For example, in 1961, 858 scripts were submitted for review with 855 allowed for production and just three being blackballed. In a Sunday Times article Lord Cobbold said, ‘some people do have an image of me sitting in a cocked hat wielding a large blue pencil’.

Not all figures from the world of stage were throwing their weight behind abolition. Theatre Impresario Emile Littler was vocal in his loyalty to the Lord Chamberlain proclaiming him as a ‘sort of father confessor who we’d miss very much’. The legendary Noel Coward also went public stating that, ‘younger playwrights are failing in the cardinal task of attracting large audiences and being oblivious to traditional middle-aged theatre lovers’. The two sides reflected a generation gap that was now more evident in society.

Blue front page of a report with black printed text.
Censorship of the Theatre Report, 1967, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JT/TC/1


Agent Provocateurs

If the ‘Angry Young Men’ were products of the fifties, then the sixties saw the emergence of the ‘Agent Provocateurs’. Chief amongst them was Joe Orton whose cult comedies revelled in risqué language far removed from the drawing room dialogue that had blessed the boards for time and memoriam. The Lord Chamberlain’s obsession with obscenity meant his St James Palace team inevitably went ‘cut crazy’ when submissions of Orton’s sometimes sexually implicit scripts were placed on their desks. Those infamous omits were reproduced to be assessed as background papers for the Committee’s deliberation. Below are some examples of lines taken from his plays Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane that got the ‘blue pencil’ treatment. Please note that in an ironic twist we have censored some words from the original document by using asterisks (*).


‘Balls up’

‘…p*** taking’

‘… to present his a*** to the public gaze…’

‘… he has a very personal approach to flogging.’


Entertaining Mr Sloane;

‘And s*** on their doorsteps’

‘Why don’t you shut your mouth and give you’re a*** a chance.’

‘… like an old t*** grinding to her climax.’

On the Entertaining Mr Sloane transcript, an assistant comptroller wrote that the plot consisted of ‘a lodger (Sloane) who lives with an ageing nymphomaniac and her homosexual brother’. Orton was gay. Due to a recent relaxation on using homosexual themes in the theatre, he was able to incorporate elements of this lifestyle into his work. However, it was stressed that a play would not receive a licence if it portrayed homosexuality for ‘corruptive influences’. In the summer of 1967 only months after the Censorship Committee ended Orton was murdered by his partner Kenneth Halliwell. Posthumously his legend would grow and Ortonesque would become part of the lexicon.

Though Orton’s productions could cause a stir another young ‘provocateur’ found himself starring in a sensational trial. Edward Bond’s 1965 play Saved had the distinction of having the biggest file ever brought forward for the Lord Chamberlain’s discretion. The verdict was a complete ban due to excessive profanity and a scene depicting the stoning of a baby in a pram. But the Royal Court Theatre backed by funding from the English Stage Company decided to produce it under the guise of a ‘theatre club’ production in defiance of the official ruling. The police intervened and a court hearing saw Bond attain ‘cause celebre’ status with Sir Laurence Oliver coming to his defence.  Though the final decision ruled in favour of the Lord Chamberlain it was seen by many as possibly the Lord’s last day in the sun.


A printed letter on National Theatre Headed paper. The letter is signed by Kenneth Tynan
Letter from Kenneth Tynan to Mr Sainty, 1966, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JT/TC/1


Ghosts of Censorship Committee’s Past

And so, it came to pass that the Joint Committee finally sat to make a definitive judgment on the censorship question in the winter months of 1966-67. That’s not to say it was going to be a token cakewalk for the celebrities called to give evidence. Former Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyfe lived up to his fearsome reputation with a line of questioning that frustrated John Osborne to such an extent that the exasperated playwright blurted out, ‘We are concerned with the welfare of theatre not with breeding horses’. This type of spoiling tactic was also administered by Lord Goodman and it left Benn Levy and others in a state of legislative knots.

Someone needed to come forward and get this show back on the road. Up stepped The Observer critic Kenneth Tynan. His CV also included being the National Theatre’s Literary Manager though unfortunately he will be forever remembered for being the first person to say the F word on television. Two years previously he had used his column to unfavourably describe The Lord Chamberlain as ‘Royal Smut-Hound’. He was the penultimate witness to be called up and the best was saved for last with a tour-de-force performance. On the fallibility of obscenity prosecutions, he said;

‘Injunctions would cause many innocent people to be out of work be it actors, stage-hands, electricians, an entire theatre staff’.

Further adding;

‘Under the present laws you would have to prove in court that your work has an overriding literary, educative and social virtue even if you’re a pornographer’

His encore was to draw attention to freedoms the BBC enjoyed that allowed them to dramatize taboo subjects within their post-watershed Wednesday Play format by explaining,

‘A large theatre is only 1000 people at a time not the 12 million for the television’.

Chairman Hugh Jenkins paid Tynan a huge compliment in his summarisation, ‘You have done what I thought quite impossible after all the evidence we have heard, you have brought forward new facts to the argument which are exceedingly important ones. We are very grateful to you’.


black and white portrait of a white man in a suit holding a smoking pipe.
Harold Wilson, 1972, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/14/775


The Final Curtain

Was the writing on the wall this time? Oh yes, most comprehensively. The Committee was unequivocal in its recommendation for abolition. Concluding that;

‘Freedom of speech in the theatre be subject to the requirements of criminal law in line with other forms of art in the country’.

To ram their message home, they added;

‘The anachronistic licensing powers of the Lord Chamberlain will be abolished and will not be replaced by any form of pre-censorship local or national and political censorship of any kind will cease’

Before its curtain call the conclusion quoted Lord Chesterfield’s 1736 speech in full drawing the line under two hundred years of censor.

Next on the agenda was to make this law and George Strauss introduced the Theatres Bill to the Commons Chamber in February 1968 to great fanfare. But behind the scenes there was still some rumblings of discontent. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was suffering from a little ‘Walpole-itis’ after being mercilessly satirized in the hit musical Mrs Wilson’s Diary. While Lord Cobbold was lobbying hard for a clause to be inserted that gave the Royal Family, Archbishop of Canterbury and even Pope Paul VI the right to sue for slander if the aggrievance warranted. But it was too no avail as the Act was given Royal Assent in July. Incidentally, the first major production to encapsulate the new era was an import from America that ‘all singing-all dancing-semi naked’ counterculture classic Hair.

Thus, the Lord Chamberlain went back to doing what he does best supervising the Royal Household and all matters sovereign. But spare a thought for his staff who found themselves royally out of pocket as they could no longer claim a reading fee of £2 2d for each play read. Put down that ‘blue pencil’ your work is done.

Front cover of the Theatre Censorship Act. Text is printed and there is a red ribbon binding the document.
Theatres Act, 1968, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1968/c54





HL/PO/JO/10/11/327/2201 - 1967 Joint Committee on Censorship of the Theatre Report, Parliamentary Archives

HC/CP/1087-1092 - Joint Committee on Censorship of the Theatre Background Papers, Session 1966-67, Parliamentary Archives

HL/PO/JT/TC/1 & 2- House of Lords; Joint Committee on Censorship of the Theatre Committee Papers, 1966 – 1967, Parliamentary Archives

BOOK/5258 Parliamentary History of England, Volume 10, 1736-1739, Parliamentary Archives

Banned by Richard Findlater (1967)

The Lord Chamberlain Regrets – A History of British Theatre Censorship (2004)

Kenneth Tynan: A View from the English Stage (1976)

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