HC Deb 20 December 1944 vol 406 cc1909-18

6.1 p.m.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

I desire to raise the question of the censorship of plays. Perhaps it will form a not unfitting epilogue to a Debate which has had its moments of drama. I hope the House will not regard this as frivolous. I hope, too, to be able to show that it has a practical relevance to the great national struggle in which we are now engaged. I confess I am not in favour of the censorship of plays. I consider that the public is as amply protected, and even better protected, under the common law; but I am sufficiently realistic to appreciate that the censorship of plays, like the poor, or the Germans, will always be with us. What I am concerned to show is that it would operate far better and far more equitably under a Minister of the Crown responsible to Parliament. The censorship of a creative art must always be repugnant to a freedom-loving society, but it is only tolerable at all if it keeps pace with the natural growth and development of the art in question. If it takes a retrograde step, if it starts forbidding something to-day, which it permitted yesterday, and which still holds the field, as it were, and cannot be withdrawn from circulation, then the situation becomes chaotic.

The story that I have to tell the House is one which has some public and private interest. Some months ago there died in London an American citizen, a great personal friend of mine. His name was Hayes Hunter. He was connected with the theatre and the film industry, but the main pre-occupation of his life, in fact I think I might call it his ruling passion, was the promotion of better Anglo-American relations; and this not merely since the war. All the time that I knew him—and that is the last ten or twelve years—he was constantly returning to the theme and deploring the fact that not enough people here or in the United States realised that the future happiness of mankind very largely depended upon the most close and cordial relationships between our two peoples. That he was sincere is exemplified by a touching little incident. He travelled a great deal between London and New York, and used to wear an identity disc round his wrist attached to a chain bracelet. When this was removed after his death, the reverse side of the disc was found to be engraved with the words, "An American who loved England."

Now, it so happens that a couple of years ago Mr. Monckton Hoffe, who will be well known to the House as an English dramatist of great distinction, wrote a small play, which was broadcast over one of the larger radio networks of the United States. It was called "Mr. Lincoln Meets a Lady," and the two principal characters were President Lincoln and Queen Victoria. Now, since, as a matter of history, these two never met in life, the play was cast as a kind of dream fantasy. It is a work of great skill and charm. Needless to say, these two eminent personages were drawn with sympathy, with discretion and with delicacy. There is almost a Barriesque touch about it. It was received with the greatest appreciation and applause in the United States. It was, in fact, a phenomenal success. It was a play which definitely furthered, and was designed to further, the betterment of Anglo-American relations. Mr. Hayes Hunter, who was in New York at the time, promptly commissioned Mr. Hoffe to write a stage play from his radio script. Mr. Hoffe devoted a considerable time to this work and eventually delivered his play.

Here the trouble began. Mr. Hayes Hunter submitted it to the censor and a licence was refused. Mr. Hunter went down to Windsor Castle to interview the Censor's Office, but they were adamant. He asked them if there was anything objectionable or offensive in the play, and they said "Nothing whatever," but it was the policy of the present Lord Chamberlain to veto all plays in which Queen Victoria figured. And this in spite of the fact that there have been a score of plays and films in which Queen Victoria has figured as the chief character. I need only remind the House of the many one-act plays written by Mr. Laurence Housman, some of which were strung together to make up the successful play "Victoria Regina," which ran for some months in the West End of London several years ago. The policy of the then Lord Chamberlain——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The hon. Gentleman is, I am afraid, in some difficulty. If he is going to make reference to the Lord Chamberlain's authority that does not come within the purview of this House, as there is no Minister responsible.

Mr. Smith

I am not criticising the Lord Chamberlain. I am criticising the function of the censorship of plays at the present moment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Yes, and the Lord Chamberlain is the authority with regard to the censorship of plays?

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

Is it not competent for an hon. Member to argue, either that the Lord Chamberlain ought not to be the authority on plays, or that there should be a better authority, or that he should be subject to a Minister of the Crown?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is in a difficulty, because it is not competent to discuss in this House the functions of a Court official, which is a matter of the Prerogative. Therefore, it is not competent to discuss the censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain. If the hon. Gentleman is proposing that an alteration should be made and that some Minister should be responsible, that would be a matter for legislation, and again cannot be raised on the Adjournment.

Mr. Smith

I appreciate what you say, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I will not mention the Lord Chamberlain again in the course of my speech. I will talk simply of the censorship of plays. As regards the question of legislation, perhaps when I have diagnosed the disease and come to propound a cure, it may convince you that it will not need legislation to do what I suggest.

