Theatre Censorship – 35: How Mrs Whitehouse got her knickers in a twist, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 2)

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

The trial itself spread over the four days from 15th – 18th March 1982. Press and media coverage was enormous. The case divided the public, with perhaps more support for Mary Whitehouse than she usually earned in her campaigns, but still with most people in favour of the defence. On the first day, the prosecuting counsel, Ian Kennedy QC, who had taken over from John Smyth, who contracted a virus, put his case. He was most concerned to emphasise certain facts, including that the act took place in the centre of the stage in full light, implying that not only was the act particularly blatant, but also that his witness, Mr Ross-Cornes, could not be mistaken in what he saw. Kennedy also insisted that the charge was nothing to do with theatrical freedom but with gross obscenity. He emphasised, and Ross-Cornes agreed, that the fact that the audience was asked to believe that penetration was not complete, nor was the act being simulated carried to its normal physical completion, was totally irrelevant to the case. Similarly, he insisted the question of whether the play tended to deprave and corrupt, or whether it was in good or bad taste did not matter, and nor did the unquestioned fact that the performance did not take place for the sexual gratification of either the actors or the audience. As Kennedy summed up, and as reported in the Daily Telegraph on 16th March 1982: “that makes no difference, the law prohibits the commission of the act of gross indecency and it doesn’t examine the act that is done.”

Lord Hutchinson cross-questioned Ross-Cornes during the first and second days of the trial. The witness denied that he went to the play intending to view it in the worst possible light. He also denied confusing the actor’s penis with his thumb, an undeniably most important distinction under the circumstances. This was also relevant to Bogdanov’s stated difference between the simulation of homosexual rape and the illusion of it. Ross-Cornes told the court that he had not known that 99% of cases brought under the Sexual Offences Act involved the motive of sexual gratification.

Jeremy Hutchinson

Jeremy Hutchinson

However, Hutchinson’s chief line of questioning concentrated on whether or not Ross-Cornes differentiated between an act of gross indecency on the street and on the stage. All along Ross-Cornes admitted that he did not differentiate between the two. Although he conceded that three young men walking naked on a stage does not contravene any laws whereas if they were walking in the street they would be breaking the law, he thought there was no difference in the degree of obscenity between a man and a woman making love on a street and in a film or on a stage. Nor did he discriminate between bad language spoken by invading soldiers and by guests at a church tea party, nor between bad language on stage and the same words printed in a book. At the end of the second day Lord Hutchinson repeated: “Do you still stick with the idea that the thirty-second rape scene would be just the same in impact as if it had happened by itself in the street?“ Ross-Cornes’ reply was unchanging as ever: “What I intended to say was that it would be just as grossly indecent on the stage as in the street”.

To the great surprise of legal commentators – again – on the third day the judge not only threw out Lord Hutchinson’s submission that no triable offence had been committed, he also agreed that there was no difference between a simulated act on stage and a real one. This pronouncement astounded the theatrical profession who had always assumed that the presence of the stage meant that drama was obviously “unreal”. Peter Hall stated on the Artsweek programme: “I am sure there is a statute which says that you mustn’t run crap games on a pavement in the middle of the town, and somebody could actually prosecute us for doing “Guys and Dolls”, because the law has also… during this trial… said that what happens on the stage and what happens in life is one and the same thing which… is not true. The theatre is not life, it’s imitation.” Such a judgment, taken in isolation, certainly seems to threaten basic theatrical freedom, and the outrage expressed by the theatrical profession was the panicky cry of people fighting for their livelihood.

However, the surprises provided by this case did not end there. The judge’s decision on whether or not the Sexual Offences Act was applicable in this case was paramount; if he decided that it was not, then the case would have to be dropped, and if not, the case could go ahead. Having decided that the act was applicable, the prosecution lawyer decided to withdraw the case. This, of course, begged the question “why”, and naturally many rumours instantly started spreading that the bottom had fallen out of the case and that Ian Kennedy had decided to withdraw because he knew he had no chance of winning. However, the judge’s opinion patently precludes this possibility. In Mary Whitehouse’s words, as she wrote in her book A Most Dangerous Woman?, “we had established a very important legal verdict and there seemed to me absolutely no point in prolonging Michael Bogdanov’s agony.”

According to the strict terms of law, it is not permitted for a private prosecution to be withdrawn after the presiding judge has decided that a triable offence has been committed. However, this transgression is only minor in comparison with the legal errors made on all sides of this lawsuit. The judge would not have allowed the prosecution lawyer to withdraw, apart from the fact that the defence counsel had told Bogdanov of this fact and that by means of this by-pass, the judge’s own role had been disregarded. The Attorney-General had been consulted and had decided to issue a nolle prosequi on the case. There followed further confusion and consternation, because at the time there was a good deal of legal debate as to what the exact meaning of a nolle prosequi was. Strictly speaking it is as though the case never existed and any penalties or personal judgments made in it are negated, a little like an annulment of a marriage.

However, nobody could decide whether other rulings should stand, and so nobody could decide whether the Sexual Offences Act could be brought in to prosecute a similar play in the future. NVALA insisted that the judge’s ruling did provide a precedent; Equity rather thought that it did not, but that it was reasonably likely that, given the same circumstances all over again, that the Sexual Offences Act could successfully be invoked. However, the Attorney-General cleared up most of the confusion in the House of Commons when he stated his intention behind issuing a nolle prosequi was that the judge’s ruling should apply in future cases. Doubtless if any such cases were to take place, the defence counsel would contest this in court.

At any rate, Michael Bogdanov came away from the trial without a slur on his name, and in fact he probably benefited a little from this succès de scandale. He was certainly relieved that the case against him was dropped, but he was also annoyed that he never got the chance to defend his actions, or to justify the exclusion of the theatre from this kind of law. It was ironic that, as the man at the centre of the trial, he remained silent throughout. However, he determined to join the Theatre Defence Group’s fight to amend the Theatres Act so that a prosecution like this could not be brought again.

Next Tuesday, 25th September, it will be exactly 50 years since theatre censorship was abolished. Come back then for my final blog post on the subject!

