HL Deb 17 February 1966 vol 272 cc1169-248

4.22 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I start what I have to say to-day by apologising for taking up your Lordships' time on two days running. I do so because, as your Lordships know, my noble friend Lord Carrington is indisposed and he has asked me to take his place. He has kindly provided me with the notes of what he was going to say, and. on looking at the notes, I am not surprised to find that we are substantially in agreement.

It surely must be a unique occasion for your Lordships to listen to a speech of a former Lord Chamberlain detailing the discharge of his duties in that office and the difficulties he experienced. I listened with the greatest interest to his speech, and indeed I feel that anybody who heard what he had to say cannot but appreciate more fully the invidious position of the Lord Chamberlain and the difficulties that beset him. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Annan, on introducing this Motion. I agree with him that the time has come to review the law and practice relating to stage plays. But, frankly, I have very considerable doubts whether a Joint Committee is the most suitable body for this purpose. Whether it is that body or another body is perhaps a subsidiary question to which I will return later. I should like now to say a few words about the case for a review at this time.

The Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, raises the question whether there should be any censorship at all of stage plays. On that matter I am sure opinion is very divided. I myself think that it must to some extent depend upon the adequacy of our general law. But most people would think there must be some control over what is done and said on the stage; but to say that there must be some control over what is said and done on the stage does not necessarily imply that there must be a censorship. If the general law of the land was adequate, it could he said that there would be no need for censorship. On the other hand, the greater the inadequacy of the existing law the greater it can be argued, is the case for censorship. I am particularly glad therefore that the noble Lord's Motion involves a review of the law.

I cannot say that I myself regard the law in this field as in a satisfactory state. In 1959 Parliament passed the Obscene Publications Act as the result of the work of a Joint Select Committee. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, praised that Act and commended the work of that Joint Select Committee. I must say that it is not an Act which I would be so ready to praise. It defines obscenity as something tending to deprave and corrupt those likely to read, see or hear it. That embodies the law as laid down in the case of Hickling, I must confess that I have long felt that that definition is not satisfactory and is in some respects too narrow. I would not enlarge on the difficult question whether it is those who are already depraved and corrupted who buy obscene literature, or whether in fact anyone is depraved or corrupted by a book. But surely there are things which are obscene in the ordinary sense of the word and which cannot be said to tend to deprave or corrupt. One could, for instance, have a statue which would be regarded as obscene in Hyde Park, but I very much doubt if it would have the slightest tendency to deprave or corrupt. I suppose most people would agree that anything which does tend to deprave or corrupt should not he permissible on the stage, any more than it is permissible in books. But should obscenity—a matter which people using that word in its ordinary sense would describe as obscene—be allowed on the stage? If so, how could one satisfactorily define what should and should not be allowed? The noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said that what he hoped to see as an end-product would be a system which was simple and certain. It is a desirable objective, but I doubt whether one would ever be able to establish a system that is so very certain.

Throughout the centuries there have been very different views as to what constitutes obscenity. One has only to contrast the Victorian outlook with that of the time of the Restoration, and, as has already been pointed out, the task of a censor is most invidious. As Lord Annan pointed out, he is liable to be attacked from both directions. He, whoever he is, must take account of the spirit of the age and try to prevent the performance of anything that would generally be regarded as disgusting and contrary to public advantage. He has to exercise a subjective judgment, recognising that what may be shocking and offensive to some may not be to others. Certainly I would not wish myself to undertake the task, and our thanks are due to the present Lord Chamberlain and his predecessors for the way in which they have in fact discharged this onerous responsibility.

It is unfortunate and unfair that the Lord Chamberlain shares with the Jockey Club, and with Mr. George Brown, the distinction of being the most criticised of all in current days. So the first question that has to be decided, by whatever body is set up to review this matter, is whether there should be a censorship at all. And, if it is decided that it will not suffice just to rely on the criminal law then the question which has to be decided is whether the present system should be retained or another put in its place.

I would say that I think the arguments advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, in favour—if there is a censorship—of transferring the exercise of it to someone other than the Lord Chamberlain, are really very strong indeed. If you have a censorship, I do not myself see why you should not have an independent body appointed to perform those functions. I quite see the difficulties of there being any Government responsibility for the performance of those duties, and I think it would be right, if you have to have a censorship at all, to have a high-powered body appointed, which would operate according to certain defined criteria—they would have to be defined in fairly general terms—in relation to which that body would exercise its judgment without any influence by the Government of the day.

One argument in favour of censorship—and I think it is a powerful argument—is that it reduces, if not completely abolishes, the risk of prosecution provided that the censor's directions are complied with. I think that producers of plays, and indeed the writers of them, may well prefer to know in advance what they may or may not do, rather than run the risk of prosecution for what they have done. But you cannot have any form of censorship without upsetting some people; and the censor, whoever he is, must always be, if anything, a little more behind public opinion than in advance of it. I think it can be said, too, that over the years the censorship of the theatre has worked pretty well, and a great many people would be sorry to see much change in the present system.

