HC Deb 01 December 1911 vol 32 cc954-61

I owe a sincere apology to the Home Secretary and what remains of the House for this unseasonable intervention. My main excuse is that the acts of the Lord Chamberlain's Department, one of which I desire to discuss, are almost wholly outside House of Commons control, which, indeed, is one of the grievances. As the salaries of the office are not on the Estimates, the ordinary safety-valve of discussion on the Estimate is cut down, and this is really the only opportune of discussing certain matters which are of importance and urgency to those immediately affected, as well as, to a large extent, to the public generally. Desiring to be as brief as possible, I will merely state that there are three points. First, the appointment to a new office, which I believe is created ad hoc—at any rate, for the first time namely, that of Assistant or Joint Examiner of Plays, of a gentleman who, whatever the Home Secretary or the Lord Chamberlain may have said yesterday, in an interesting answer which was punctuated with laughter and cheers, as to his special qualifications, has qualifications which seem to me at any rate open to very grave criticism indeed. Secondly, the fact that in my view—I do not know whether the Postmaster-General, who was chairman of the committee, will agree with me—the creation of such an office prejudges certain questions of policy which Parliament ought eventually to determine. And my third grievance is that though an important Joint Committee of both Houses appointed on the Motion of the Government, with a Cabinet Minister in the Chair, issued two years ago a most exhaustive report, two successive Secretaries of State have specifically refused legislation.

A colleague of mine in this House suggested to me the other day that I was conducting an agitation against the censorship. I desire at once to disclaim the charge. The agitation against the censorship has been conducted by the Lord Chamberlain with at devastating success I could never hope to achieve. Two charges were brought against the censorship—that it prohibited for insufficient reasons certain works of art, serious and elevated in character and moral in tone, and—and let the House remember secondly, that this was a concurrent charge pressed with equal vigour—that he showed an obsequious and reprehensive subserviency to a large class of flippant, frivolous, cynical, worthless, and even vicious plays. It is with the latter point I desire to deal. Let the House note what I believe from my experience of the Committee to be the practice of this Department. If the Examiner considers the play innocuous he is the sole arbiter and he refers to no one. If he personally sees no harm in a play he issues his licence and obtains the signature of the Lord Chamberlain and the play is allowed. For it is in evidence by the Lord Chamberlain that that is the practice since 1895, and there is nothing to show that the practice has been discontinued to-day. The phrase given by the Lord Chamberlain was, The Examiner is solely responsible to the Lord Chamberlain for the pieces which he recommends for licence. The manuscript passes through the Examiner's hands alone, excepting in cases of doubt, when he is bound to consult the Lord Chamberlain. Who is to be the judge of the doubt? But in all other cases, it has been the habit to accept without question the decision of the Examiner. We have to bear in mind that the Examiner in this instance to be charged with these very wide powers is Mr. Charles Brookfield, author of the play entitled "Dear Old Charlie," adapted from the French of Labiche. On the general question of the character of these plays, the Committee had very interesting evidence from no less important a witness than the Speaker of the House of Commons. He said, I think the Censorship has been too lax. I think some of the adaptations from the French Palais Royal farces have been rather, I will not say verging upon the improper, because they have gone over the border I think in many cases. If I may only say so, I venture to associate myself with that opinion, and the Committee unanimously endorsed this contention in their report, that is the report of the Postmaster-General: We are of opinion a somewhat stricter guard than hitherto might be exercised against the indecencies that sometimes tend to appear in plays of a frivolous type. Who is to exercise this authority. The author of "Dear Old Charlie," in regard to whom we have the following evidence from Mr. Wm. Archer, a distinguished dramatic critic. He was questioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Colonel Lockwood), in these words, Yon said there were certain lighter forms of frivolity bordering upon the indecent? And Mr. Archer answered, The class of play I have in my mind might be exemplified in 'Dear Old Charlie.' Mr. W. L. Courtney, the well-known critic of the "Daily Telegraph," wrote:— 'Dear Old Charlie' which brought the blush to several cheeks even of hardened ruffians like dramatic critics, plays which laugh at virtue, make virtue ridiculous, and vice either desirable, popular, or laughable. I could quote more evidence from a provincial theatrical manager. Mr. Mulholland, who said that he himself had refused to book his play because it would be a failure in provincial towns; and I believe provincial towns are far more effective censors than the Lord Chamberlain. Besides his defence as an author, Mr. Brookfield has publicly proclaimed his views on policy in the current number of the "National Review," and we are, therefore, faced with this dilemma: Either he wrote the article after accepting office, in which case he grossly abused a quasi-Civil Service position, or the Lord Chamberlain appointed him after he had written it, in which case he appointed, with open eyes, a man who, on his own admission, was likely to be a lax administrator and an embittered partisan. I will only quote a single extract from Mr. Brookfield. He said:— I think the influence of the theatre for good or evil is much over-rated, but if a young person could be harmed by seeing a play, I think it would more probably be by a sombre dissertation on the right of a wife to desert a degenerate husband, or one of the many kindred topics so dear to the new dramatist, than by the frivolous burlesque of ill-assorted marriages such as one finds in the old French vaudevilles. Speaking generally, he says of such plays as Palais Royal, Vaudeville, particularly of those which have been adapted and played over here with the licence of the Lord Chamberlain:— I cannot for the life of me see how they can be deemed demoralising. This is the gentleman who will officially in St. James's Palace sit in judgment upon plays. I do ask that this appointment should be cancelled upon personal grounds. I do so also because the wider question seems to me to be involved, that the principal recommendation of the Committee that a single unified licence should be granted to both theatres and music-halls is being carried out spasmodically by the administrative Act of the London County Council and the Lord Chamberlain. This must inevitably largely increase the number of legalised stage plays which in music halls were previously illegal. Two courses are open. Firstly, to increase the number of censors or diminish the number of plays which need be submitted. The first course of censoring everything before production with an army of censors was considered and was specifically rejected by the Committee. The Lord Chamberlain, it seems to me, by increasing the number of censors directly disregards the Committee's recommendations. The proper course is to press the Government for legislation, because really these repeated absurdities are becoming absolutely intolerable, and I submit to the right hon. Gentleman most urgently that there is an overwhelming case for a single afternoon next Session to discuss the Second Reading of a perfectly simple Bill, which I think a Standing Committee would find would be of an almost completely non-controversial character.


