§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.46 a.m.
§ Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I regret that I shall not be able to be as admirably brief as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Scotland (Mr. Alldritt) was in moving the Adoption Bill, because I believe that my Bill is of such importance that the House requires adequate explanation of its purpose and its scope.
Its purpose is simple. It is to implement the conclusions of the Joint Select Committee of both Houses and of all parties on the censorship of the theatre. That Committee's Report was published in June of last year and was welcomed enthusiastically by the entire Press. I had the privilege of chairing that Committee. It was an interesting and fascinating experience. Looking round its disparate membership during our early meetings it seemed certain that there was no possibility of any general agreement. Two or three minority reports seemed inevitable. Yet at the end we achieved unanimity, not only on basic principles, but on all the controversial minor aspects of the problem.
This was not because of any common political outlook. It was because the 826 evidence and the arguments put before us led to the inescapable conclusion that the pre-censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain should cease and be replaced by the application of the laws of the land.
I remind any hon. Members who consider this solution to be dangerous or wild that among the members of the Select Committee were Lord Brooke, who was held in high respect in all parts of the House when he was a Member of Parliament, and the Earl of Scarborough, the present Lord Chamberlain's predecessor.
The central question to which the Committee directed itself was whether the present censorship procedure was a violation of the rights of free speech which should be maintained in our democratic society; and, if so, whether there were alternative means by which that freedom could be maintained without the theatre becoming licentious or in other ways publicly offensive. The more we examined the present system of censorship the more indefensible it appeared in principle, the more ludicrous in practice, and the more it became apparent that it should end and be replaced by applying to the theatre the laws of libel, slander, obscenity and blasphemy that already govern all other forms of literary expression.
Today the playwright alone of all creative artists is prevented from presenting his work to the public by the arbitrary decision of one individual against whom there is no appeal whatever. His decisions cannot be questioned in the courts or in this House. This is a gross injustice which has long incensed the whole writing profession. A playwright may spend months and years writing a play which he and other literary judges consider to have artistic merit. Imagine his feelings when the censor forbids its production because he thinks it might offend some people or because it has political implications he does not like. And, as I say, there is no appeal.
No individual, however sympathetic or knowledgeable, should have such dictatorial powers, but it becomes more intolerable when the man who exercises those powers has no other qualification than that he happens to be the head of the Queen's Household. I invite the House to note that not only does the censor 827 penalise the playwright, but he also penalises the public who are prevented from seeing his work which they might want to watch. We are the only democratic and freedom-loving country in the world which has a theatre censor. There is none in Belgium, France, West Germany, Finland, Italy, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Australia, Canada or the United States. No one could possibly allege that in those countries the morals of the public are debased or corrupted by what happens in the theatre.
Parliament gave the powers of censorship to the Lord Chamberlain in the Act of 1737. It did so because Sir Robert Walpole wanted to put an end to the political attacks being made on his Government by the theatre at that time. I shall show that censorship still today often has a deliberate political purpose. In 1843 Parliament passed the Act under which the censorship operates and has done ever since. Since then every author of original ideas who has examined in his plays topical, social or political problems which the censor considered respectable people might find unpalatable, has at one time or another come under his ban. These include Ibsen, Pirandello, and Shaw. Yet some of their plays were being presented in other countries at the same time that they were banned in this country. At one time Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado" was banned. On another occasion Laurence Houseman's "Pain and Penalties", which dealt with the relationship between George IV and Queen Caroline, was banned.
It would be quite wrong to think that these were only the regrettable happenings of the past and that this sort of thing does not happen today; it does. Plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and John Osborne have been performed in other countries when they could not be seen in theatres in this country. Some hon. Members may have seen a letter in The Times last week from Bamber Gascoigne, a well-known television personality. He has had a play banned which is shortly to be produced in New York.
I quote as one example of many that I could quote, the recent case of the poem by E. E. Cummings "I Sing to Olaf" which has been contained in a book of 828 modern verse in print for 20 years. The Royal Shakespeare Company wanted to include that poem in a programme which it called "The Rebel". The Lord Chamberlain said no because he objected to a few of the lines in it. So the poem was printed in the theatre programme and the actor stopped reading when he reached that point so that the audience could read the lines for themselves. Then the whole poem was broadcast on television to 4½ million people without a single letter of protest being received. All this is obviously ridiculous and it is time it was stopped.
Then there is the political censorship which the Lord Chamberlain admitted he imposes. He has permitted leaders of Communist countries to be presented on the stage in a highly unfavourable light but he has banned the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of "U.S." on the ground—which had little if any justification—that it might be considered offensive to the United States. It is true that finally the Lord Chamberlain relented and allowed the play to be put on with a few alterations, but he similarly prevented the production of the play "Macbird". At the same time that play was being performed to interested audiences in the United States. This also is nonsense which ought to stop.
Another factor which weighed with the Committee was that Lord Cobbold himself stated in examination, and in his speech in the House of Lords, that the powers of censorship should no longer reside in a court official. No one was able to suggest any acceptable alternative. Lord Cobbold, to our surprise and to the horror of the Chairman of the Arts Council, Lord Goodman, suggested that the Arts Council should take on that responsibility. Obviously no body can simultaneously discharge the duty of fostering and fettering the art of the theatre. In fact, the Arts Council has come down firmly in favour of the abolition of a pre-censorship of plays.
No one should think that abolishing the Lord Chamberlain's powers of censorship over the theatre would leave the theatre unrestricted. Indeed, it was argued before the Committee that if his powers are abolished the theatre may become less permissive than it is today. Managements will think carefully before putting on a play which might fall foul of the 829 law. If they did so they would not only expose themselves to severe penalties which are stated in the Bill, but they would lose, or risk losing, very large sums of money put into the production of the plays. Play production nowadays is a very costly business. Critics are certain to condemn a play which goes beyond the accepted standards of decency and experience shows that the public is unlikely to attend plays which are offensive.
I think the Bill self-explanatory, but it is my duty to explain one or two of its more important features. Clause 1 abolishes the censorship powers of the Lord Chamberlain over plays. It also abolishes the Royal Prerogative. We are doubtful whether there is a Royal Prerogative and that the Sovereign is entitled to stop or to censor plays, but we were advised that that may be so and that it was necessary to make the position clear. Clause I also establishes that the theatre licensing authority should have no censorship powers. It would be a terrible state of affairs if, instead of one censorship in London, there were to be a large number throughout the country which resided in local authorities.
Clause 2 applies the Obscene Publications Act to the theatre. It does so by a very slight alteration in words, only such alterations as are necessary. I think, however, that I should read the few key lines. Clause 2(1) provides:For the purposes of this section a performance of 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".Clause 3 provides the possible defence, which, again, is broadly the same as the defence permitted under the Obscene Publications Act as applied to books and literature:A person shall not be convicted of an offence under section 2 of this Act if it is proved that the giving of the performance in question was justified as being for the public good on the ground that it was in the interests of drama, opera, ballet or any other art, or of literature or learning.The defendants will be the presenter of the play and/or the director of the play. Some Amendment may have to be considered in Committee on this point. Certain representations have been made to 830 me by the Society of West End Theatre Managers which appear to me to have substance.
With one exception, the penalties under the Bill are the same as under the Obscene Publications Act. Conviction before a magistrate would carry a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment or a fine of £400. Under the Obscene Publications Act, conviction in those conditions may carry a penalty of only £100, but in the Committee's Report it was suggested that the penalty should be increased. Conviction on indictment may bring a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine.
I should make it clear that the Bill impinges only on plays, ballet and opera. The licensing and penal laws which control music hall performances, revues or cabaret remain the same as at present, unless they contain a sketch which is deemed a play, in which case they will come under the provisions of the Bill. Performances in a club would not be protected against prosecution. No prosecution may take place without the consent of the Attorney-General. We considered this necessary to prevent vexatious or frivolous prosecutions by outraged individuals or societies and to ensure uniformity of enforcement.
Clause 4 provides that, if anyone is slandered on the stage, he may bring an action under the laws of libel, which will make the penalty more severe than if he sued for slander.
Clauses 11 and its following ones deal with the licensing of theatres. They are very detailed, and it would be wrong to take up the time of the House discussing them now. They are necessary and they can be carefully considered in Committee, but, broadly speaking, the effect will be to give theatre licensing authorities the same authority to license theatres for plays as exist today under the licensing provisions of the London Government Act, 1963. In other words, the London procedure, which appeared to us and the Home Office to be a correct one, will apply to the rest of the country in regard to the licensing of theatres for the performance of plays.
Now, a few words about some of the doubts which have been expressed in the 831 Press and elsewhere about some of the features of the Bill. First, should the presentation of living people be permitted on the stage? It seems to me that this boils down to the question whether public figures should be presented on the stage. Private individuals are protected by the laws of slander, which will operate in regard to plays as they do at the moment in regard to newspapers and books, and it seems unlikely that anyone would wish to caricature or bring into contempt a private individual by presentation on the stage.
There seems to me, however—I hope that the House will agree—nothing wrong in allowing public figures to be satirised on the stage. This is already happening under the present censorship arrangement. It is a new development and one which we welcome. In the play "Mrs. Wilson's Dairy" now being performed at the Criterion Theatre, public figures, the Prime Minister and other members of the Cabinet, are satirised. If they can be satirised in newspapers, in cartoons and in books, for which there may be a readership of millions, why or earth should they not be satirised on the stage? We have had long, bitter and very successful satire in popular programmes on television, particularly the programme "TWTWTW", and Mr. William Bird has given pleasure to millions by impersonating and making rather ridiculous the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and others.