Review – Tartuffe, RSC Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th September 2018

TartuffeHere’s a recipe for an innovative night at the theatre: first take your Molière, one of the all-time comic geniuses. He knew precisely how to structure a comedy, create larger than life but recognisable characters and put them into a ghastly but hilarious situation where they have to sink or swim. Then take two modern masters of comedy, the writers Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto, responsible for such landmark TV programmes like Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42, not to mention Citizen Khan (I won’t mention Citizen Khan because it’s awful). Blend delicately and what do you get? A Tartuffe for the 21st century, set within a British Pakistani Muslim family in Birmingham. The big question is, does that soufflé rise to the occasion of translating 17th century lampooning of religious hypocrisy successfully to the here and now?

Asif KhanMon Dieu, you cannot believe how beautifully the one fits into the other! Molière’s Tartuffe (a sufficiently piercing satire to warrant the King censoring it) is a religious directeur de conscience; a kind of domestic guru who wangles his way into a well-to-do family, and convinces the Master of the Household, Orgon, that his are the words of the angels, on a direct line from God. Therefore he must be obeyed, even if that means turning a blind eye to his having it away with the lady of the household, marrying their unwilling daughter and virtually stealing the house and business from under their nose. Observing and commenting on the madness is Dorine, the maid who is the confidante of all and sundry and is more intelligent than the rest of them put together. Only when the unwitting idiot of a Master finally gets the ocular proof that his noble houseguest is a roué and a vagabond does he finally tumble to his own vain stupidity. But Tartuffe has something else up his sleeve, and tries to get Orgon arrested for possession of incriminating letters.

Michelle BonnardMessrs Gupta and Pinto have transported Orgon and his family to Small Heath, where they have become the Pervaiz family; he a wealthy businessman, on to his glamorous second wife Amira, living with his vacuous son Damee, progressively-educated daughter Mariam and his old mother Dadimaa (who is straight out of The Kumars – Meera Syal should sue). Imran Pervaiz has been transfixed by one Tahir Taufiq Arsuf (Tartuffe), whom he has brought into his house, given him as much food and drink as he wants, allowed him take control of the fabulous Home Cinema system and has become thoroughly brainwashed by his charisma. He insists that Tartuffe marries Mariam despite her already being engaged to the drippy but well-meaning Waqaas; in a misplaced religious fervour he liberates his own mind and spirit by giving all his worldly possessions to Tartuffe so that he can use it for charitable purposes (err, I don’t think so.) When Pervaiz is eventually satisfied that Tartuffe is a sham, he too realises that an incriminating document is no longer where it should be… but has Tartuffe stolen it for blackmail purposes?

Simon Nagra and Asif KhanCliché time, but Molière’s timeless creation fits into this modern setting like a hand in a glove. The idea of a charismatic zealot, whether it be religious or political, a true celebrity who takes the usual brain settings of an otherwise sensible person, and puts them through the wash, is as relevant today as it was in the 17th century. Trump, Putin, Kim on the international stage; Farage, Rees-Mogg, Corbyn on the domestic. Plus ça change, as they say. It’s no surprise that at one stage Pervaiz puts his head in his hands and wishes he hadn’t voted Leave.

Salman Akhtar and Simon NagraGupta and Pinto litter the script with countless modern references which both delight and illuminate. During two-and-a-half hours, they cover (in no particular order) female emancipation, familial tensions between generations, politics, Windrush, marital trust, faith, sexual harassment, illegal immigration, Brexit, religious hypocrisy, Islamist fundamentalism, and much more. It’s never offensive, and, certainly, it never pokes fun at Islam; its target is simply the relationship between the manipulative trickster and the idiot who believes him. Never has the phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” been more appropriate.

Raj BajajThis adaptation gets its point across by using terrifically humorous characters and a sparky, al dente text. There are a few passages where, in more than a nod to its original writer, the speech diverts into rhyming alexandrine couplets; there’s even a passing reference to Shakespeare and some other contemporary garçon (and I think we know who that is.) I liked the very clever use of accents to help create the characters; the Brummie voices of Damee, Khalil and Usman all help to suggest that they’re (sorry to say it, Midlanders) a bit thick; whereas Mariam’s Brummie accent strangely makes her sound more intelligent – but then she is always talking about protecting the interests of women in the sub-Saharan continent and complaining about heteronormative patriarchy.

Simon NagraBretta Gerecke’s design is a nice contrast between the plush surroundings of the Pervaiz family home and stark modernistic lighting tubes that fall into place to demarcate the indoors from outdoors. Iqbal Khan’s production brings in quite a few musical moments, some of which work better than others. Raj Bajaj’s Damee clearly sees himself as some kind of rap star and he is given a couple of chances to show off his style; even more proficient is the excellent (if you like that sort of thing) beatboxing from Riad Richie as Tartuffe’s assistant, Usman. The play begins with a very loud onslaught of musical mush coming through the headphones of Darina, the Bosnian cleaner; Black Sabbath, she confides in the audience, she’s a fan. Not entirely sure I am; it’s a bit of a brutal start. Sarah Sayeed’s traditional Punjabi music has been composed to reflect particular characters in particular moods; although these leitmotifs may work on paper, I found much of the incidental music throughout the play really distracting, and frequently too loud so that it drowns out the dialogue, which is exasperating as you know you’re missing out on gems but you just can’t hear them.

Riad Richie and Asif KhanMolière knows to keep his audience waiting and it’s a full fifty minutes before we meet our eponymous anti-hero. Asif Khan (who was superb in the Royal and Derngate’s A Passage to India last January) gives us a very larger-than-life portrayal of a man appearing to be conservative and clean but in fact a mere conman. He’s dressed in the most formal Muslim clerical clothing: traditional beard as low as you dare, and a pure white abaya robe to reflect the purity of his heart (as he would like you to think). He adopts a very lilting tone of speech, as though he were part speaking, part intoning the Qu’ran. This makes him sound like a truly holy man; which only makes the sham feel worse when you see how he’s manipulating everyone around him.

Zainab HasanThe whole cast put in tremendous performances. Simon Nagra is great as Imran Pervaiz; there’s an element of Omid Djalili in his delivery, but it’s none the worse for that. His wonderment at Tartuffe’s general gloriousness is a delightfully comic turn, and it makes a painful contrast with his fury at his family’s determination to cross him, insisting his daughter marry the wretch and banishing his son from the family home. Sasha Behar makes for a glamorous and fiery Amira, well able to take care of herself, and she brings out all the comic potential from the scene where she’s trying to trap Tartuffe so that her husband can see the deceit for himself. Raj Bajaj is excellent as the well-intentioned but essentially useless son Damee, either grinning inanely at life or trying to solve problems by fisticuffs; and Zainab Hasan is superb as daughter Mariam, proudly independent but fully knowing that she should obey her father, even though he is condemning her to a life of misery.

