Orders of the Day — Censorship of Plays

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th March 1966.

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10.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the censorship of plays. The right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) said at the end of the last debate that he thought that it was the last important debate of this Parliament. He had obviously not studied the Order Paper, and seen the Bill whose introduction I have just moved. I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I thought that in his speech he uncovered unsuspected political qualities—most of us thought that the only thing he had to hide was an economic crisis. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has left the Chamber, because whatever he may have thought about other matters I am sure that he would have been willing to support me in this one. I hope that I will have the support of the whole House. This Parliament has passed a number of Bills of a libertarian character carrying into law reforms that have been pressed for over many generations, and I hope that the same spirit will be shown towards my Bill tonight.

Some may think I am optimistic in hoping that I shall get the whole Bill through Parliament in the remaining period of this Parliament, but Parliament can do anything it wishes. If the enthusiasm for this Bill is as I suspect, the Government could give me support tomorrow and we could have the whole matter finished, and so end this Parliament on a very happy note.

My Bill would abolish the censorship of plays. I know that this matter has been debated in another place, and that when it was debated there the proposition was made that an inquiry should be instituted into the whole question. In another place the Government indicated that they supported that proposition. Some people may have thought that, in view of that decision in another place, it was hardly worth my seeking to introduce this Measure under the Ten-Minute Rule. Indeed, that was my view until very recently, but I have been reading, as I dare say some other hon. Members have, reports in the papers of the prosecution that has been taking place against the English Stage Company.

I fully understand that it would be improper for me to comment on the details of that case, as it is obviously a matter for the courts to decide. Nevertheless, it underlines the necessity for my Bill. It strengthens the case for my Bill, because anyone who examines what has occurred—I do not mean as to the rights and wrongs of the case or how it should be decided, but anyone who examines the surrounding circumstances of the case—will see how it greatly strengthens my plea for the abolition of the censorship.

The Home Office has, on a number of occasions, indicated to the House and the country—we are all well aware of it—that our police forces are greatly strained. Yet in the past two or three months, according to information revealed in the court, quite a number of our policemen have been recruited as snoopers to go to see the play "Saved", which is the one under prosecution, and the other play by John Osborne, "A Patriot For Me", to see whether the law was being abided by or whether a breach was taking place. Quite large forces, according to this information, have been used in this way.

Anyone who reads the reports which appeared in the newspapers this morning about what occurred in the court yesterday—I am not referring to the matter which the court had to determine—would see that there was quite an event in the history of the English theatre. Sir Laurence Olivier, who is, I suppose, accepted as the greatest actor of our day, went to the court to give evidence about the activities of the English Stage Company, which is being prosecuted. As reported in The Guardian this morning: The English Stage Company, Sir Laurence said, with the English Stage Society which was its support group, had without any question been of the most extraordinary, vital value in the last 10 years. 'Its office and its delight', he said, and the words rolled out, 'is to take risks on talent.'He named the dramatists it had discovered or encouraged—Arden, Brecht, Lessing, Osborne, and Wesker among them—the players who were grateful to it—Finney, O'Toole, Stevens, Plowright, Tushingham and others—and then he came to himself. The company had altered the colour and tone of his career at a time when he was becoming a bit more staid and a bit more predictable and he would be for ever grateful. It was a very moving tribute paid by the most distinguished actor in the country. Yet, under the law as it stands, it is precisely those kinds of companies that are most likely, according to the evidence of the past 30 or 40 years, to be subject to prosecution.

I could go through the whole list, but the time taken would be longer than 10 minutes, of all the famous playwrights who have been subjected to this form of censorship, going right back to the time when it was first introduced. Henry Fielding was driven from writing for the theatre by the operation of the censorship. Bernard Shaw's career was almost ended by the operation of censorship. The play killed by the censorship in his early days, "Mrs. Warren's Profession", could not be seen in this country until 30 years later. Today the latest play of the greatest dramatist we have, John Osborne, could not be shown to everyone according to the law. The company for which he produces plays is now subject to prosecution in the courts.

I do not believe that anyone who believes in freedom could defend this situation. I know that there are many elaborae arguments which say that this form of censorship may constitute a protection against other insidious forms of censorship. Such arguments were made in another place. All could be argued on further stages of my Bill whether tonight, tomorrow night, or Thursday. All these matters could be dealt with expeditiously. What people forget is that no other country in the Western world insists on having a pre-showing censorship—no other country except Spain, which is not exactly the best of examples in any respect, and certainly not in this.

Therefore, I hope that the House will be prepared to give me leave to introduce this Bill. If by any chance I am not able to carry it through all its stages, I promise that I shall introduce it at the earliest possible time in the next Parliament, particularly as I understand from those making bets that my chances of winning in Ebbw Vale are 10,000 to 1. That is a great load off my mind. At a very early date in the next Parliament, if this Motion is not carried tonight, I shall seek to introduce it again. If it is said that it is not appropriate to introduce such a Bill at this time, because of the inquiry which is taking place, I shall take steps to get the inquiry to speed its investigations.