I associate myself with the protest which has been delivered by my hon. Friend with regard to the appointment of the Assistant Reader of Plays. The Select Committee that was appointed three years ago was in itself evidence of the widespread and general dissatisfaction which was felt at the manner in which the censorship of plays had been exercised, and in view of the evidence which was delivered before that Committee and of the Report which that Committee presented to the Houses of Parliament, it is indeed surprising that the Lord Chamberlain should have ignored both that evidence and the findings of the Committee, and have made an appointment showing that, so far as he is concerned, no reform is contemplated. I desire to emphasise this point. It is a much more serious matter than is sometimes thought, because the manner in which the censorship of plays has been exercised has been a very serious blow to the cause of great literature. It is not only that it has given us plays which are vulgar and vicious, whilst denying us many plays which are great pieces of literature of a most ennobling character, but it has also prevented the great imaginative writers from submitting their best work for the stage, knowing the fate it would encounter. In that way it has resulted in a most pernicious influence upon literature. For my own part, I think with my hon. Friend that this question raises very wide issues indeed, far wider than this special appointment; and I sincerely trust we may hear that legislation is contemplated in the early future. I am one of those who would gladly see the censorship abolished altogether. We sometimes speak in connection with the abolition of the censorship as though we were going to abolish the ordinary criminal law. I would leave the protection of the drama to the ordinary law, and trust to law just as we trust to it in the case of printed books. The two cases seem to me analogous. If public opinion is not ripe for the entire abolition of the censorship of plays, then let the recommendations of the Select Committee, based upon the exhaustive inquiry that committee undertook, be sympathetically considered and be carried out in that spirit.


Nobody could complain of my hon. Friend the Member for Montrose (Mr. R. Harcourt) having raised this topic. He was a Member of the Committee some years ago over which my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General (Mr. Herbert Samuel) presided, and, an author and playwright himself of no mean distinction, he naturally takes a peculiar and personal interest in this subject. My hon. Friend has made an attack upon the appointment of Mr. Brookfield by the Lord Chamberlain. I doubt whether it would be proper for me to defend Mr. Brookfield against the charges which have been brought against him for a very simple reason. I have no responsibility whatever for the appointment, and, if I defended him, I should be assuming to myself a right which does not really belong to me. I will only say that inasmuch as Mr. Brookfield has no technical defender in this House my hon. Friends will be very well advised to wait until they have heard Mr. Brookfield's side of the question before they accept altogether the views which my hon. Friend has laid before us.


The Committee's views.