James ClydeAmong the supporting cast there are some great performances from James Clyde, as family friend Khalil, wont to pontificate ad nauseam much to everyone’s exhaustion, and from Salman Akhtar as the hapless Waqaas, firing up with anger at the prospect of losing his Mariam but essentially unable to fight his way out of a paper bag. And the whole show is held together by a star performance from Michelle Bonnard as Darina, keeping up lengthy conversations with the audience (even hoovering under their seats after the interval), taking the mickey out of her employer’s bromance, seeing right through Tartuffe’s pretence, and generally getting away with murder – but also looking after their interests, as is seen in the very last second of the play.

Amina ZiaAn immensely refreshing night out at the theatre – and you’re in awe of how neatly Molière’s original fits so neatly into the totally different environment. Hats off to everyone involved for a tremendous achievement. Tartuffe remains in rep at the Swan Theatre until 23rd February. Don’t miss it!

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

The Agatha Christie Challenge – N or M? (1941)

N or MIn which we encounter Tommy and Tuppence, frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town? Of course they can! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit – or rather, who the undercover agent is!

Common PrayerThe book bears no dedication, and, according to Christie’s autobiography, she saw it as a kind of sequel to her earlier Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary. N or M? was first published in the US in a condensed version in the March 1941 issue of Redbook magazine, and in the UK an abridged version was serialised in Woman’s Pictorial from April to June 1941, under the title Secret Adventure. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1941, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November the same year. The title is taken from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” I’m not sure that the Book of Common Prayer holds the key to this particular case though.

Boring babyI could remember absolutely nothing about this book, and when it came to re-reading it now, I can see why. This is the dullest, most unmemorable book I have encountered on my Agatha Christie Challenge so far. Its plot is thin, and if you’re waiting for a nice juicy murder, you’ll have a long wait. There are several tedious sequences when the reader is subjected to endless reports of the activities and meaningless gurgling of little baby Betty Sprot. True, Betty has a significance to the story as a whole, but Christie dwells on the baby talk for far too long, and I found these scenes thoroughly boring. Interestingly, Christie wrote it at the same time as she was writing The Body in the Library, which would appear the following year. I wonder if she suffered a lack of concentration or commitment as a result? It will be fascinating to re-discover whether The Body in the Library shows any such signs too.

Second World WarThere’s one thing that this book does very well, and that is to suggest to the modern reader what it must have been like to live through the early years of the Second World War; the anxieties, the paranoia, the fears, the restrictions. Christie sets the book in the spring of 1940. Speculation is rife: the current Blitzkrieg is the German’s last effort, Hitler is so deranged the war will be over by August. Characters are thought to be Nazi sympathisers; especially the German refugee who acts so mysteriously. It’s difficult to get from village to village unless you’re a local, because all the signposts have been taken down to make it difficult for German parachutists. Letters arrive in the post bearing a censor’s mark. The people who bought Smuggler’s Rest were all foreigners – they didn’t speak a word of English. “Don’t you agree with me that sounds extremely fishy?” asks Commander Haydock, illustrating the general paranoia of the time.

Bletchley_ParkIn a moment of real-life paranoia, Christie was herself investigated because she named one of the characters in the book Major Bletchley, and it was suspected that she was giving away knowledge of the secret codebreaking work underway at Bletchley Park. Christie always maintained that she chose the name after travelling through Bletchley station on the train; and she died before the nature of the work undertaken at Bletchley Park was revealed to a curious world. Did she have insider knowledge? We’ll never know.

White QueenChristie makes her presence felt in the story on a couple of occasions; when Tuppence first arrives at the guest house “Sans Souci”, and everything seems purely above board and without any suspicion, Christie makes her own observation: “To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”.” More annoyingly, there is a scene early on when Tommy and Tuppence, both undercover at the guest house, take time out to compare notes and discuss the characters living there: “”Now,” said Tuppence. “I’ll tell you some of my ideas.” And she proceeded to do so.” But she doesn’t tell us! That’s either deceitful of Christie, withholding observations and information from the reader, or, at best, simply lazy, with her not being bothered. Either way, it irritated me; I didn’t feel that Christie was playing fair with her readers.

KnittingSo how are Tommy and Tuppence getting on? It’s been twelve years since we saw them in Partners in Crime, but somehow since then they have acquired grown-up children and have aged considerably more than twelve years; ah, the magic of fiction. Tommy is too old to be called up, much to his grievance; Tuppence too is only considered good enough to knit for the nation. That’s not how they see themselves. Their erstwhile assistant Albert is still on the scene; he’s now married and runs The Duck and Dog pub in South London.

Be like dad keep mumTommy is still rather plodding and perhaps not the brightest tool in the box, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in derring-do. Tuppence is still unpredictable, flighty and playful. When she realises she will have to tell lies in this particular operation, she confesses: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” She’s also thoughtful and more understanding than most. Despite the fact that “there’s a war on” she feels sympathy for individuals on the other side. “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans” I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvest, and little shopkeepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” An unpopular opinion at the time, I’ll wager.

BournemouthThere’s not a lot of interesting material for us to discuss in this book, so let’s move on to having a look at the place names to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of Christie’s imagination. The story is set in the seaside town of Leahampton, which doesn’t exist but I see from other commentators that it is widely meant to represent Bournemouth. Other nearby locations include Leatherbarrow and Yarrow, neither of which exist as towns or villages but are mentioned in road names in the Maghull/Sefton areas of Merseyside, which is curious. Tuppence’s Aunt Gracie lives in Langherne, Cornwall; again, a completely fictitious location.

dismal desmondLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. The wartime setting is enhanced by references to Dismal Desmond and Bonzo; Dismal Desmonds were referred to in Parker Pyne Investigates, and Bonzo was the famous cartoon dog. Tuppence gains her kindness towards others from thinking of Nurse Cavell – Edith Cavell, sentenced to death during the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers to escape, and whose watchword was “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Meanwhile, Sheila Perenna tells Tommy that her father was a follower of Casement in the First World War – that would be Roger Casement: poet, Irish nationalist and leader of the Easter Rising.

Sisera“So, Tuppence thought, might Joel have looked, waiting to drive the nail through the forehead of sleeping Sisera.” Who? I can do no better than to refer you to our friends at Wikipedia (so it must be true): Sisera was commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, who is mentioned in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible. After being defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah, Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple. Nasty.