All this is healthy and good, and should be welcomed in a democratic society which believes in free speech. Only in totalitarian society is this sort of thing banned. It certainly should not be here. It is impossible to draft an Amendment to the Bill which would protect living individuals from presentation on the stage without at the same time banning justifiable satire.
There is the more controversial question of banning the presentation of the Sovereign on the stage or allowing improper comments about her. The ground for this is that the Sovereign is unable to bring an action for slander. The Committee gave long and serious thought to the problem but finally came to the conclusion that there should be no such ban imposed by Act of Parliament. It did so on the grounds, first, 832 as suggested by Lord Cobbold himself, that it would be exceedingly difficult to draft acceptable words to carry out the purpose; second, that it seemed illogical to ban contemptuous references to the Sovereign on the stage when newspapers, magazines and books have no such ban imposed upon them; and third, that it was unlikely that the public would tolerate for a moment offensive personal references to the Sovereign on the stage any more than they would such offensive references in the Press. The Committee was unanimous in this as in all other matters, and it should be noted that one of the members who supported this proposal was Lord Scarbrough, who was Lord Chamberlain before Lord Cobbold took his place.
There remains one more point on which comment is necessary. It has been suggested by many—the point was made by the Lord Chamberlain himself—that pre-censorship is desirable to protect the casual theatregoer, to protect him, presumably, from shock at what he sees on the stage. The answer is succinctly given in paragraph 29 of the Committee's Report, from which I now quote:Attendance at a theatre is a voluntary act, usually decided upon after more conscious thought than going to the cinema or turning on television. The Committee consider that it is better that an individual should have the right to decide, with full knowledge, what sort of play he wishes to see than that some central authority should attempt to lay down what is suitable for the ' average person'.The theatre managers' association suggested that plays should be put in categories, perhaps, A, B and C, according to their shockability. That is a matter which we thought might or might not be desirable, but it was one for the theatre business to decide. If it would like to set up some organisation which placed plays in various categories, advertising that fact at the box office, and in Press announcements, well and good. But Parliament should have no part in it.
I apologise for keeping the House so long, but I am sure that it will agree that the subject is important. This Bill will alter the law which has governed the theatre since 1737. The House would not want to do so without realising its implications.
I shall end by quoting the words of Lord Chesterfield in another place 230 years ago, when the present laws of 833 censorship were instituted by Parliament on the initiative of Sir Robert Walpole. Lord Chesterfield then said:Our laws are sufficient for punishing any man that shall dare to represent upon the stage what may appear, either by the words or the representation, to be blasphemous, seditious or immoral. … If the stage becomes at any time licentious, if a play appears to be a libel upon the Government or upon any particular man, the King's courts are open. …If poets and players are to be restrained, let them be restrained as other subjects are, by the known laws of their country, if they offend, let them be tried, as every Englishman ought to be, by God and their Country. Do not let us subject them to the arbitrary will and pleasure of any one man. A power lodged in the hands of one single man to judge and determine, without any limitation, without any control or appeal, is a sort of power unknown to our laws, inconsistent with our constitution.With those noble words in mind I hope that the House will today bring to an end the present archaic, illogical and indefensible system of stage censorship which we have tolerated for far too long.
§ 12.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Worsley (Chelsea)
I begin by apologising to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) for not being in my place when he began his speech. I thought that the energy of the House on the subject of adoption would be greater than it proved to be.
The right hon. Gentleman's views are very well known, as is the extraordinarily thorough work he did as Chairman of the Joint Committee, to which I pay the fullest credit. The Committee's Report is a remarkable State document. Nevertheless, I shall refer to the Bill in critical terms, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will pay attention to the points that I shall try to make.
The Bill has been presented by him and others sincerely as meaning a great liberalising of the theatre. It has been claimed that it will usher into the theatre a new era of freedom and, therefore, of excitement and energy. If I were convinced that that were really so, I should be a very enthusiastic supporter of the Bill. My fear is that, except in the very short run, the effect of a change of this character may be the exact opposite of what is desired.
I take as my starting point the proposition that we have in London—and, alas, our theatre is concentrated, perhaps ex 834 cessively, almost exclusively in London—more theatre, better theatre, and more experimental theatre than anywhere else in the world. If that is so, we should be very cautious before making too radical a change in the system under which it operates. We could be like the monkey in the story which takes the watch to bits to see how it works and then cannot put it together again.
In the Committee's Report there is a very full list of the practices concerning control of the theatre in other countries. I should be more impressed if it were possible to point out to me another country where the theatre flourished more than it does here. I should then be more inclined to look at the system of control which has been originated there.
In evidence to the Committee, Mr. John Osborne pleaded most eloquently against the restrictions of the present system. It is very natural that a playwright should do so, that he should ask in effect for complete freedom of expression in the exercise of his art. What artist since the beginning of time would not wish to have the ability, if he is a playwright, to put his plays upon the stage, a poet, to publish them, or, a painter, to paint his pictures without any control?
I do not believe that any likely system will give any playwright that complete freedom, because I do not think that public opinion will allow it, that it will provide a carte blanche for the artist in a public performance. I am aware that the Bill does not advocate any such thing, but it has sometimes been glossed over by the advocates of the change, that all other public performances in this country are controlled in one way or another. It is no good saying that there is no censorship in radio or on television. There is none in the limited sense that at present applies in the theatre. But those organs of public entertainment and information are controlled by public bodies set up under the authority of the House bodies that act as the custodians of public taste. Many more people still go to cinemas than to theatres, and films are governed by a system which comes to much the same thing as a public body and relies ultimately on the licensing powers of local authorities.
The Bill will replace censorship by the Lord Chamberlain with censorship by the 835 courts. Such a censorship might well be harsher and, above all, would certainly be far more uncertain than the present system. I am not for a moment saying that the exact details of the present system should be continued. The Lord Chamberlain's evidence was that he would wish not to have this duty, and I wholly agree. But there are considerable risks in changing from a system of pre-censorship, however it might be arranged, to a system of reliance solely on the "King's courts" of which the right hon. Gentleman spoke in his borrowed peroration.
The House must give weight to the fact that in its evidence to the Committee commercial theatre management was dead against the Bill with remarkable unanimity. After all, the people who make up commercial theatre management keep the theatre going. They are the people who give employment to the actors. They are the mainspring of the watch that we may be in danger of taking to bits without due care and attention.
My guess is that if the Bill were passed there would be a short period of glorious freedom and there would be many experimental plays that might now find themselves in difficulty. But that short period would be followed by one or more causes célèbres which would receive a great deal of publicity, cost a great deal of money and end—perhaps only one of them—in heavy damages against a theatre management. Once that happened, the period of glorious freedom would be over and from then on theatre management would be much more cautious than it is now. Milton said of the Commonwealth religious establishment that:New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.Adapting that phrase, one might say that in the future "new court action will be but old Lord Chamberlain writ large".
The evidence to the Committee suggested that it costs between £30,000 and £50,000 to put on a West End production. I suggest that there is risk enough when money of that order is concerned without adding another certain risk from the courts thereafter. I think it is worth remarking in passing that the very nature of the evidence which would have to be brought in a case referring to a play would add to the uncertainty. If one is 836 having a court case about a book, the evidence is very simply brought into court. The book is published; there is no doubt about what happened.
In the case of a play one can produce the script. But the script is only a very small part of the play. We have all seen different productions of plays and realised that a difference in production makes an enormous difference to the whole character of a play. So evidence would have to be brought in respect of not only the words written by the playwright or the words as they ended up as the script of the play, but also the production. It would be very difficult to produce evidence, particularly for an individual to do so, on this score. For this reason, it seems to me that an additional source of uncertainty would be brought into any court case referring to a play.
I realise that not all of the London theatre is—to use a word disapproved of by Mr. Littler—commercial. In other words, there are—he gave the figure three-subsidised theatres. Mr. Osborne in his evidence placed very great reliance on these theatres as providing the avant garde, the experimental end, of the theatre. If I understood him correctly, he thought that even though the commercial management might perhaps be more timid as a result of the passing of a Bill such as this, one could rely on the subsidised theatre to hold up the flag. I thought that that view was perhaps too optimistic. I do not think that ratepayers or taxpayers who have to produce money for these theatres will take it at all well if they find themselves paying out large sums, contributed originally in rates or taxes, in court actions. I think, therefore, that we may well find that if we get this sort of situation of uncertainty the managements of subsidised theatres will find themselves at least as cautious as those of commercial theatres.
We have lived for some time in a period when increasing freedom of expression, like inflation in the economic sphere, has been more or less taken for granted. In many ways this has been a liberating process. There has always been in the process an element of schoolboy competition, of who can say the rudest word first, but if historical precedents are anything—and I believe that they are—this period of increasing freedom of expression will end. It could be 837 that it will end before long, and when it does, there will be a quite different public opinion. I think that when that time comes, the theatre might well regret the passing of such a Bill as this.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Raymond Fletcher (Ilkeston)
I apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) for not being present when he began his speech. I wish to support him from a rather unusual standpoint, and in presenting my argument I may stray to the uttermost limits of order.