Although I am gratified that the Government have moved sufficiently far to accept the proposal for an inquiry, and that is an advance on anything that we had from the previous Government, it does not alter the fact that almost exactly 50 years ago there was another investigation into this matter which made recommendations to the Parliament of that day. It was the Liberal Government of 1909 and unfortunately nothing was done. The recommendation then was that we should do away with compulsory censorship and make it permissive, which was the view expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the present Solicitor-General when he introduced a Bill of this character. We could take that course and my Bill might be prepared to accommodate such a proposition.

When we consider that 50 years ago the whole of this matter was examined and the recommendation was made that compulsory censorship should be abolished and that nothing effective was done from that day to this, I am sure that nobody will quarrel with my intention to speed up this inquiry and make sure that it comes to a proper conclusion. If it comes to the conclusion which I advocate, I shall be only too eager to assist the Government or anybody else to get a Measure through, but if by any chance investigation reaches deadlock the Bill which I seek leave to introduce will be ready to be introduced at once.

When the Government come back after the election there will be a number of measures to be introduced. [An HON. MEMBER: "Steel."] Yes, I think that we shall get that. It may be the first. The Government have shown in this Parliament that they are prepared to see that other Measures which affect small numbers of the population but which are still important will be introduced. I am seeking to assist the playwrights, the most important people in the theatre and incidentally not only important to the theatre. Anyone who examines the history of the past few years will see the great liberalising effect which John Osborne has had on the national life, and anybody who reads our literature will see the contribution that has been made by our playwrights. It is monstrous that our playwrights, the best in the Western world, are subject to a censorship not exceeded anywhere else in the Western world except Spain.

10.27 p.m.

Photo of Mr William Shepherd Mr William Shepherd , Cheadle

I rise to oppose the Motion.

Whilst I congratulate the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) on the manner in which he moved the Motion, I cannot congratulate him on the choice of subject. The hon. Member seems fated in his Bills. The last Bill that he sought to introduce under the Ten-Minute Rule was a Bill to complain about the high price of sparking plugs, and the sparking plug was the one thing which cost the same postwar as it cost prewar. Now the hon. Member asks the leave of the House to abolish the censorship when, by the present liberal interpretation of our censorship rules, which have almost banished family entertainment from the West End theatre. I certainly cannot congratulate the hon. Member on his choice of subjects.

It is true that the hon. Member can have some little fun with the institution and he can say, as Bernard Shaw said, that the idea of censorship was to prevent criticism of current concepts and of the Establishment. I am all in favour of the most violent criticism of current concepts and of the Establishment, as it is at present established, and I have no wish to diminish the extent to which there is complete freedom of expression within reasonable limits.

The most remarkable thing about the hon. Gentleman's speech was that he put forward an instance which was against and not in favour of his case. If we accept what the hon. Gentleman says and abolish the censorship concept and put nothing in its place, the police force will be faced with the unenviable task of prosecuting on the ground of obscenity such plays as it thinks necessary. It so happens that in the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred—and I shall not mention it, because I think that to do so at all would be questionable—there were special circumstances which brought the police into the prosecution. Normally, such a matter would be dealt with not by the police, but by means of permission being granted by the Lord Chamberlain.

If the hon. Gentleman had his way and was successful in changing the law in the manner which he has suggested, the net result would be that the police would be saddled with the responsibility of deciding which plays were suitable for pub- lic consumption. I cannot think of any body of men less suited to perform that task than the police, and, with their present preoccupations, it would be ludicrous to impose this additional burden upon them.

The hon. Gentleman has spoken, as have all hon. Members who have suggested this change, in somewhat critical terms of theatre managements, but a theatre management at least can say that it is nearest to the public, certainly much nearer than the author is. If the hon. Gentleman had his way, theatre managements would be in the situation of producing plays without any guidance of any authority such as they now obtain from the Lord Chamberlain, and, if it were a certain type of play, they would run the risk of intervention by the police. I cannot think that this can conceivably be in the interests of those who produce plays, or in the interests of the standards of plays.

I said that I thought that there was enough licence in plays already, and I certainly believe that to be true. Indeed, I think that we have coarsened by the liberality of our present censorship arrangements the standard of production in the West End and elsewhere. While one might accept some more liberal treatment, it must be remembered that the veneer of civilisation is extremely thin and that life can easily be coarsened in a most disagreeable manner.

I remind the House that not so many years ago the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated in Germany and that there still remain those people who are prepared to lower standards to an abysmal level. Standards have been lowered to an abysmal level in the West End of London in recent years, one man being sent to gaol for four years because of the performance which he put on.

If we allow completely unregulated presentations of plays, those individuals who want to exploit for personal gain those lower standards will be able to do so. It is absolutely necessary to have some form of control and, above all, guidance for those who have the job of producing plays and taking the financial risk involved in putting them on.

I agree that it would be very desirable to look at the existing institution. It works extraordinarily well, but it is an easy butt for criticism. It is an old-fashioned, historic concept and it may well be that it is not entirely suited to its purpose, although I do not for a moment complain about its standards. Easily the best thing the hon. Gentleman can do is to get on with his election, forget about the Bill and be good enough to withdraw it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bringin Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Michael Foot and Mr. St. John-Stevas.