Nine of diamondsIn that game of Bridge that almost drives Tuppence to distraction, Mrs Cayley lays down the nine of diamonds. “’Tis the Curse of Scotland that you’ve played there!” says Mrs O’Rourke. I’d never heard about the Curse of Scotland as being a nickname for the Nine of Diamonds. Even as far back as 1708, you can find this description in an old book: “Diamonds as the Ornamental Jewels of a Regnal Crown, imply no more in the above-nam’d Proverb than a mark of Royalty, for Scotland’s Kings for many Ages, were observ’d, each Ninth to be a Tyrant, who by Civil Wars, and all the fatal consequences of intestine discord, plunging the Divided Kingdom into strange Disorders, gave occasion, in the course of time, to form the Proverb.” So now you know.

Home GuardMajor Bletchley goes to see the film “The Wandering Minstrel” and Christie is at pains to tell us how he criticises its military inaccuracy. However, the only films bearing that name at that time was a comedy short and this definitely wasn’t the same film that the Major saw. And there are a few mentions of the LDV – nothing to do with vans, this was the Local Defence Volunteers that later became much better known as the Home Guard. “Remember your Dickens? Beware of widders, Sammy”, quotes Major Bletchley to a perplexed Miss Minton. I had no idea to what this referred – it’s a conversation between Pickwick Papers’ Mr Weller Snr and his son (and not a proper quotation!)

BlondelSee if you can spot the word that looks wrong: “They want people who are young and on the spot. Well, as I say, mother got a bit hipped over it all, and so she went off down to Cornwall to stay with Aunt Gracie…” Hipped? It’s actually a really strange word for a young character of the time to say. According to my OED, it means depressed or low-spirited, and is an archaic 18th century colloquialism. (Longfellow: what with his bad habits and his domestic grievances he became completely hipped.) “There is time to weep after the battle” says Mr Grant, encouragingly, to Tuppence. I can’t locate that as being a direct quotation (all these characters are misquoting things, I wonder if that was the characters’ or Christie’s laziness?) but the nearest I can find is good old Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 Verse 4, “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. I’m more sure-footed on the reference to Blondel and Berengaria; Blondel was a troubadour linked to King Richard I, or, perhaps more accurately, his queen Berengaria.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for N or M?:

Publication Details: This takes a little research, as my copy does not bear a date, but is clearly a cheap copy with its poor quality paper and print setting. My only clue is to take the list of books by Christie that has been promotionally listed on the inside front cover, and the book with the latest publishing date in that list is They Do It With Mirrors, which was first published in 1952. Her following book, After the Funeral, was published in 1953 but that’s missing from the list. Therefore, I deduce this is either from 1952 or 1953! Published by the Crime Club as a “White Circle Pocket Novel”, the Art Deco inspired cover shows two demonic figures, one armed with a knife and one with a gun. The cover bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the book at all! But that’s because Christie’s White Circle Pocket novels always had the same design.

How many pages until the first death: A massive 104. And even then, we see at first hand who shoots who, so there’s no element of detective whodunitry.

Funny lines out of context: Showing the importance of differentiating between an adverbial clause and an unhyphenated noun.

“Tea was the next move and hard on that came the return…”

Memorable characters: Frankly, none of the characters interested me in the slightest, I thought they were all very vacuous.

Christie the Poison expert: No references to poison made either!

Class/social issues of the time:

As mentioned earlier, the strength (if any!) of this book is its commentary on living in wartime Britain, which is interesting to the modern reader who has never lived through such days. Given the fact that it was largely seen as a battle between democracy and fascism, Major Bletchley’s observation about how the army is run is curious: “How are we gong to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks – so I’ve been told […] it’s all this democracy […] you can overdo anything. In my opinion, they’re overdoing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants – faugh! – the men don’t like it…”

The other Christie bête-noir, that of sexism, continues to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the book, Tommy laments that he is of no use to the war effort. Tuppence sympathises, but Tommy adds: “it’s worse for a man. Women can knit, after all – and do up parcels and help at canteens”. Talk about sexual stereotyping! Mind you, Major Bletchley is no better: “Women are all very well in their place, but not before breakfast.”

And here’s a generalisation to consider: “Albert was not given to the exercise of deep reasoning. Like most Englishmen, he felt something strongly, and proceeded to muddle around until he had, somehow or other, cleared up the mess.”

Classic denouement: No, it’s very straggly. In our search of N and M, one of them is identified with still 40 pages (over 20%) of the book still to be read. The two other revelations are more of a surprise, but I think I was so bored by the rest of the book that they didn’t impress me much.

Happy ending? Yes. Tommy and Tuppence resume their continued wedded bliss and there’s no doubt they are a devoted and affectionate old couple. And there are two other characters who will clearly be “getting it together” in the near future.

Did the story ring true? There appears to be one massive coincidence that stretches your credibility beyond a joke; but once you understand the full picture you realise it wasn’t a coincidence at all. And in fact, in many ways, this is one of the most believable Christie books. It’s dull in the same way that real life is dull. So you may well find yourself wishing it was less believable!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. I’m going to be generous and give it a 3/10.

The Body in the LibraryThanks for reading my blog of N or M? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Body in the Library and the welcome return of Miss Marple in what was at the time only her second full-length case. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Theatre Censorship – 34: Simulated sodomy, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 1)

Romans in BritainOn 24th October 1980, the Attorney-General sent a lawyer to the theatre to watch a performance of The Romans in Britain. The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) did the same, asking John Smyth QC to witness the activity on the stage and form his own conclusion. On his return, Mr Smyth said he had been shocked by the play and recommended that NVALA’s legal adviser, Graham Ross-Cornes, should ask the Attorney-General to take action against the play and insist on its withdrawal. A month later the Attorney-General’s reply was received, to the effect that he would neither prosecute the play nor permit NVALA to do so. When asked why, he simply replied that he did not believe that the case would be successful. This split the two sides in the argument even wider. NVALA became even more determined to prevent the play from continuing and the National Theatre regarded the decision as an official condonation of the production.

It is not difficult to see why the case might have failed. The prosecution would have been brought under the 1968 Theatres Act which states “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.” It is very rarely that these woolly words are exposed as the meaningless drivel they are. The problem with any prosecution brought under this paragraph is one of proof and criterion. In these circumstances, what is depravity and corruption? In terms of morality, it’s hard to define what corruption really is. And, even if you can define these terms, how can they be proved to have happened?