I have experience in the theatre in two countries—not as an actor but as a writer—in this country and in Germany. In Germany the theatre plays a far more significant part in social life than it does here. I was told recently by the burgomaster of a very important German city that he was delighted that his municipality paid as much out for the theatre as it did for its sewers, because these two things performed roughly the same function. He was talking about the purgative effects of theatrical performances. Anybody who knows Germany knows well that in so far as that country has come to terms with its recent tragic past, it has been through the instrumentation of playwrights rather than politicians. There has been nothing more moving in my life than to attend two performances in two cities in Germany of the play "The Diary of Anne Frank". The effect on German public opinion, particularly young German public opinion, was absolutely electrifying and salutary. I state frankly that I want the theatre in this country to fulfil the same social functions as it does in Germany.
As to my part in the English theatre, I have been associated with all sorts of enterprises, but my theatrical debut was in the satirical field. I was associated with the production of "Oh, what a Lovely War!". Mr. Bernard Levin, who is a very astute drama critic—although his views on politics leave something to be desired—said in a review of the play that it was satire at its highest peak and that it was a play which would drive audiences by thousands out of every theatre in which it was presented.
But, much to my satisfaction, the opposite happened. Why it happened is very instructive. It happened because all the 838 people who participated in the production had different points of view which fed themselves into the production. Some of us wanted to satire something about a specific war, something about diplomacy and how wars begin by accident. Some wanted to satire a particularly bone-headed group of military leaders. But what emerged at the end—and this was appreciated by organisations like the British Legion—was a monument in words and music to the ordinary soldier of 1914–18. This, described as a savage satire, as something corrosive and something destructive, was, in effect, transformed during the building-up of the production into something quite different, something that was recognised as quite different by audiences who were expected to leave the theatre in droves when the play was presented.
In spite of my experience, I believe that there is a powerful case for censorship of the arts. But the trouble is that whenever the word "censorship" is used, people automatically think of the sexual act and its suggestion by film and its presentation in novels and the rest. Frankly, I think that nothing would drive this country back to Puritanism more than to give full freedom to presenting the sexual act on the stage and the screen. That is only a personal view.
But what I am concerned about is not the greater freedom which is now being exercised in the presentation of sexual problems. What really worries me about television, the screen and novels is the cascade of violence which is pouring into the public consciousness. Practically every play which I see on television these days—and I watch it quite a lot—has as its central theme the gunman. As we all know, in the cinema the gunman has become a public hero. He may be presented as a public villain, but in the minds of audiences he has emerged as a public hero.
There is a powerful case for even more rigid control of much of the stuff which is pumped into the public mind by one means or another. The classic case for censorship is presented by what is regarded as a classic film, D. W. Griffiths' "Birth of a Nation". In film terms, that was a masterpiece. The camera angles are quite outstanding. The close-up was introduced for the first time. 839 To tell a story in that way was a magnificent job of work.
In cinematic terms the film is a work of art, but when it was presented it had disastrous consequences because what it presented so artistically was a view of life which was absolutely poisoned with the worst form of racialism. As we all know, one effect of the showing of that film in the earlier part of this century was to resurrect the Ku Klux Klan. A secondary effect was to produce racial riots in many cities in the United States of America.
What I have just said seems to restate what was once said by a learned American justice that although we should have as much freedom as possible, nobody should have the freedom to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre. Consequently, there is a powerful series of arguments which can be levelled—and here I tend to form of kind of alliance with the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley)—for greater, more rigid control over some of the forms of mass entertainment.
In spite, however, of that general view which I hold, I still intend to support the Bill because whatever control is necessary over the theatre, I cannot feel that the archaic system of control which, in essence, was born in the 1730s because a gentleman who later became a famous novelist rather upset certain people in his prentice efforts as a dramatist, is suitable to the present age.
I am a very sensitive theatregoer. I am easily shocked. There are times when I see Shakespeare plays, for instance, when I feel chills running down my spine because the contemporary significance of so much that was written in the 1580s sometimes appals me. It is entirely possible that I may stray accidentally into a theatre not knowing what is being portrayed. I do this for the simple reason that I know many drama critics who occasionally give me free tickets, so I do not know what the play is about and I have not had the opportunity to read what the drama critics have written about it.
I am easily shockable but I cannot recall any theatre production which tended either to deprave or to corrupt. It may well be that I was depraved and 840 corrupted before I started going to the theatre—that is arguable—but I cannot recall any theatrical presentation, and I have seen many of those which have been highly controversial, which tended to deprave and corrupt.
Because the performances are live, one gets in the theatre a rather different effect from that in the cinema. I have always found that whatever latitude has been extended to the playwright in any given play, apart from certain theatres—one obviously does not go to "The Desert Song" to study the Middle East problem—I rarely leave a theatre without feeling slightly better for having gone there, because I understand more and more of the peculiarities of human nature because I have been to see the production.
In those circumstances, I believe that the theatre can very largely be left to look after itself, subject to the provisions which have been frankly outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall if offences are committed.
I find it very difficult to regard being satirised on the stage as an offence. I wish that some playwright would write "Mrs Fletcher's Diary". I wish that some playwright would get to work and present what would be a rather hilarious piece of stage entertainment. The fact that one is satirised is the clearest indication that one has arrived and is working one's way into public affection and respect. But I agree, however, that there are circumstances in which the courts would have to come into action.
Basically, however, because I believe that the theatre has a wider social function than merely entertainment, although that is important, and because I want to see the theatre exercising the same salutary and cleansing influence on our society which I have seen it do in Germany, I support the Bill. It is for this reason that I want the archaic system which the Bill seeks to abolish to be abolished as soon as possible.
§ 12.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
I rise to make a brief intervention in support of the Bill as one of its sponsors. I would first like to say how glad I am to be able to support a reform, because in recent months I have been cast in the not entirely welcome rôle of the 841 "abominable no-man". That is an accident of circumstances rather than a result of temperament because we have had certain reforms recently to which I had strong objection.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) on the way he has spoken today, on all the preliminary work which he did in the committee and, above all, his extraordinary diplomacy which enabled this potentially highly explosive subject to get through the Committee in a smooth and uneventful way and made a major contribution to our being able to produce a unanimous report.
I favour liberty and in so far as one can have progress in a society, progress constitutes a movement towards greater freedom. No argument of logic or of principle can possibly justify the continuance of the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction today. The principle of freedom of publications is embedded in our society. We are in agreement that in a free and liberal society there should be the widest possible freedom of publication, subject only to the restraints imposed by common law, reinforced occasion ally by statute.
Precensorship of literature as such is, however, something which we have long rejected. It has survived in only one vestigial form in the jurisdiction exercised by the Lord Chamberlain. The argument for precensorship is that it would get rid of bad books—and I dare say that it would—and would get rid of bad plays. But the argument against, which must carry the day, is that we get rid of the bad at the price of getting rid of the good, too. This is the nub of the argument. Those countries which have pre-censorship of books have found that it had precisely this effect. Ireland, which has pre-censorship of books, has a large list of censored publications which constitutes a guide to modern classics. All contemporary Irish writers of distinction appear on that list. So much for the argument of principle.
The only case that can be made against the Bill is contained in the practical arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley). He feared that the effect of change would mean less rather than more freedom. This point occurred to the Committee con 842 sidering the problem: that if we did away with the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction in this respect, we would in practice be opening the way to a more restrictive régime operated by the theatre managers. But that argument must give way to the argument of principle. Why should this form of literature alone be subject to pre-censorship? If the practitioners of this form of literature come forward and ask for the same rights as practitioners in other spheres of literature, what right is there to deny them that legitimate claim? The situation is analogous to the argument against self-government advanced on the part of Ireland and other countries: that they would misgovern themselves. That may be so, but people have a basic right to do that.
My only reservations about the Bill concern the representation upon the stage of living persons or those who have recently died. There are certain categories of people who can avail themselves of the protection of the law of libel. However, one does not go in for a libel action lightly, because it can be an expensive and hazardous business. But there are other categories of persons who do not have the protection of the law of libel in practice, whatever may be the position in theory. I am thinking particularly of the Sovereign and other members of the Royal Family who, for obvious reasons, cannot avail themselves of the law in this respect. The right hon. Member for Vauxhall rightly said that the Committee unanimously recommended that no special protection should be made for the Sovereign. I was doubtful about that recommendation at the time, but I suppressed my doubts, partly not to impede the progress of the Committee. However, having reflected again upon the matter, I feel that something should be done in this respect. The great difficulty is how it can be done effectively without creating a worse situation than was intended to be guarded against.
In many other States there is a form of protection by law for the head of State from insult. It should at least he considered whether the same should be done here. I think that there is a good case for forbidding the presentation of the Sovereign upon the stage. Satire should certainly be as free as possible. Nobody minds politicians being satired. 843 Indeed, as the hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) said, many politicians would welcome being satirised as at least a form of advertisement of some kind. Yet there must be some institutions in any society which should be exempted from satire.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) asks why. There is a need in society not only for a satirical outlet, but also for an outlet for feelings of reverence. If one has every institution in a society satirised, those feelings can no longer be expressed. This is a loss to society and an infringement of other people's freedom.
The right hon. Member for Vauxhall said that public opinion would rise up and condemn any attack upon Her Majesty. I am sure that that would be so, but the question arises in my mind: could that fact, taken alone, prevent it being done? The right hon. Member for Vauxhall said that we could rely upon the good taste of the public. Of course we can. But we are not considering the good taste of the public so much as the good taste of the producer. Looking at some of the producers in our modern theatre, my reliance on their good taste is considerably less firm than that of the right hon. Gentleman. For example, Mr. Kenneth Tynan, who gave evidence before the Committee, supported the production of a play at the National Theatre which suggested that Sir Winston Churchill connived at the murder of General Sikorski. Can that be considered an example of good taste? Surely it was in the worst of possible taste, particularly in view of the survival of various close relatives of Sir Winston Churchill.