To come back to the particular incident. Mr. Hunter was perplexed and distressed by the official attitude. He came to see me an I tried to make him understand that British administration is not always governed by the laws of logic. Nor is it always susceptible to the dictates of reason. Nevertheless, he begged me to do something; if I could, to throw some light on the subject. Before I could take any action, however, Mr. Hunter died suddenly, and the matter was temporarily shelved. Now, however, it is the wish of Mr. Hunter's executors to present this play, and they have accordingly approached me again. This point may be of some interest to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, in view of your recent observations. I, in my turn, approached the Home Secretary, with a view to putting down a Question to him upon this specific issue. He referred me to the Prime Minister's Department. There they told me that if I would put down my Question to the Home Secretary I should be vouchsafed an answer. So I got out my Question, but I could not get it accepted at the Table. All I could do was to put down a Question on the general issue and then use as an illustration the specific case which I wished to bring up. I think that recital will serve to show the difficulty, which you underlined—and I thank you for doing so—in the way of any Parliamentary action on any aspect of this rather vexed question. I do not wish to put my case too highly. All I am saying is that if a dramatist was allowed to show Queen Victoria on the stage in the 1930s, always provided that there was no offence and no wounding of living susceptibilities, there can be no ground for reversing that decision in the 1940s.

I maintain that there must be a precedent in these matters. In 1886 the then censor was, I understand, much exercised in his mind as to whether he could pass the title of the famous Gilbert and Sullivan opera "Ruddigore."

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member is apparently criticising the present administration of the censorship, but that is a matter for the Lord Chamberlain, and it is not competent for us to discuss his administration in this House. I am, therefore, afraid that I must rule the hon. Gentleman out of Order, unless he has any relevant observations to offer.

Mr. Smith

I am emphatically not criticising any action of the Lord Chamberlain. All I am doing is to recite the facts in one particular case and that does not necessarily imply any criticism.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am sorry. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to proceed.

Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)

On a point of Order. As a mere back bencher it is very interesting to me to inquire how it is that this Adjournment notice and this discussion ever came into the purview of this half-hour at all. There must have been a Question which was within the Rules of Order. Otherwise, why should the hon. Member be put to this trouble and expense, and this time and labour, and why should the Minister in charge be prepared to come here to give an answer?

Mr. Kenneth Lindsay (Kilmarnock)

As the Question appears to have been put to the Home Secretary, and an answer, I understand, was given, may I ask whether the Home Secretary was out of Order? Did the Question definitely ask for legislation? I thought the hon. Mem- ber was raising a specific illustration, which is now being continued in an Adjournment Debate.

Mr. Smith

Perhaps I might explain that I evolved a Question, which I showed to the Home Secretary, and I asked him whether he would be prepared to answer it. He read the Question, and referred me to the Prime Minister's Department, but no actual Question was put on the Paper on the subject, except the one Question on the general issue, when I asked the Prime Minister whether he would consider placing the censorship of plays under the control of a Minister responsible to Parliament.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The position is perfectly clear from the hon. Gentleman's Question. He asked the Prime Minister whether he will consider making provision whereby the censorship of plays may be transferred to a Minister of the Crown responsible to Parliament."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1944; Vol. 406, c. 525.] That would be a matter for legislation, and therefore the Question cannot be raised on the Motion for the Adjournment.

Petty-Officer Alan Herbert (Oxford University)

My hon. Friend has disclaimed any intention of criticising the conduct of the Lord Great Chamberlain, and is trying to discuss a transfer of functions. With great respect does it follow that a transfer of functions would need legislation? I should have thought it could have been done by an administrative act, and that therefore my hon. Friend might be in Order.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

Would it not be possible for the Minister to issue an Order under the Emergency Powers Act, to have an Order in Council made, and will it not therefore be in Order for the hon. Member to plead that this is a matter of such general interest and importance in making for good relations between ourselves and America that it might be worth consideration?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The intention is for Orders in Council to relate only to matters arising out of the war. I am afraid this cannot be regarded as strictly within that category.

Mr. Smith

May I put one question? You say, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that legislation would be necessary if this transfer were to take place. May I submit to you a possibility in which it is conceivable that no legislation would be necessary? At the present time this is a Royal Prerogative. Let us suppose that His Majesty chooses to divest himself of this particular Royal Prerogative and hand it to the Home Secretary for the time being. Would that necessarily require legislation?

Mr. Lindsay

May I suggest that there has been set up a Ministry of Information with a foreign section and in the United States there is the British Information Service? We have heard evidence from my hon. Friend that this proposal would help to make for better relations with the United States, one of our greatest Allies in the war, and I suggest that what he proposes could be done by an administrative act.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member had gone back to the 19th century and was envisaging a permanent alteration of the law, which would be a matter for legislation. He has also mentioned the Royal Prerogative, which is clearly not discussable by this House.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Robert Grimston)

May I put this on record? My hon. Friend has made some statements to which I can reply, but I am now, under the Rules of Order, to be deprived of any opportunity. I should not like it to go out, through some misunderstanding owing to the Rules of Order, that a reply cannot be made.