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

There seems to be four or five possible reactions to the play and most particularly the rape scene. One can appreciate the symbolic meaning of the rape as signifying invasion by an alien culture and accept the scene as writer Howard Brenton intended it. This would not involve any depravity or corruption, as one would not view the incident in sexual terms, but purely symbolic. Those people who were shocked by it and found it offensive would voluntarily detach themselves from the play, stop watching it, and stop thinking about it. Perhaps they might walk out, in which case they would no longer be present to face depravity or corruption. Some people might feel that the whole scene was ludicrous and either out of embarrassment or simply because of the inept choice of metaphor, find it funny. This reaction would mean they wouldn’t take it seriously, and would mentally block any seriousness about it. Perhaps as a result they might be accused of condoning such sexual violence; but above all, laughter is a defence mechanism to protect oneself, and one would be most unlikely to be corrupted by laughter.

Even if the scene were to excite a member of the audience sexually or pornographically, one could claim – and this a matter of much debate – that that person was already depraved and corrupt anyway and that the play made no particular difference to their already established outlook. Only if a dangerously impressionable person with no criminal record were to go out and commit homosexual rape as a result of the performance could the play decisively be said to have been proved to have depraved and corrupted this person. In any case, this mythical miscreant would have to be so impressionable; reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery would be as likely a cause for them to commit murder. The legal viability of the Theatres Act obviously has its limits.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

After the Attorney-General’s refusal to prosecute or grant permission for others to prosecute, NVALA was left with two options. Either they could drop the case and admit defeat, which is certainly what the Attorney-General would have preferred, or they could take out a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Section Thirteen of this Act stated: “It is an offence for a man… to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.” At the time, the charge of procuration carried a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. This was the course of action that Mary Whitehouse took. It’s interesting to note that Section Thirteen of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act was repealed by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and the charge of procuration is no longer an offence.

Michael Bogdanov’s reaction was one of surprised annoyance. In the LBC Artsweek programme broadcast on 21st March 1982 he stated: “I felt that she was pursuing to an illogical end a case that she had got obsessed with, and therefore had not due regard to the circumstances and the occasion of the play.” This comment is at odds with Mary Whitehouse’s denial after the trial that she would prosecute “The Romans in Britain” again if it were to be presented at a different theatre. Her words were: “I’m not interested in chasing a particular play”.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

There were two aspects of the case which captured the attention and imagination of the public. The first, which was frequently used against Mary Whitehouse, was the fact that she was going to all the trouble of privately prosecuting Michael Bogdanov, and running the risk of incurring very expensive legal costs if she failed, when she had never actually seen the play herself. This struck many as hypocritical and censorial, because she was attempting to influence what other people could see from a position of ignorance, depriving herself of first-hand knowledge of the matter in question. She defended her position by saying that she had been told in full by her representatives who had seen the play all about it, and that therefore she knew enough. She said that quite simply she had no wish to see it; and she considered that if she did go to see it that would benefit her opponents in the argument. They would say that she’s been to see it and she hasn’t been depraved and corrupted by it, so why should anyone else? I’m sure she was right on this particular point.

The second aspect which stirred public interest was to what extent was the homosexual rape on stage “real”. It had always been taken for granted by the public that the rape had been simulated, but accounts of the scene made it sound very real indeed. Bogdanov cavilled over the use of the term “simulation”. From the Artsweek programme: “I don’t believe you can simulate buggery… like you don’t believe the woman can really be sawn in half, you can’t simulate that, you can only create the illusion of it… a leading lady and a leading man are not necessarily in love; in fact they might hate each other, and one might have bad breath and the other a pimple on the upper lip and neither of them actually likes kissing each other but one says to the other “I swear I will love you for ever” and he kisses her, and that is the simulated kiss. But actually, you can create the illusion of a kiss; you can take somebody’s face in your hands and you can appear to kiss them but actually your thumbs have masked the fact that you’re kissing your thumbs, not their lips.” He preferred to use the term “illusion”, because “simulation” refers too closely to physical appearance instead of how the act appears to the mind. Bogdanov also insisted that the physical positions of the actors meant that “biologically it was impossible for it to have occurred”.

Six months after the decision had been taken by Mary Whitehouse to prosecute under the Sexual Offences Act, in June 1981, the charge was heard at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in London. Bogdanov was represented by Lord Hutchinson who was the defence lawyer in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, which gave the whole affair an additional frisson for the general public. It also, subconsciously, emphasised the censorship nature of the case. Much to the surprise of theatrical and legal commentators, the magistrate decided that the theatre was not exempt from the Sexual Offences Act and that there was, indeed, a case to answer. Therefore, he committed Michael Bogdanov for trial at the Old Bailey. The legal commentators were especially baffled since the paragraph cited from the Sexual Offences Act, under which the charge was brought, was originally designed to prevent sexual acts taking place in public lavatories.

The theatre world generally regarded this decision as an insult, and it became a matter of pride for bodies such as the National Theatre Board, the newly-formed Theatre Defence Group and the Actors’ Union Equity to fight the charge tooth and nail. A fund was set up, called the Theatre Defence Fund, whose chief object was to raise money to fight the case and pay for Bogdanov’s trial costs if necessary. A most lucrative way of raising this money was the organisation of a chain of readings of “The Romans in Britain” at theatres up and down the country, at which audiences would donate however much they wished. Interestingly, NVALA made no comment about these readings, which showed that it wasn’t their intention to silence the play itself. It was also evidence of the fighting spirit of the theatre world who saw it as a legal way of showing defiance. This was especially true of the group of actors at the Oxford Playhouse who daily staged a reading of a transcript of that day’s proceedings in court, thereby creating theatre out of the theatre, so to speak. This continued despite a warning from the judge Mr Justice Staughton that they might be in contempt of court.

More about the trial in my next blog post.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2018

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah and Huzzah, it’s the return of Screaming Blue Murder! After those dark Friday evenings of the summer (well, they were quite light actually, but you get my meaning) where all you could do was to relax in the sunshine and fresh air, eat healthy salads and drink homemade fruit smoothies, it’s a welcome back to spending Friday nights in a dark, overheated cellar room at the Royal and Derngate, knocking back the vino collapso and enjoying the finest comedy on the circuit.