It is not only the head of the British State who has to be considered. One has also to consider other heads of State who find themselves in a similar position and cannot avail themselves of the law of libel. I would like to see an Amendment moved in Committee—if I am a member of that Committee I shall certainly consider moving one myself—forbidding the presentation of existing heads of State on the stage; alternatively 844 —and this would be of broader application—that no living person should be presented on the stage without his or her consent. That would meet the point of the hon. Member for Ilkeston who said that he would welcome a suitable edition of "Mrs. Wilson's Diary" applied to himself. Others might not. This would meet the quite strong objection that one does not wish to single out the Queen for special treatment—despite reports in the Press, I understand that she does not desire it—but it would cover a wider field of objection.
My last point concerns the subject of theatre managers which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley). He said that theatre managers favour the continued existence of the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain. Of course they do, because it protects their interests. It is not in the interests of the free theatre, or of free literature, or of the advance of playwrights, but it is a situation which favours the theatre managers, particularly in what my hon. Friend referred to as the commercial theatre, because, once they have the imprimatur of the Lord Chamberlain, they can go ahead knowing that they are safe. They know exactly where they stand. But can we really put the interests of Mr. Emile Littler before the interests of free literature? This really is the clash of interest which is involved, and I have no hesitation in saying that the freedom of literature, the freedom of the playwright, must come first.
§ Mr. Worsley
Would not my hon. Friend agree that if there were no theatre managers, there could hardly be a free theatre?
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Of course I agree with that, because that is logical. We could not have a theatre without theatre managers, but perhaps I might put a gloss on what my hon. Friend has said. All theatre managers are not the sort of managers to whom he refers as commercial theatre managers. There are a number of theatre managers who do not want to put on the sort of play that Emile Littler puts on, but are interested in putting on other plays, plays which they think advance the discussion of social issues, and make the theatre a forum for ideas. Nobody could think 845 that that was Mr. Emile Littler's main preoccupation.
There is considerable scope for the expansion in the English theatre of what I might call, on the analogy of the off-Broadway theatre, "off-West End productions". The off-West End theatre in London is suffering very much from the restrictions imposed by the Lord Chamberlain, although I must, in tribute to recent Lord Chamberlains, say that their jurisdiction has not been unduly oppressive, though there have been occasions of ill-judgment.
Subject to those reservations, I support the Bill. I congratulate again the right hon. Gentleman on having introduced it. It has my support, because I regard it as an extension of a legitimate freedom which all who are engaged in the service of literature, which is one of our greatest glories, should be free to exercise. With that unborrowed peroration, I end my contribution.
§ Mr. Speaker
I did not wish to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he ought not, even briefly, to have referred to Her Majesty's opinion of any aspect of the Bill.
§ 12.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
I join in the congratulations which have been offered to my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), not only on his presentation of the Bill this morning—and I was here from the beginning, so perhaps I alone am really in a position to offer that congratulation—but also on his conduct of the Joint Committee on the Censorship of the Theatre, of which, like the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) I was a Member. My right hon. Friend conducted the proceedings of the Committee with extraordinary skill. When one looks at the membership of the Committee and sees the disparate elements which composed it, when one perceives that my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) sat down with the hon. Member for Chelmsford, one realises that it was a remarkable feat that at the end we came together in a unanimous recommendation on all points.
That was due not only to the skilled chairmanship of my right hon. Friend, but to the force of the evidence which came before us. At the beginning of 846 the proceedings we were very much apart in our approach to this problem. It was the force of the evidence which persuaded us into an unanimity which was not imposed, but was genuinely arrived at from different points. I believe that if the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) had been a member of the Committee he too, would have been brought to the same degree of unanimity by the balance of the evidence.
It was very clear, as we heard person after person from various parts of the theatre, that the objections which were put forward did not carry the same weight, had not the same quality, as the positive evidence which came before us. As we were shown in detail how the present pre-censorship works, as we were presented with ludicrous examples of the removal of one four-letter word, and the substitution of it by another four-letter word which was supposed to be slightly less objectionable, but which, to my mind, in some cases, was more objectionable, we saw that here was something which was too absurd for words, apart from being undesirable in itself. It was the evidence which brought the Committee to the conclusion that this was something which we must get rid of, because it could not be tolerated.
What we are talking about here is not censorship, but pre-censorship. If this pre-censorship goes, censorship will still exist. The hon. Member for Chelsea suggested two things: first, that the abolition of pre-censorship would bring a period of great caution. Secondly, that great licentiousness would break out. Both cannot be right. They may be right in different periods of time, but the point is that the whole matter ought to be put to the test. It is intolerable that this guard should be put down so that what can happen in a condition of freedom can never be discovered. The real objection to pre-censorship is that it imposes on the stage a special restriction on its freedom to experiment and discover. For this reason I support the Bill as a whole.
I hope, however, that managers—and here I refer to all managers, commercial managers, and the managers of the State-supported theatre—will be cautious and think twice before setting up an organisation of their own to grade and classify plays. I do not think that the classification of films, the creation of the "X" 847 film into something which has a peculiar attraction, is a healthy development. If they decide to go in for this, I hope that they will do it on an all-managerial basis, and that we shall not have the position of some managers belonging to an organisation which will categorise plays for themselves, while excluding others, because this would create an extremely dangerous situation which should be avoided.
I believe that we ought to accept the proposal in the Bill. We must have liberty to find out what is going to happen, and we must no longer cocoon the theatre in a special little shell of its own. Managers will exercise their own censorship; the public will exercise its censorship, and various pressures which exist in other fields will be felt equally in the theatre. The play, as written by the playwright, as read by the producer, as looked at by the manager, and as presented by the director, will be seen by the public and the judgment will be taken after it is on the stage and not before. That will be the essential difference.
The hon. Member for Chelmsford referred to the position of the Crown. I was surprised that he took this point up. He will recall that the Lord Chamberlain was very doubtful whether it was wise for any special protection to be given to the Crown in this matter. He felt, rightly, I think, that to put the Monarchy into a category by itself would create an invidious position. For this reason I hope that the hon. Member will think again before deciding to move an Amendment in Committee. If he does it will be discussed there and we shall reach our conclusion upon it, but at the moment I am un-persuaded that it is a good idea.
Incidentally, I thought it odd that he was more worried about the Monarchy than about the leaders of the Church becoming the subjects of satire. Apparently, for this purpose he places the Monarch above the Church.
§ Mr. Jenkins
Indeed, but it refers only to the Established Church, and I did not know that the hon. Member was an authority on that.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
Does not the hon. Member realise that in this ecumenical age one's knowledge of ecclesiastical affairs goes beyond one's own communion?
§ Mr. Jenkins
I bow to the hon. Member on this point; his knowledge on this subject is greatly superior to mine. I was merely commenting upon the fact that he had selected the Monarchy for this protection—unwisely, in my view. If it were possible, it might be desirable to permit the Crown to sue for libel. That would place the Crown in the same position as any other person. That might be a better solution, than putting cotton-wool round the Crown.
I welcome the Bill. I do so representing, in some small degree, perhaps, people who are concerned with the production side in the theatre. Some commercial managers have opted out of the general approval with which the Measure has been received. I believe that they will become used to it and like it. All commercial managers are not in the same category. There are some adventurous ones as well as some very cautious ones. Many will welcome the Measure.
This is a step which the House should take. The fears which have been held out about the creation of both excessive caution and excessive licence will, I am sure, prove to be illusory. I join in the general welcome that has been given to my right hon. Friend's Bill.
§ 1.5 p.m.
§ Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
I have listened to all the speeches that have been made. If I had not already formed a view as to what my attitude would be I should have been charmed into support for the Bill by the way in which the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) put his case. That is not to say that I do not have some reservations on particular points. Perhaps it is the Essex air which causes me to find myself in sympathy with the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas).
We must face the fact that the public's understanding of the Bill will depend upon the way in which it is presented. There is considerable apprehension about some of the performances that we see 849 not only in the theatre but also on television, and in the presentation of subjects generally. The hon. Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) referred to the wide-ranging portrayal of violence and such things. There is much apprehension on the part of the public in this matter.
It is, therefore, of vital importance that the point, so well made by the right hon. Member for Vauxhall, that the Bill does not give a licence for people to put on obscene plays and such things, but merely attempts to prevent the pre-censorship of plays, should be understood by the public, and that they should recognise that their right to protection against obscene performances will remain as part of the existing law. If they understand this these apprehensions will not long continue.
The memory of the hon. Member for Ilkestor is prodigious. He remembers with clarity "The Birth of a Nation". That is a long while ago. I used to be able to say that the last film I saw was "Ben- Hur", but that has been remade, and it has brought me comparatively up to date. I congratulate the hon. Member on his memory and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall on his peroration. True, it was borrowed from Lord Chesterfield, and I did not find it entirely in accordance with the terms of the Bill. The right hon. Member quoted Lord Chesterfield as saying that if people feel aggrieved, the King's courts are open to them. As I read the Bill, they are not, because Clause 8, which is headed "Restriction on institution of proceedings", provides thatProceedings for an offence under section 2, 5 or 6 of this Act or an offence at common law committed by the publication of defamatory matter in the course of a performance of a play shall not be instituted in England and Wales except by or with the consent of the Attorney-General.Producers of plays will be able to do what they like, and only with the consent of the Attorney-General can the right of the private citizen to protect himself be exercised.