Mr. Smith

I should strongly object to my hon. Friend replying until I had finished my speech.

Professor Savory (Queen's University of Belfast)

I think it would be strictly relevant were I to add a few words of my experience of censorship in France. It is relevant, because it is a very strict comparison. The French people have had——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

This House is even less responsible for censorship in France.

6.18 p.m.

Petty Officer Alan Herbert (Oxford University)

This episode illustrates a point I have made year after year about Private Members' time. I recently asked for a modest concession from the Government for Private Members to be allowed to have Bills printed, and was told "Look at the glorious opportunities you have every day on the Adjournment." That is good enough if one wants to criticise; but, if one wants to create anything, one is hamstrung by this ridiculous rule about not being able to suggest the smallest thing which may conceivably involve legislation. I think it is a very bad rule, and that it puts us in a very difficult position. I have nothing against the Lord Chamberlain, but I want to place on record, and I hope the representatives on the Front Bench will take this complaint to the Government from Private Members, that we are hamstrung when we try to take advantage of what opportunities we have.

6.20 p.m.

Professor Savory

On a point of Order. It is really your Ruling, Sir, that it is not relevant, for the purposes of comparison, to discuss the history of the censorship in France? Has it not a very strong bearing on this Debate? It is a matter to which I have devoted a lifetime of study, and I should like to have said something about it.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have said that the argument of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) is out of Order, and discussion on the lines which the hon. Member has now suggested would also be out of Order.

6.21 p.m.

Mr. Magnay (Gateshead)

I want to protest against this waste of the time of Members of this House. It ought to have been discovered earlier that this matter was out of Order; and the time spent on the preparation of speeches, on a subject very germane to relations between us and America, could have been saved. This is not respectful to Private Members, and I hope that the Whip who is present will take note of this protest by ordinary Members who have been simply fooled.

6.22 p.m.

Mr. Moelwyn Hughes (Carmarthen)

You have ruled out, quite properly, if I may say so, with respect, Sir, that a subject requiring legislation cannot be raised; but the case put forward by my hon. Friend was known in advance, and we have a gentleman on the Treasury Bench prepared to answer it. It is germane for us back-benchers to inquire how it comes about that the Government are represented here, on a matter which, from its inception, was completely out of Order. Was it not incumbent upon the Government, in the first place, to draw your attention to the fact that the subject was completely out of Order, and not to put the onus, with all respect, upon you, and then to get up and say, "We are prepared, if we have the opportunity, to answer the case"? I want to make my protest, not against your Ruling, but against this equivocal attitude on the part of the Treasury Bench.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Grimston

I think I could perfectly well make a speech which is in Order. I could give the House a history of how the censorship came into the hands of the Lord Chamberlain, and how it is operated to-day.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

In view of what has been said, I doubt if such a discussion would be in Order.

6.24 p.m.

Petty-Officer Herbert

I think, with great deference, Sir, that we shall be in Order if we discuss the censorship of films, which comes under the Board of Trade. I have a complaint concerning the censorship of films. Ever since the film censorship came into being the censor, for some reason, has always been a Roman Catholic. I personally have been affected by that. I wrote a book—a very good book—called "Holy Deadlock," concerning divorce. It was a perfectly decent book, a constructive book, giving an elaborate account of all sorts of legal operations. I had some idea——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am not clear about the responsibility for this matter, but I think the censorship of films is a voluntary one now.

Petty-Officer Herbert

It comes under the purview of the Board of Trade. If you are not certain, you should have the benefit of the doubt. Ever since the film censorship was established, the censor has always been a Catholic. I wrote a book called "Holy Deadlock," which was submitted for film treatment, but it has always been turned down by this Catholic censor.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker: I am afraid that matter is not in Order, and I must rule the hon. and gallant Gentleman out of Order. The hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench has spoken more than once, but, if the House gives him permission——

Hon. Members


Mr. Grimston

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Deputy-Speaker? We are discussing Rules of Order upon the Motion for the Adjournment, and you said just now, Sir, that you thought I could not be in Order on this Debate. May I ask you if an account of the history of this censorship, under what Acts of Parliament it came about, and how it has been reviewed by this House from time to time, would be in Order?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If the original Question was not in Order, it does not seem to me that the discussion of its history will make it any more in Order.

Mr. E. P. Smith

Further to that point of Order. If it is in Order for the hon. Gentleman to refer to the Act of Parliament under which the censorship is established and so forth, surely it is in Order for me to refer to the censorship?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

No, I must rule against the hon. Member.

Mr. Magnay

Is not that against an axiom which I learned 50 years ago or more—that the greater contains the less?

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-seven Minutes past Six O'clock.