Dan EvansAnd it was a welcome back to our usual genial host, Dan Evans, who was on fine form as he set us all at our ease, including Ian who was celebrating his 57th birthday (youngster!) and the attractive young couple in the front row – it turned out that she was a trainee social worker specialising in child safeguarding, and he worked in recruitment for Help for Heroes, trying to get ex-forces people back into work. As you can imagine, the scope for taking the mick out of them was minimal!

James BranThis was one of those rare occasions when all three comedians were new to us. First up was James Bran, a likeable young chap with a rather cerebral approach to his comedy, which we both appreciated. He had some good material about living in the technological age and a great story about dealing with those “have you been involved in an accident” calls. He built up a nice confident rapport with the audience, and, whilst it was never wet-your-pants hilarious, it was intelligent, well structured, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Rob KempOur next performer, and a change to the original line-up, was Rob Kemp. He’s another really likeable performer with tons of zest and a really positive approach to his act. He’s clearly naturally a very funny guy but his material is more than somewhat on the eclectic side. He started to lose us (and he knew full well this was happening) when he tackled what I’m sure was a very clever parody of the 1982 movie The Thing. However, unless you’re really au fait with the film – and I reckon 99% of us weren’t – so much of it went over our heads. It was a shame because you could tell there was so much preparatory work that went into his act but sadly a lot of it was wasted on us! So although he largely missed the mark, he was still strangely admirable!

Sean MeoOur headline act was Sean Meo, a former professional snooker player but that was some time ago and does not feature in his act. He has quite a dour, semi-aggressive persona, and he spends his act constantly walking from side to side across the stage, like a frustrated caged tiger. His material is devastatingly funny, but not for everyone; he opened with some brilliantly comic observations about ISIS, at which one member of the audience took offence, shouted out “you should be ashamed of yourself” and stormed out. I can completely understand that; if your son had died in Helmand Province, for example, you’re unlikely to find that kind of stuff funny. However, Mr Meo simply carried on, making the observation that she made the mistake of taking it seriously, and to his absolute credit, it didn’t affect the comedy flow in any way. The best way I can describe his entire set is as being superbly offensive – I’m sure you’ve got the idea. His timing is immaculate, his delivery sure-fire. You have complete confidence in his ability to hit the comedy nail on the head again and again. We thought he was fantastic, and would definitely seek him out again.

As always, a fabulous night of comedy, with a sell-out audience. Next one is in two weeks’ time. Will you be there?

Theatre Censorship – 33: Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

“It was an illusion… a point that was made to illustrate the main theme of the play… that invasion by an aggressive force is wrong; that a territorial acquisition, the destruction of one culture by another, invasion by forces who are stronger than the country that they are invading is absolutely immoral. And therefore, what we were doing was showing a moral act, not an immoral act.” With these words Michael Bogdanov justified the scene of homosexual rape in Howard Brenton’s notorious Romans in Britain which opened at the National Theatre on October 16th 1980. As director of the play, Bogdanov was at the centre of what could have become the most thrilling theatrical trial of all time, and one which did, at any rate, question the freedoms which had been granted to the theatre in 1968.

LBC, the news radio station that now broadcasts nationally (and all over the world thanks to the Internet) was, in 1982, confined to coverage in only London and the surrounding satellite towns. On the schedules was a regular weekly programme called Artsweek, a digest of what was happening in the arts scene in London; and on 21st March 1982 they transmitted a programme purely devoted to The Romans in Britain, and its famous trial that never was. I recorded the programme onto cassette, transcribed it, and it provided a wealth of first hand accounts that today are of invaluable help in remembering what happened and explaining what all the fuss was about. Alas I no longer have the recording, or the full transcript; but I do have several quotes from the key players in the story – Howard Brenton, Michael Bogdanov and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association supremo Mary Whitehouse – which I will use to bring this extraordinary episode in theatrical history back to life. All the comments quoted in this chapter are taken from this radio transcript unless stated.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

For four days in March 1982, the No 1 Court at the Old Bailey heard about the scene which caused all the fuss. Three Roman soldiers approach three naked young Celts, kill one, wound another, and attempt to rape the third. For reasons of biological impracticality there was no penetration (a question of haemorrhoids, apparently) and from that point of view the rape does not actually take place, but neither Brenton nor Bogdanov regarded this as a “get-out clause” in the trial because it never occurred to either of them that they would have a case to answer. “I have always believed implicitly in the integrity of the play and indeed in the integrity of the National Theatre in asking me to produce this play,” Bogdonov stated. In retrospect, this seems obvious, as the National did not consider it necessary to take any legal advice on the production until the rumours of prosecution began to circulate after it had opened. Brenton’s attitude to the production was more ideological, and perhaps naïve: “I believe in a free theatre… you should be able to stage everything that happens in life, and say indeed what you will about it.”

However, then as now, the theatre is subject to laws and if the laws are broken, then inevitably justice must take its course. Brenton wanted to change the theatre and confer on it an even greater freedom than it already possessed, by stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable on stage. As such, he did not shy away from his responsibilities towards the play and was in fact annoyed and disappointed when, in the end, the law did not require him to defend his own play.

Romans in BritainThe play itself tries to make a very simple point. Brenton suggests that the presence of Roman soldiers in England in 55BC creates a parallel with the presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1980. This ambitious play deliberately muddles reality and fantasy to prove its point. Part One is set in 55BC, but in its final scene Caesar and his legates appear on stage in the dress of the British Army of 1980. Similarly, Part Two, ostensibly set in modern day Northern Ireland, is interspersed with scenes set in Britain in 515 AD. The relevance of this date escapes us, the audience, until the end of the play. Brenton uses this complicated time scale to illustrate Caesar’s central belief. Caesar says: “it’s an affliction to see in any one act its consequence… in any predicament, its opposite. To build a tower, knowing brick by brick, how it can be destroyed. Even in the victor of an enemy, I see his defeat”. Caesar may be enjoying a glorious victory in 55 BC, but Brenton also shows us Britain in 515 AD, the date of the death of the last Roman lady on the island of Great Britain. This was the heinous murder of a wretched noblewoman, riddled with plague and paranoia, by her treacherous lover, a mere steward.