This seems wrong. I remember the occasion when, in the House, application was made to the Attorney-General to consider prosecuting the publishers of "Last Exit to Brooklyn". He refused to do so, not once but on three occa- 850 sions, and it was left to private individuals to institute proceedings, which resulted in their objections being upheld by the courts. Lord Chesterfield said that power should not be in the hands of any one man to act in this restrictive capacity, but under the Bill power is put into the hands of one man. Only with the consent of the Attorney-General can proceedings be instituted.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
My hon. Friend may be missing the essential point, which is that the right of private prosecution remains under the Bill, and that the function of the Attorney-General, although not specifically stated in the Bill—perhaps we can think about that in Committee—will really be to prevent frivolous or oppressive prosecutions.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ Sir S. McAdden
Seldom have I had such a distinguished audience. I am glad that the Attorney-General is here, and perhaps I may detain him a little longer, because I have been referring to him in his absence. I hope that he will not take exception to what I said, but perhaps I had better repeat it.
I was saying that, under Clause 8, no proceedings may be instituted except by or with the Attorney-General's consent. This seems to give one man too much power, especially over obscene plays. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will remember that he was repeatedly pressed to institute proceedings over the book, "Last Exit to Brooklyn", and refused to do so, and that it was only by private proceedings that action was taken and the book was banned by the courts.
With the many burdens which the Attorney-General has, he should not face another over the right of private citizens who are aggrieved to take proceedings—
§ Mr. Strauss
I think that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If anyone wants to sue a producer or presenter for slander, he does not have to go to the Attorney-General. An individual who is aggrieved—to whom the hon. Gentleman was 851 referring to—has the right to go to the courts, and can, if he wants, get an interim injunction to have the play stopped.
§ Sir S. McAdden
I am not talking about slander, because the Clause refers to Clause 2, dealing with obscene performances, Clause 5, dealing with incitement to race hatred, and Clause 6, relating to provocation of a breach of the peace.
In the Attorney-General's absence, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton) leaped to the defence of the law, and said that the Clause does not mean what it says. But it says:Proceedings for an offence … shall not be instituted … except by or with the consent of the Attorney-General.If it does not mean that, perhaps the Attorney-General or someone else will explain what it does mean. It is a trap for the unwary when those trained in the law attempt to understand something which appears to be reasonably plain English. Perhaps some of my hon. and learned Friends can explain it to me in detail, if not in the House at some other time.
My apprehension is that the rights of the individual who feels aggrieved under any of these Clauses will be removed from him and vested in the Attorney-General. He usually shows himself a great and good man, but his views on what is or is not obscene are not necessarily those of other people. That is the case here. The decision that "Last Exit to Brooklyn", which he refused to prosecute, was obscene was made by the courts as a result of private proceedings—
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins
It might help to draw the hon. Member's attention to the fact that there is a great difference between the function given to the Attorney-General under the Bill and that which he was required to exercise in the other capacity. In this respect, he is required to decide whether he himself will institute a prosecution, and, in the other case, his function was to decide whether a certain prosecution might be launched. We are saying that, in those circumstances, the Attorney-General would—I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said 852 about Attorneys-General generally—exercise that function with the restraint and propriety which the hon. Gentleman would wish.
§ Sir S. McAdden
I understand that there must be a power to restrict vexacious and frivolous proceedings, but I want to be assured that the rights of an individual to institute proceedings in what he considers to be the case of obscene performances is still preserved. I do not see why they should lose it so as to preserve the rights of the theatre. Both should be preserved. If the Attorney-General can assure me that this right will not be removed, I will have no objection. The theatre should be liberalised, but not at the expense of the right of individuals to protect themselves against obscene productions or those which incite racial hatred and so on. I do not want that taken away and vested solely in the Attorney-General.
§ 1.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
I do not want to disturb the quiet, not to say placid, atmosphere this morning, and will therefore say hardly anything. I will not even reply to the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden). I appreciate the importance of his point, which we discussed in the Select Committee at considerable length: he can rest assured that the matter was considered in great detail and no doubt will be considered again in Committee. We are probably all grateful that he has declared his support for the Bill.
I will even resist the temptation to reply to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) on the question of the Sovereign. We can re-fight the Civil War in Committee as well, and I hope that the outcome will be much the same as it was before. We can properly settle that in Committee.
I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). I have never seen a Committee conducted as he conducted this one. It was a brilliant piece of chairmanship, and the passage of the Bill through the House today in this tepid atmosphere is a tribute to the way in which he reconciled awkward arguments on the Committee and persuaded us all to reach the same conclusion. 853 Therefore, the theatre and the playwrights who have campaigned for so long for the removal of this imposition owe him a great debt of gratitude.
I think that he will agree that tribute should also be paid to the long campaign of the League of Dramatists, assisted in particular by an old friend of ours in the House, Mr. Benn Levy, who, ever since his own Bill went through the House at the end of the 1950 Parliament, has poured out a deluge of Shavian polemics designed to persuade people. The fact that no one is here to oppose the Bill is also a tribute to the power of the argument which he has presented and which he presented to many of us on the Committee. No one would deny that he has been the foremost advocate in this country of this reform and he deserves part of the credit.
I wish to underline two points relating to the Bill. It is a great error for anyone to think, if anyone still does, that the hardship imposed on playwrights under the existing system, which we propose to remove, is a small one. It is, in fact, very considerable. It is a hardship which not only prevents them from presenting their product to the public in the same way as those who write books or produce films, but also deprives them, sometimes, of their livelihood and the possibility of earning a living.
We had evidence from one of the foremost playwrights of our time, Mr. John Osborne, that if it had not been for the existence of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship, his first play might have been performed in London four or five years earlier. That makes a great difference to a playwright's career. Indeed, he had the greatest difficulty in getting his first play eventually performed, which is one of the answers to the argument of the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley), who lauded the present system. He underrated its present deficiencies and the injustices inflicted upon people who not only have a right to present their product to the public but play a great part in shaping the outlook of our society.
In my opinion a very powerful argument can be presented for saying that the whole liberation of our society which has taken place over the past 10, 12 or 15 years owes much to the playwrights 854 who fought to get their plays put on, who had to fight the censorship to get them put on and who had to suffer severe economic losses in overcoming the controls of censorship. They managed to change the atmosphere in the London theatre, later were able to change the atmosphere in film production and later were able to influence the atmosphere of the B.B.C. and other forms of expression. In this sense, I believe, the theatre plays an especially crucial part in shaping the literary atmosphere or the cultural atmosphere of our society. Therefore, the imposition placed on playwrights can make us ashamed when we look through the record of the names of great men who have been restricted by this censorship, Bernard Shaw among them. This is an historic day on which we are to get rid of this imposition.
Another aspect which I would underline, which came out more and more in the evidence and which, in my opinion, was the most fascinating feature of the evidence presented to the Committee, was that which harks back to the original cause of censorship. People have forgotten that politics have been the main cause of censorship. From the way in which the matter is sometimes discussed it might be thought that alleged obscenity was the great danger against which the censor was supposed to guard, but the evidence presented to us, and in particular the evidence by the Lord Chamberlain, underlined that it was political fears which have sustained the censorship. It was political fears which persuaded the original introduction of the censorship and it has very largely been political fears which have sustained it ever since. Whenever an effort has been made to get rid of it by one means or another, in the House or elsewhere, political fears have stopped the change.
I pay a great tribute to the present Government in this respect. Of course, I look around for everything favourable that I can say about them. It is certainly commendable that we have no opposition from the Government today to this proposed removal of censorship and it is a tribute to them that there is a freer atmosphere generally. Certainly by the evidence given to us that the present Lord Chamberlain argued for sustaining some form of censorship because he believed that we are not sufficiently politically adult in this country to exercise full 855 freedom. I am glad to say that it appears that the House will reach a different conclusion.
The hon. Member for Chelsea today presented the most powerful argument—the argument which involved the longest discussions in Committee, the argument that if we do away with this censorship we shall have a worse form of censorship in its place. I do not intend to argue the point now, because it was fully argued in the Select Committee, and if I tried to argue it now, I do not believe that I should persuade anybody. It is the central issue. But I would make one comment on it, not in reply to the hon. Member for Chelsea so much but partly in reply to his arguments and partly to those who presented a similar argument to the Select Committee. Sometimes this argument was presented by, some of the theatre managers and some of the commercial managers. When some of the commercial, managers came before us and argued, first in the name of freedom and secondly in the interests of the theatre, that we should retain the present Lord Chamberlain, I was rather surprised. There has been nothing quite like it since Shylock went through the streets of Venice crying:My ducats!—O my daughter !—O my ducats!Fled with a Christian?—Oh my Christian ducats!—Justice! The law. My ducats and my daughter".I think that the theatre managers have been more concerned about their ducats than about their delectable daughter, the freedom of the theatre.
§ Mr. Worsley
Surely the hon. Member agrees that if the theatre managers had no ducats there would be no theatre.
§ Mr. Foot
I must not be tempted to go into the argument. If I did, I should only stir up trouble—and I see trouble coming straight away. I will therefore not deploy the full argument on the point which no doubt we can present in Committee. Because it is necessary to have theatre managers in order to have a theatre does not mean that the theatre managers' view of how the theatre should be conducted is correct. We cannot have theatres without management and we cannot have theatres without the playwrights, 856 and often the theatre managers have never understood that fact. It is the genius of the playwright which makes the English theatre one of the greatest glories of our land. I see that the hon. Member for Chelsea agrees with me in that.