I will touch upon that part of my hon. Friend's case immediately. He did not confine himself, as my hon. Friend the supporter of the Amendment did, to matters which can be properly dealt with in this House. I know nothing of the merits of the case, but he did make an attack upon Mr. Brookfield's personal fitness for this particular post. It would be going beyond my province to say anything, but I would recommend we should hold our judgment in suspense on that point until Mr. Brookfield has had an opportunity of defending himself. I will only say this. I know of no gentleman more capable of defending himself than he is.


Bring him to the Bar of this House.


I am not aware that he has committed any offence for which he can be called to the Bar. Although, no doubt, his appointment has been the occasion of this Debate, I think the House would be well advised to leave his name out of the discussion. It is the system and not the appointment that is at issue. It is undeniable that more plays have to be read than one man can get through: it is undeniable that the Lord Chamberlain thought it advisable to appoint a second examiner, and he, and he alone, was responsible for the selection of that particular person. We come, however, to the larger question of legislation. We all agree—it is common knowledge that the Committee recommended legislation—that it would be desirable, if time and circumstances allowed, to have a short Bill embodying the recommendations of my right hon. Friend's Report. But would it be right to hold out the smallest hope that in the next Session of Parliament—which is already fully mortgaged—I could make myself responsible for a Bill which my hon. Friend describes as uncontroversial. I admit it arouses the greatest public interest, but while a great many people agree that something ought to be done, no two or three are agreed as to what should be done. A variety of proposals have been made. I can only say if in discussing this question personal matters are left out and hon. Members and the Government combined can produce a measure which will not arouse controversy, but which will be generally acceptable, then it might be a desirable thing to push such a measure through. But no promise can be given that such a course will be undertaken unless it be by agreement.


I want to ask a question on the subject of the inadequate facilities afforded for the discussion of the question of the exclusion of domestic servants from the scope of the National Insurance Bill. There were a large number of Amendments on the Paper which were never discussed, and which indeed could not be voted upon owing to the operation of the guillotine. The House had an opportunity ten days ago of voting for or against an Amendment for the optional exclusion of domestic servants, but hon. Members were not then in a position to say whether the domestic servants in their constituencies desired or not to be included. The situation since then has entirely changed, and I ask the Government to recognise that every Member of Parliament has received thousands of protests. [An HON. MEMBER: "No, no."] Well, many of us have received sackloads, and it has been a perfectly spontaneous demonstration of opposition. Time has not permitted of our consulting our constituents—either domestic servants or their mistresses—to find out if any modification of this part of the Bill is desired by them, but clearly this legislation is in advance of public opinion, and we ought not to force it upon a class who is unanimously against it. I did not receive a single communication from any servant in my constituency in favour of the Bill, and I ask the House to believe I am speaking in the name of all the domestic servants of England when I ask the Government to recommit the Bill in respect of this Schedule. If they decline to do so, I submit they are obstinately determined to defy the will of the people.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL (Sir Rufus Isaacs)

The hon. Member forgets that this Bill has been before the constituencies for something like six months. There has been ample opportunity for the domestic servants to agitate, but apparently there was no need for it until another kind of agitation arose. We discussed the question fully in Committee; we discussed it on the Amendment of the Opposition, when some of the Leaders of the Opposition refused to vote for the Amendment moved from their own side. They either voted for us, or they did not vote against us. We discussed it fully on the new Clause. Every opportunity has been given for discussing the question of domestic servants, and the only reason why they did not have another discussion was that they did not appear when they were invited by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to attend the deputation.


The right hon. Gentleman is surely mistaken. I am interested, not so much in the domestic servants, as in another class, the secondary school teachers. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely in error in saying that there would have been no further opportunity of discussing the matter. There would have been an opportunity of discussing it on the Schedule if there had not been an alteration in the guillotine arrangements made last night.


Not a bit.


If the alteration had not been made, Part II. and the First Schedule would have been taken on Monday, but they have been taken to-day. I am not dealing with domestic servants, but with secondary school teachers. These and others would have been dealt with on Monday, but the First Schedule was passed this evening. An hon. Member asks me why I did not vote against the Schedule. It did exclude a certain number of people, and it would have been a very Irish procedure to vote against it, because it did not exclude more. For that reason I think my hon. Friend (Mr. Arnold Ward) has a right to complain of the exclusion of discussion on the question of domestic servants.

Adjourned accordingly, at Twenty-nine minutes after Five o'clock, till Monday next, 4th December, 1911.