In the same way that Caesar looks to the future, British Army Officer Thomas Chichester, his unorthodox 1980s counterpart, looks to the past and relives in his mind the 515 AD scenes that we see on stage. He is in Ireland to kill Republican activist O’Rourke, but like the invading Saxon of Part Two, Scene Four, Chichester is killed instead. How often do we cry that we never learn the lessons of the past? Chichester learns this lesson; that the sequence of consecutive invasions has to be broken. This is why he does not kill O’Rourke when he has the chance. O’Rourke, on the other hand, not having reached Chichester’s same state of awareness, takes his opportunity and has Chichester shot.

These balancing mirror images between the past and the future are not only found in the main elements of the play. There are minor occasions on both sides of the time-gap which reflect the same mental processes and attitudes; for example one of the soldiers in Part Two thinks “we’re just in Ireland to dig toilets”, while in 55 AD a soldier is not particularly proud of his war effort. He sums it up with the words: “I dug a shit hole on the edge of the world”.

Romans in Britain - Celts

The Celts in the original production of The Romans in Britain

However, all these images are secondary to the chief theme of invasion. The rape of the Celts is not the only example of sexual assault symbolising territorial gain. Caesar, the supreme expansionist, sends a legate back to his mistress in Rome with the instruction “tell her to guard with this knife, what I would enter as a knife”. Sex is replaced by violence from the top down, so to speak, so it is not surprising that the soldiers’ attitude to the Celts should also be a confusion of sex and violence. Furthermore, the invasion gives rise to the destruction of the native culture, as Bogdanov stated in the opening paragraph of this chapter, and it is worth noting that it is not the attempted rape that drives the young Druid priest to suicide, but the imposition of wearing Caesar’s Venus pendant around his neck. For him that creates taint beyond redemption and thus he ends his life; in the same way, incidentally, as a Roman would traditionally take the honourable way out. The play makes the point that Caesar inflicting Roman gods on the Celts is the same as England inflicting Protestantism on Irish Catholics, a source of conflict that has troubled Anglo-Irish relations since Cromwell’s time.

The play’s two sections are individually titled; Part One is called Caesar’s Tooth and Part Two, Arthur’s Grave. Caesar suffers with toothache, which, on a symbolic level, might represent an sickness within the body politic. During the first act, the problem tooth is removed. This represents Caesar’s ability to see disaster in the future; the pain is perhaps a warning system, telling Caesar that all will not be well in the future. Similarly, “Arthur’s Grave”, a title that represents the ideological downfall of England, is, Brenton argues, the consequence of the country’s meddling in Ireland. Moreover, the play ends with the birth of Arthur; not the legendary mystic arrival as lyricised by the likes of Malory and Tennyson, but simply an idle arbitrary invasion by a couple of cooks. In terms of the year 515 AD, the cooks represent hope for the future; seen from 1980, this hope is replaced by conflict. In any case, the revelation that he did not exist but is purely a work of fiction symbolises the total destruction of England’s misplaced national pride. “A king who never was” – as described by the First Cook – of the great country that also never was.

One final point concerning the play is the general tone of the language that occurs within it. As I mentioned when referring to the works of Arnold Wesker, the writer David Zane Mairowitz has said “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”. From the opening speeches, the tone of the language and the words used are frequently a mix of the sewer and highly sensuous imagery, designed to disconcert the audience. In the middle-class comfort of the Olivier Theatre, the language may have felt more offensive than if it was staged in, say, the Young Vic or the Donmar Warehouse. In fact, Brenton has successfully used the device that Handke failed with in “Offending The Audience” (see Chapter Five). The opening conversation between Conlag and Daui – two rather superfluous characters – feature words such as fuck, shit, leeches, boils, dogshit, arse and pus. Although this sets the scene quite successfully, it acts as a barrier to the audience from gaining any real sympathy with these characters. You could say this is unfortunate as Conlag, throughout Part One, is a common man on the run, requiring our sympathy. The whole exchange between the two involves a very sensuous linguistic construction. Consider what you feel with the sentence: “Lying in a boat with salt round the back of my eyeballs”. It conjures a very vivid picture of discomfort and unpleasant taste, blurred sight and a rocking movement. Another example; Conlag’s description of how he reacts to this alien environment: “smell their food. Smell how their teeth went into it. The little squirts of fat in the meat. The spit that washed it down”. It suggests a sickly taste and you can almost hear the sound made by the teeth as they sank into the meat.

The sensuous language works very hard to create images that prepare the audience for the violence later in the play. As an example, Viridio’s eloquent hatred for the Romans -which causes his death – involves a good deal of sensuous invective: “with my fingers in the sockets of your eyes, I will hold up your skulls, wet with the flesh of your eyes and your blood!… I will hold your bloody hearts… up to the sun as it sets, and squeeze, and your blood will run down my throat, and I will drink you, get pissed on you! And vomit on you and drink more of you!” There’s no limit to Viridio’s expressions or his intentions.

The production earned generally bad reviews across the whole spectrum of critical comment. Most reviewers could find nothing at all to praise in it, and many were shocked by the homosexual rape – indeed even those who were not themselves shocked were alarmed at the play’s capacity to shock others. Some commentators were startled by the simplistic equations made in the play – especially the reappearance of Caesar’s army in modern British uniforms. Others found the standard of the production generally feeble and an insult to the audience – considering the great reputation of the National Theatre that had produced it. Typical of some of the comments on some of the scenes was that singled out by John Walker in his review in the now defunct Now! magazine: “there is one scene of total unintentional hilarity in which a fugitive, running from Irish wolfhounds, is seen wrestling with a stuffed dog which, after much effort, he bravely subdues. It seemed aptly symbolic for an evening of nursery theatre, of self-indulgent shock-horror fantasy.”

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

By concentrating too heavily on the shocking and violent nature of the presentation, Bogdanov appeared to destroy any serious intentions the play originally had. Some believed the Olivier Theatre should be the pinnacle of art of the highest standard; and this idea was central to the indignation felt by Mary Whitehouse who believed that “Britain is judged in part by what goes on at the National Theatre.” The production was considered a threat to the country’s reputation; and of course, as a recipient of public money to fund the National Theatre, the scandal just grew and grew. Indeed, Sir Horace Cutler, at the time Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, said that the National Theatre’s grant from the Arts Council should be withheld until the play was withdrawn from the repertoire.

In my next blog post, I’ll recount the story of the trial.