So having restored to the House the degree of placidity which it had before, I sit down as quietly as I possibly can.
§ 1.27 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
It may be convenient if I speak now before the spokesmen from the two Front Benches intervene.
I am in considerable embarrassment over the Bill because I have always opposed censorship of any kind and have opposed it in the House, and this Bill would have my wholehearted support if it stopped at the end of Clause 1. It does not stop at the end of Clause 1. It goes on to erect, in place of what is abolished, a censorship which I believe to be worse than that now experienced by the theatre. I cannot understand why the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), when he set about doing a good and necessary job, spoiled it by going on to put Clauses into the Bill which are repressive and which inflict upon those connected with the theatre a greater degree of uncertainty and a much greater risk of serious consequences than that which exists at present.
I had the misfortune to miss some of the debate, for which I apologise. I overestimated the interest of the House in adoption. I apologise to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall. It would be wrong of me to go over the arguments against censorship in every form, because they are familiar to the House and have been set out by many of the greatest minds and the greatest writers in English literature, above all, I suppose, by Milton. It has always seemed to me that a civilised and adult community, mature in its institutions and secure in the law and order which it enjoys, ought to be able to have a theatre free of any censorship.
That being so, I find it surprising that the Bill is brought before us in this form. I do not know how flexible is the right hon. Member for Vauxhall on some of the Clauses, for example Clause 6 and, in particular, Clause 5. If he says that he would welcome the removal of such 857 Clauses in Committee, I shall not wish to oppose a Bill which in general principle I warmly support, but I cannot see, for example, that Clause 5 can be justified on any basis. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has been upbraided about this outside the House and that he has said that this provision would be sensibly interpreted and would never be used repressively to ban the plays of Shakespeare, such as the "Merchant of Venice" or "Othello", but all that is merely the opinion of one person. The Bill contains a very rigid form of censorship in wording taken almost verbatim from the Race Relations Act. I was against the Race Relations Act, so I am not being in the least inconsistent now, but at least of that Measure it might have been said that we were dealing with a somewhat inflammatory situation. We were dealing with the publication of certain things, and dealing with them in a rather special way—
§ Mr. Bell
Here, I might adopt the criterion that I then thought right. Things said in public to people who have not gone to hear them raise quite different considerations from those raised when people have gone to a private place and, in the case of the theatre, have paid for admission. These considerations of public policy ought not then to apply.
The situation is completely different from that created by someone who goes to Trafalgar Square, uses a loudspeaker, and says things that cannot fail to be heard by vast numbers of people who have no connection with him or, the event, and who may reasonably claim that they should not be insulted, provoked, or whatever it may be. Where people deliberately buy a ticket in order to see a set performance they should take what they hear: it is their business to behave themselves, and not to commit a breach of the peace—Clause 6—and not to be insulted, or whatever it is—Clause 5.
It is not enough for the right hon. Gentleman to say that there is always the defence of literary merit. I suppose that as a practitioner in the law I should welcome he provision made by the right hon. Gentleman for the calling of expert witnesses as to literary merit. That kind 858 of thing could go on for days but, in practice, I do not think that it has been found very satisfactory.
Here again, I can claim consistency. When the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) introduced a Bill to amend the law on obscene publication, I took what I am sure is the right view that we should do away with censorship altogether, and not try to continue it with this modulation of expert witnesses giving their views on artistic merit. I believe that to be a farce.
After all, what is censorship all about? I suppose that it is done, not because anyone believes in it but in order to placate a lobby in favour of the control of thought and expression. It is one of those British compromises. But I believe that the British people are sufficiently adult to read and to listen—and, in the theatre, to see as well—anything that anyone chooses to put before them. They are not children. If they see things that are coarse and obscene, they will not be made coarse and obscene by seeing them but will be made more refined.
I need not remind hon. Members of these things—they were all set out in imperishable language by Milton, and applied to children by him. All these considerations were anticipated, and splendidly argued. I have never heard an argument against them, but if I am wrong—or, more humbly, I would say that if Milton was wrong—why does not someone argue the opposing case instead of putting in Clauses concerned with treating people as though they were children?
It is part of the country's glorious Protestant tradition that we do not protect ourselves in matters of thought—and not only Milton but all who were in that tradition; Bunyan, perhaps, foremost among them. It was Bunyan who indicated that the place for Apollyon is straddling across the path, not fenced off as Bills like this would seek to fence him off.
It is because I hold those views that I regret this lost opportunity. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have the courage of what I believe to be his convictions; that in the Committee he will accept Amendments to knock out some of these childish safeguards from the Bill, 859 and boldly and simply abolish the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, which is an anachronism that should have been abolished a long time ago.
§ 12.36 p.m.
Mr. Richard Sharpies (Sutton and Cheam)
I join in congratulating the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) on his speech. I apologise that because the proceedings on the Adoption Bill did not last quite as long as I had expected. I did not hear the very beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but I heard the greater part of it. As one of the minority of hon. Members taking part in this debate who were not members of the Joint Committee, I congratulate the Joint Committee on a Report that has been condensed into a fairly small amount of reading but which puts the arguments—succinctly and clearly. I agree with the conclusions.
The debate has cut right across party lines. Practically every speaker has welcomed the broad principles of the Bill. Though I speak from the Opposition Front Bench, I must make it perfectly clear, as every other hon. Member has, that I express a purely personal view in supporting the Measure.
I give my support, basically, for two reasons. First, I believe, for reasons which were very clearly stated by the Lord Chamberlain in his evidence to the Joint Committee, that the time has come when the censorship of plays in this way should be removed from the Crown. Removal is entirely in accordance with our modern thinking on such a matter. Secondly, like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), I am opposed to any form of censorship unless it can be clearly shown that there are reasons in the national interest why censorship should be imposed. In general, I am wholly opposed to any form of censorship, and for that reason I support, very broadly, the principles of the Bill.
My one major reservation, which was touched upon by the right hon. Gentleman and also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) concerns the position of the Royal Family in presentations upon the live stage. The right hon. Gentleman 860 set out very clearly, as does the Report, the difficulties in dealing with this matter. First, he said, as the Lord Chamberlain also said, that it would be very difficult to draft a Clause which would cover the Royal Family. I do not believe that the difficulties would be insuperable. This is a matter which we should certainly be looking at if difficulties are the main reason. In his evidence, the Lord Chamberlain suggested that difficulties of drafting a specific Clause to cover this point could be overcome by imposing some other form of censorship, possibly by the Arts Council. I would not support that proposal, but this is something we should look at.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the second reason was that there was no such restriction upon publication in newspapers or books. I do not think that is an entirely valid argument. There is a difference in publication in books and newspapers. The difficulties are far greater in regard to live representation of the Sovereign upon the stage. The third argument the right hon. Gentleman used was that the public would not tolerate representation of this kind.
§ Mr. Sharples
I wish that I shared the right hon. Gentleman's optimism, but I am afraid that I do not. This is an age when satire has enormous power. It is also an age when we destroy much more than we seek to create. I believe the ordinary remedies available to others in public life—politicians and the like—are remedies which can be taken at law and are not available in the same way to members of the Royal Family if we wish, as I think most of us do, to preserve the Monarchy as an institution. I do not want to pursue this matter further at this stage. I hope that when the Bill is considered in Committee, further consideration will be given to this matter which is of considerable importance.
That is the only major reservation I have about the Bill as it stands. Other points on which I hope we may have some enlightenment from the Under-Secretary refer, first, to Clause 5, which is concerned with the race relations aspect. I understand that that Clause very largely repeats Section 6 of the Race Relations Act, 1965. I hope I 861 shall not trespass too far out of order on this. I understand it is likely that very shortly we shall have a race relations Measure which will amend the Act of 1965. I should have thought it much more convenient to have all the references to race relations in a single Race Relations Act. I hope that when the Government draft the Race Relations Bill to which the Home Secretary has referred, by a simple amendment of the existing 1965 Act, he will incorporate the intentions of Clause 5 of this Bill. That would be very much more convenient. It would enable Clause 5 of the Bill to be deleted if such an assurance were given.
I am not quite clear—perhaps the Under-Secretary could enlighten the House—about the need for Clause 6. I am open to correction by those who have a much better knowledge of the law than I have, but I should have thought that the situation sought to be covered by Clause 6 would be covered by existing law. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary, in reply, would deal with that point.
On Clause 2 there is a point of very much more substance. Subsection (1) says:… performance of 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.I think I am right in saying, although I have not checked up, that those are the words used in the Obscene Publications Act. I am not sure that they are wholly relevant to a stage production. When one is considering a book or publication "taken as a whole" may be applicable, although I remember that there was considerable debate about this when that Bill was passing through the House.
This is a point of substance. A play or stage presentation may have scenes or even incidents in it which could themselves be obscene and which should be erased from the production. I am not sure that this point is covered by the Bill. It was covered by the arrangements under the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain's office, I understand that the majority of work of that office consists in deleting particular sections or incidents in scenes from productions. I am not clear how this will be dealt with 862 under the arrangements proposed in the Bill.
In this Bill we are proposing the abolition of a task which has been performed by successive Lords Chamberlain for 230 years. In recent years the system has been under increasing criticism. That is why we are discussing this Bill today. As we no longer inevitably have Third Reading debates on Bills of this kind, it would be appropriate to pay tribute to the work of successive Lords Chamberlain and particularly the work of the staff of the Lord Chamberlain's office. They have performed a very difficult task. Although there have been criticisms of particular decisions which the office may have made in the past, one thing which has impressed many of us is the very small amount of criticism there has been of many difficult decisions that the Lord Chamberlain and the office have had to make.
I hope that the Bill will have a Second Reading and will pass through all its stages without too much delay.
§ 1.49 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Dick Taverne)
My one regret about the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) was that there were so few Members present to hear it because the Adoption Bill took such a short time. My right hon. Friend made a very eloquent speech and developed an extremely powerful argument in favour of the Bill. This showed how lucky it was that my right hon. Friend, who was Chairman of the Joint Committee, succeeded in the Ballot.
When the Committee's Report was published last summer, my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary said, in answer to a Question, that the Government accepted the general principle of the Committee's Report and would introduce legislation when a suitable opportunity occurred. It was not found possible for a Government Bill to be introduced in this Parliamentary Session. Since, fortunately, my right hon. Friend was successful in the Ballot, the Government agreed to provide Parliamentary draftsmen to help him with the preparation of the Bill. No one is more fitted to undertake the piloting of this perhaps rather difficult Measure through the 863 House than my right hon. Friend. The Bill certainly has the Government's support.
It can be said that the Joint Committee was not only representative of a cross-section of the House, but was, in some ways, representative of a cross-section of society, in that it included a former Home Secretary and a former Lord Chamberlain and numbered amongst its members such notable figures in the entertainment world, unfortunately absent at the moment, as the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and my hon. Friends the Members for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) and Smethwick (Mr. Faulds)—notable for other things as well. This is a notoriously difficult subject, involving many contentious and controversial issues. The Report deals with these very clearly and eloquently and with much common sense. It also contains a valuable statement of the history and the law in relation to the stage.
I, like the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharples), want to pay a tribute to the present Lord Chamberlain and many of his predecessors for the way in which for so long they have performed a very thankless task, After all, the Lord Chamberlain was foremost in his enthusiasm for abolishing this part of his own occupation. The Joint Committee came to the conclusion that the time had come to put plays on the same footing as books and to leave them subject only to the operation of the criminal law. We support this principle. I hope that it will be generally recognised that this was a very difficult task for the Lord Chamberlain and that he did all he could to exercise his power with the maximum of tact and sensibility. Possibly this is not a field in which everyone could be pleased all the time.
The British theatre has an oustanding reputation abroad. In the light of that fact, whatever objections there may be to the Lord Chamberlain in principle, and whatever individual cases one may be able to cite where one would have reached a different decision from that arrived at by the Lord Chamberlain, it shows that the restraint of his censorship was not so oppressive that a vigorous and, in many ways, uninhibited theatre could not emerge.
864 I do not altogether agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) that it was because of this constraint that our excellent theatre has emerged. This is emminently a question of the prevailing talent amongst writers. This is something which can be seen elsewhere as well. I hope to return later to the point the hon. Gentleman made about the dangers which may be inherent in the abolition of censorship.
The test of obscenity in Clause 2 is, in many ways, the guts of the Bill. I shall return later to the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) that the Bill should have stopped short at Clause 1.
The formula for obscenity and the defence of "public good" have been lifted virtually intact from the Obscene Publications Act. Disquiet has been expressed, not only today in the House, but on other occasions, to the effect that there will be a danger of excessive licence. I do not believe that this is the major danger we face. It is true that in many respects a theatre performance can be much more dramatic than the printed word and can have an effect that perhaps the printed word would not have, but the formula incorporated in the Bill allows for this. The test is whether the performance as acted would tend to deprave and corrupt.
The law already takes into account the different effects which different forms of presentation can have. The courts are accustomed to take account of the more immediate impact of a picture than they are of a written description. I should have thought that even more so they would have no difficulty in taking due account of the impact of a live performance. There is nothing incompatible with a common law formula for obscenity that there should still be things one could describe in a book which one could not necessarily include in an illustration in the book, or that one could put something in a picture which one could not necessarily act out on the stage.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam made the point that the Clause, taking the language of the Obscene Publications Act, refers to the performance of a play "as a whole". This is a necessary safeguard, because otherwise one might get individual incidents picked 865 on in a particular way which would make sense as seen against the play as a whole but which would be objectionable in themselves. On the other hand, judging from the way that the courts have interpreted the Obscene Publications Act, it would not necessarily be a defence that because the play as a whole was moral a particularly objectionable section of it was therefore not something which could be proceeded against under the law.
To give one recent example from the world of books, though different views have been held about the rightness of the conclusion, in the case of "Last Exit to Brooklyn" the fact that the book as a whole may have had a moral purpose was not a sufficient defence when it came to the examination of particular sections of the book. It is necessary to consider the play as a whole. We believe that this part of the Bill should be there.
As to the various fears which have been expressed, I should have thought that there was much more substance in the fear expressed by the hon. Member for Chelsea that anxiety about prosecutions for an offence which must necessarily be somewhat imprecisely defined, because of the nature of the offence, might well lead to excessive caution. This is a possibility which I would not altogether discount, but I think that this is a case where the answer was to some extent given for the hon. Member for Chelmsford, that there is in any event an objection of principle to being dominated by this fear. I think that we shall just have to wait and see what happens and hope that neither of the two extremes to which I have referred emerges in practice.
There are ways in which the Bill differs from its model, the Obscene Publications Act. Hon. Members who have carefully looked at the original may have noticed a good deal of unfamiliar material in the Bill which is not in the crib, as it were. The House will not want me to take up a number of points which are essentially Committee points, but, putting it simply, these divergencies stem from the simple fact that the performance of a play is not at all the same thing as a book or a picture or a gramophone record. One might well echo the words of Prospero at the end of a play: 866… these our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air.Since we are making a criminal offence in certain circumstances of something which, to continue with the quotation:… shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, leave not a rack behind".it has been necessary to incorporate a number of provisions into the Bill, notably in Clauses 9 and 10, concerning the script on which the performance was based, for which there was no need when it was a question only of dealing with a rather more substantial object like a book.
Apart from these differences, a number of particular points of some importance were made during the debate and to which I want to refer. First, the hon. Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) raised the question of the need for the Attorney-General's consent. To some extent, this point was anticipated and answered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall when he pointed out that the Committee felt that it was necessary to have the Attorney-General's consent to prevent vexatious and frivolous prosecutions. It would be particularly oppressive if a prosecution were otherwise launched, when the financial effects of prosecution could be so considerable in the case of a play. Those concerned with the presentation of plays are entitled to the protection which the Attorney-General's consent gives.
There is a further justification for requiring the Attorney-General's consent. The position of the police would be most invidious if the question of prosecution were to be left to chief officers of police. Already, the police are sometimes put in the extraordinary position of acting as art critics and deciding whether a particular pictorial representation is obscene. It would be rather much to ask the police to act as theatre critics as well. One wants to secure some sort of uniformity of policy throughout the country. The Attorney-General's consent provides a valuable way of achieving that uniformity.
It is suggested in The Times today that, in effect, this is a kind of censorship: 867 one gets rid of censorship or pre-censorship, but there is then censorship on prosecution. I suppose that it could be described as censorship, but that would be a rather odd use of the word. It is one thing to say that something is prevented from performance—this could, I think, properly be described as censorship—but it is another to say that one needs a person's consent to put the law into operation. To call the latter censorship is, I suggest, a considerable misuse of words.
§ Sir S. McAdden
I am not a lawyer and I like to have these things made clear. The Attorney-General's consent is not necessary for the institution of a prosecution in respect of an obscene publication, but it will be needed in respect of plays. Why the difference?
§ Mr. Taverne
In the case of plays, one wants to have the same policy followed throughout the country. One wants the theatres in Manchester dealt with in the same way as theatres in London. Furthermore, the results of prosecution would be very serious in the case of a play, even more so than in the case of a book.
It was said that matters will still be in the hands of one person; we are replacing the Lord Chamberlain, one individual, by consent to prosecution on the part of the Attorney-General, another individual. There are differences. One difference, as has already been pointed out, is that the private person who is aggrieved has his remedy in libel. Second, the Attorney-General is responsible to the House. If he refuses to prosecute, as he did in respect of a publication on one occasion, his refusal to prosecute may be a matter of debate in the House.
I come now to the malaise expressed by several hon. Members on the question of the representation of living persons, and the representation of members of the Royal Family in particular. Obviously, there are reasons for the disquiet which is rightly felt, but I do not myself see that one can make an exception of the Royal Family in this connection. As the Lord Chamberlain himself said in his evidence, it would be rather difficult to make a special provision for them and for no one else. On the question of the representation 868 of living persons in general, while one would wish to hear what arguments are advanced in Committee, I can see formidable difficulties and objections in the way of any kind of ban or limitation on the representation of living persons.
It was suggested that the consent of a living person should be obtained before he could be portrayed on the stage. But what is portrayal? How does one know that it is that person who is being portrayed? One would have to go into all sorts of difficult arguments if the name were changed or a few different characteristics were presented. These arguments are not unknown to practitioners in the law of libel, but this is a field in which the law of libel would afford much better protection than would be given by making it the subject of criminal prosecution.