Theatre Censorship – 32: Political Extremism in Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In comparison with David Edgar’s Destiny, Stephen Poliakoff’s Strawberry Fields is one stage nearer to reality; although the English People’s Party, which features in the play, does not exist as such, and we know it’s not just another name for the National Front because they also get a mention. By using radio news broadcasts from Doncaster and Newcastle – places that we know do exist – Poliakoff increases the atmosphere of realism.

“Strawberry Fields” tells of the journey made by Charlotte and Kevin, two representatives of the English People’s Party (EPP), from London to the North of England, meeting other party members at pre-arranged spots and distributing leaflets. Things don’t go quite according to plan because a young teacher, Nick, cadges a lift in their van and as he finds out more about them, he tries to undermine their cause and their confidence. At first he only succeeds in being an irritation to them; but after Charlotte shoots the policeman who catches Kevin and Nick raiding a hot dog stall he – unsurprisingly – becomes a nervous wreck who slows them down. Because he witnessed the murder, his presence threatens the as-yet-untarnished reputation of the party; and the play ends with Charlotte’s shooting Nick, symbolising the death of the “reasonable voice” against right-wing extremism.

Poliakoff is a little clearer about the policies and stances of the EPP than Edgar is about Nation Forward in his play Destiny (see previous blog). They seem to have three major political beliefs: they are an ecology party, taking a stand against pollution and the mauling of the countryside; they propose to improve the lives of inner city dwellers by making “urban wastelands” a thing of the past and by improving town planning; and finally, they are opposed to “impersonal government”. None of that sounds very controversial, although they’re light on practical policies. However, one suspects that in order to reduce the “crammed populations in city centres” they would enforce repatriation of all immigrants, creating racial tension and feeding racist tendencies.

Strawberry FieldsEdgar’s play may have a better worked-out structure, and possibly more thoughtful themes, but Poliakoff’s has sharper characterisation. The character of Kevin tells you a lot about why someone might want to join the EPP. Kevin is a romantic at heart; he sees glamour and excitement in the most mundane things and can use language to express the awesomeness of his appreciation. He sees the journey along the motorway as a celebration of the expansiveness of England; the pictures of “landscape with road” which he takes along the way acquire a strange beauty through his eyes. Later, when local activist Mrs Roberts and Charlotte are discussing political matters and Nick is concentrating on the fruit machine, Kevin romanticises about an open air concert which he has suddenly remembered: “there were jugglers, people lighting bonfires along the way, sword swallowers, a whole fayre”. The use of the word “fayre” with its archaic spelling summons up everything that is beautiful and traditional about England; at this stage of the play Kevin’s idealism has not yet been shattered. Unfortunately, because of his blindness, both actual and metaphorical, Kevin cannot discern the beautiful from the ugly. He romanticises equally keenly about the sordid horror films that run through his brain and which he almost believes he can project onto walls, so vivid is his imagination: “he blows his head off, and it bursts open, it bursts right open, splashes all over them… they throw him into a dust-cart shredder, you know, and he’s squashed, and eaten, and shredded up, you know, by the spikes, screaming his head off, screaming so loudly, really loudly, and they pick up little pieces of him, they do, collect him in their hands. RAW PIECES OF HIM. YOU SAW IT.” Steady, Kevin.

So Kevin’s blindness, coupled with his love of all things “fayre”-like, creates a right-wing desire to return to the England which has not been ruined by modern technological and sociological developments. Nick realises the danger of the “grenade in the hamburger box”, the evidence of warfare peddled out in a most acceptable and convenient form, which has infiltrated the country. Lurking similarly beneath the surface are the many party members who do not necessarily make their activity in politics obvious, but who, according to Nick, can still supply Charlotte with arms and ammunition wherever she goes.

Mrs Roberts, for example, is a pleasant, perfectly ordinary woman, who shares the same anxieties as most people about missing coaches to Preston and what to cook for her family that evening. Her story about suspecting the presence of a bomb behind the radiator shows her paranoia about safety and her need to be on guard against all forms of terrorism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has also turned her into a nervous wreck. Nick remarks: “she’s the sort of person that thinks there are bombs and landmines in every litter bin, illegal immigrants everywhere, drugs in the lining of every car, isn’t she?” Her anxiety has made her extreme, for she believes that the people who make her nervous should be punished severely: “I really think people who… leave bombs and think up these terrible hoaxes, have to be really dealt with now. I think they have to be shot really, don’t they? Shot on sight.” Mrs Roberts’ form of justice is clinical and unforgiving: shoot first, ask questions afterwards. Her obsession with it is shown by her keeping a book of cuttings from newspapers, illustrating the points she likes to make and the beliefs she holds. For instance, she refers to a Mr Relph, who was a real person in real life, who came from Leamington and wasn’t a creation of Poliakoff, who insisted that his house was only for sale to a white English family. He advertised it as such, and was subsequently prosecuted under the Race Relations Act. By introducing real references such as this, Poliakoff clearly places the play within our world and is not a mere work of fantasy. Mrs Roberts is also a member of the National Front – again real – an organisation, according to Charlotte, which is led by “pathetic nonentities”.

Jane Asher as Charlotte in Strawberry Fields

Jane Asher as Charlotte in the original National Theatre production

Charlotte herself is the embodiment of the terror that lurks beneath the surface, the grenade in the hamburger box. Whilst appearing a gentle, well-mannered, friendly (to Kevin), tasteful young lady, she is, in fact, pure terrorist through and through, using a gun, she says, as protection against the armed left-wing groups sweeping the country. She doesn’t see the irony that, by doing so, she has become a member of an armed right-wing group. She feels she has no choice but to shoot the policeman because she does not want the party to be involved in anything illegal which might damage its reputation. Of course, shooting the policeman, and later Nick, compound the problem; they are actions far worse than simply raiding a hot dog van. Her absolute confidence about using her gun – not merely as a bluff – also shows that she has no compunction about taking the law into her own hands, positively advocating anarchy; nothing is ever going to defeat her. It might be an ominous warning that Charlotte predicts guerrilla-style warfare within two years. The play’s grim view of the future can only be averted by tolerance and understanding, and Poliakoff’s hope is for a more moderate trend in politics in the future. Sadly, from today’s point of view, I’m not sure the evidence is there to support it.

Destiny and Strawberry Fields are, I feel, two great examples of highly contemporary plays that simply would not have been possible under the regime of the censor. It would be fascinating to see them revived.

We’re coming in to the home straight now! In my next blog I’ll be starting our look at that famous cause célèbre of the 1980s, The Romans in Britain.