What kind of portrayal would be prohibited? Presumably, it would not be all portrayal of living persons but portrayal only which was defamatory of a living person. If it was defamatory of a living person, again the law of libel would provide a remedy. There are obvious difficulties, as is recognised, for certain classes of people who one cannot expect to sue for libel, but to make exceptions for particular classes of people would, I suggest, be invidious and not really justified. However, this is a matter which we shall consider in Committee.
I was asked about the need for certain of the Clauses. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam asked whether Clause 5 would not be better included in a Race Relations Bill. I cannot anticipate the Race Relations Bill, but it is by no means clear that that would be the right place for further provisions about incitement, since I understand that the Race Relations Bill will cover a rather different field. Moreover, one can counter the hon. Gentleman's argument that this should all be in a race relations Measure by saying that everything which affects the theatre, or most of what effects the theatre, should be in a self-contained Bill about the theatre. There are a good many ancillary enforcement matters connected here also.
I was asked why Clause 6 is needed. The first answer is that Clause 6 was re-commended by the Joint Committee. It embodies a form of restraint which is at 869 present practised by the Lord Chamberlain. It is one of the criteria which he applies and which it is felt should be enshrined in the general law itself. Earlier today, we had an eloquent speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher), who talked about the emotive effects which certain kinds of dramatic presentation can have. He spoke about the dangers which can sometimes be inherent in a dramatic representation, mentioning the film "Birth of a Nation" and the incidents connected with the Ku-Klux-Klan. It would, perhaps, be unwise if a restraint which was felt to be needed in general on the provocation of a breach of the peace were altogether excluded from what is in many ways a public occasion. The new provision is needed—I say this in answer to the point raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam—because, if one is to exercise this restraint at all, the present law would affect only the actor whereas, presumably, it should be directed not at the actor but at the clay as a whole.
The hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South argued that the Bill should have stopped at Clause 1. In my view, it would be difficult and unsatisfactory if the Bill had simply abolished the Lord Chamberlain.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
There is no suggestion that the Lord Chamberlain shall be abolished. He will continue to flourish, but without his jurisdiction in the theatre.
§ Mr. Taverne
I am sorry—it was a slip of the tongue. The hon. and learned Gentleman argues that abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship should be the only provision—nothing else. If that were all there would be nothing like the sort of protection to which playwrights and those who present plays should be entitled. One would then be left with the law, without modification by Clause 2 and without any sort of defence of literary merit. If one simply stopped short at Clause 1, one would feel to a far greater extent the fear expressed by the hon. Member for Chelsea about restriction on the right to present plays, since the defence of literary merit would no longer be available.
I have dealt with some of the points which have been raised in the debate. Many of these questions must be dealt 870 with in Committee. This is not as easy a Measure as some may think. The matters which have been raised today show that it is not, and the details will need elaborate scrutiny. As hon. Members said earlier, it is an important and historic Bill, and on behalf of the Government I commend it to the House.
§ 2.10 p.m.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
The House is much obliged to the Under-Secretary of State for the light he has thrown on some of the details of the Bill and for his clear explanations. I hope that he will, as he seemed to suggest he might, keep an open mind about the position of living persons and especially the Sovereign. Genuine anxieties have been expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Sharpies), Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas) and others about this. For commercial reasons, or some even less worthy and more obscure motive, people might pillory or parody others who are alive, and especially if they were to do so in the case of Her Majesty it would be a most unhappy affair. We must be careful. I am willing to fight the Civil War once again on this, but I shall be on the Royalist side and not on the side of a previous knight of the Shire of Huntingdon.
Strangely enough, Shakespeare anticipated the situation we might have to consider when in "Hamlet" he arranged for a play within a play. Hamlet stated its purpose when he said:The play's the thing Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.We may have to consider serious matters arising in this context. Although I am a supporter of the Bill and was a member of the Joint Committee, I do not think that we should leave the matter just where it is today. We should consider it further, for among other reasons it affects the feelings of members of the general public.
Broadly speaking, the Bill has had a great welcome and I join the congratulations offered to the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss). Unhappily, the most I can say about his speech is that I look forward to reading it and shall do so with great pleasure, because, like others, I was caught unawares by 871 the brevity of the debate on the previous Bill.
I did not agree with the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins), whose part we all acknowledge in getting the Bill towards the Statute Book, when he said that the task of the right hon. Gentleman as Chairman of the Committee was made easier because of the evidence which was put before us. The truth is that we did not accept nearly all the evidence as he said, but only about half. Indeed, when we had all the evidence before us the issue was left wide open, and then with the help of the right hon. Gentleman we had to start making up our minds.
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins
That is entirely true. I was trying to suggest that the weight and quality of the evidence was on the side of the conclusions which, with the help of my right hon. Friend, we eventually reached.
§ Sir D. Renton
I go so far as to say that the weight and quality of the evidence was on the side of reason as the Committee generally decided eventually that reason lay.
§ Sir D. Renton
The principal speech against the Bill deserves an answer, if I am capable of giving one. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea (Mr. Worsley) referred to a risk in changing from the system of pre-censorship to control by the courts. But for too long it seems to me that theatre management has hidden behind the skirts of the Lord Chamberlain, and that has not been healthy for the theatre. Successive Lords Chamberlain have become uneasy about it, and I am very glad that we are getting rid of this system.
What are we putting in its place? We can best test it in the following way. Surely, the great majority of plays which people are most likely to want to produce are of the type which gave no trouble in the past to the Lord Chamberlain and will give no trouble in the future to the people producing them or to the courts. It is the plays in the twilight between what is clearly obscene and what is not, between what is blasphemous and what is not, and so on, which will give trouble. They will be a very small 872 minority. Management will have to exercise its judgment, but I see no harm in that. Admittedly, it risks great sums of money and stands to lose them. But I do not think that the theatre, as one of our great expressions of pleasure, of art and of thought, will suffer as much as my hon. Friend expects. I believe that his fears were not well-founded.
One point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford very well summarises what we should be doing. He said that progress will be achieved by greater freedom, and as a postscript to that 1 would add that if in doubt we should give freedom a chance to work, and that is what the Bill will do.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir S. McAdden) has been partially answered by the hon. and learned Gentleman on his one point of criticism concerning the Attorney-General's consent. But I think that it was not entirely answered, and I hope that I am not daring too much when I try to complete the answer. The Under-Secretary of State said that we must not place too big a burden on the police in this matter. I agree, but what I think is worrying my hon. Friend is not the possible police prosecution but the possible private prosecution. It is sometimes forgotten that the right of private prosecution is one of the basic liberties of our land so that we do not concentrate all the power and all the dispensing of power in the hands of authority.
This is admittedly a Committee point, but it is very important, and it might be worth trying to find ways to add to Clause 8 so as to define exactly what the Attorney-General's function should be when exercising his power. When I interrupted my hon. Friend on the spur of the moment—though naturally I had some idea of this point before—I said that the Attorney-General should be there to prevent frivolous or oppressive prosecutions. I think that that is just about it. Something on those lines could conceivably be added to the Clause.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) expressed what those of us who know him as well as I and many others do appreciate was a deep unhappiness about the Bill. He said that it should be confined to Clause 1. But he 873 overlooked the unbelievable uncertainty and chaos that there would be if we were simply to end the Lord Chamberlain's jurisdiction and then leave the law as it stands to take its course. I cannot think of a greater harvest for the profession which he and I attempt to grace than to do that. The Bill has the great advantage that it would prevent many un-certainties which will undoubtedly arise if his suggestion were accepted.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
What about Clause 5? I do not think that the common law would have any equivalent to that.
§ Sir D. Renton
That was one point on which I had rather more sympathy with my hon. and learned Friend, knowing his views on the question of attempting to govern race relations with the aid of the criminal law. In any event, I think that what we must do when legislating in a particular context like this is to take note of the provisions which have gone before and which apply in a wider context—not ignore them but apply them if, for consistency, it seems necessary to do so in the narrower context in which we are legislating. That is why I somewhat reluctantly, like my hon. and learned Friend, feel it was right for the right hon. Gentleman to include Clause 5 in the Bill.
Nevertheless, I have some sympathy with the valid point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam. We can perfectly well apply Clause 5 to the theatres, but it should be done in general legislation relating to race relations. Frankly, I think that this is a matter of statutory tidiness more than a matter of principle, but the Statute Book is in such a frightful mess that there is no reason why we should not take any opportunity that presents itself to us of tidying it up a bit, and I think that is a good suggestion.
Ever since I was very young I have been a great lover of our theatre. I have 874 always thought, however, that it was likely to fulfil its purpose and remain great much more as an expression of art and as a form of entertainment than as a medium of politics. I know that there are those who feel that the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship was necessary in order to get greater freedom of political expression, and undoubtedly that could be a result of the Bill. What I have to say has not really, therefore, much to do with the contents of the Bill or with what we should do about it: it is really, perhaps the House may think, too bold a hint to those who will be staging theatrical productions when the Bill has been passed into law.
I think that if the theatre becomes a medium for something more than art and entertainment, if it becomes a political instrument, then, although we may still see great acting, we shall not find that it has the public following that the theatre has today. I would very much doubt, following what my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea has said, that theatre managements would then be prepared to risk the large sums of money involved. Certainly if political expression goes too far, there could even be risks of breaches of the peace arising, In all the years that I have been going to the theatre I can remember only one play that was seriously a development of political thought, and that was "Love on the Dole" in the 1930s, a very powerful and very moving play. It could have been said to have a political motive. I believe that it had some political effect, and a good political effect. But I think that we should render to the stage the things that are of the stage and keep politics where it belongs.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).