Most of the controversy surrounding censorship seems to centre upon sex, violence and obscenity. But there are other things which are just as offensive. To take one example, the vast majority of people in this country would think it very offensive and wrong if the Royal Family were lampooned or held up to ridicule. Prevention of that happening would be better than the imposition of penalties under some criminal law after that had occurred. The same is true, I think, of religious beliefs and the great institutions of the State, such as the Church, when offence might be given to a very large number of people, quite unnecessarily.

I was very glad that the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, drew attention to the fact—and I think it is a sad fact—that there are those not imbued with the high motives to which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred, who would seek to take advantage of the opportunity any relaxation of the present system would give, to coin money out of the presentation on the stage of matter that was shocking and disgusting. I think myself that arguments for and against censorship are very evenly balanced. I am slightly inclined to think that it would be better to have some form of censorship, rather than just to rely on the criminal law. On this one matter—it is not the only one, I hope—I have a pretty open mind al the present time.

I am glad to have an opportunity of saying something in this debate, in particular, about the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, as to the role that might be discharged by Law Officers. As a former Law Officer, I am strongly opposed to his suggestion, which seems to me to be a suggestion that the Law Officers of the day should take the invidious position now occupied by the Lord Chamberlain. I do not think there is any need for a Law Officer to be advised by some advisory committee on plays, as to what is filthy and what is not, and I would very much deprecate any change of that kind. If it is to be left to the criminal law, I think that the institution of prosecutions, could well be left to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who acts under the general guidance of the Attorney General. But, again, I should not like to see him left with that responsibility, unless the law laid down pretty clearly the kind of test which should be applied.

When one looks at the Report of the Joint Select Committee of 1909, one finds this: We consider that the Law which prevents or punishes indecency, blasphemy and libel in printed publications would not be adequate for the control of the drama. Ideas or situations which, when described on a printed page may work little mischief, when represented through the human personality of actors may have a more powerful and more deleterious effect. It goes on to say: Moreover, scenes in a play may stimulate to vice without falling within the legal definition of indecency; they may include personalities so offensive as to be clearly improper for presentation, which yet are not punishable as libellous; they may outrage feelings of religious reverence without coming within the scope of the Blasphemy Laws"— and so on. The Committee conclude: that the public interest requires that theatrical performances should be regulated by special laws. I doubt very much whether, although many years have passed since 1909, the general law as it now stands is really adequate to achieve the objects which I think we all have in mind, if we dispense with some form of censorship. I am really astonished, looking back, at the fact that over the years the Lord Chamberlains in their time have really been so little criticised, having regard to the vast number of plays which must have come through their hands.

I should like to say a word or two on the Committee or body which I think should investigate and review this matter. As I see it, there will be three questions which they will have to consider. First, should there be any censorship at all? Secondly, if there is, what is the right person or body of persons to administer it? Thirdly, what guidance can be given? In considering that, it is relevant to bear in mind, as the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said, what happens in the field of television and in the field of films.

The noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said, quoting from the 1909 Select Committee's Report, that there were few things more harmful than a licentious stage. I wonder whether that is true to-day. I think, perhaps, people would say that there were few things which could be more harmful than a licentious stage or a licentious television broadcast. In considering what is the right control (to use a word which does not necessarily involve censorship) I think regard ought to be had to the control exercised over television production and, indeed, film production, and whether it might be possible—and, if it were, it would be far better—to have the same sort of control, the same criteria, laid down to presentations, whether they be on the stage, by television or by film.

As I have said, I have the gravest doubts as to whether a Joint Select Committee is really the best body for this purpose. I hope a body will be set up. I think it is going to be a formidable task for any body—one to which a considerable amount of time and labour will have to be devoted. I doubt whether Members of Parliament of either House will find that easily available.

I should like to stress, too, that I think the issues raised in this Motion are really totally unconnected with Party politics. I cannot see that there is any political issue in it at all; and I do not think that membership of either House of Parliament necessarily fits one to sit on such a Committee or to make recommendations on this subject. I should have thought it would have been much better to appoint a Committee of people specially selected for this task, and to ask them to report to Parliament. It might be that this should take the form of a Royal Commission. But of one thing I am sure, and it is this. Whatever body is appointed, it is bound to take a considerable time to look into this matter thoroughly and to report upon it, and it is much better that time should be taken if it results in a good report which is acceptable to most people in the country, irrespective of their political views, and which could then probably be speedily embodied in legislation.

I am sorry to have taken up so much of your Lordships' time this afternoon, but those are the matters to which I wished to draw attention. As I have said, and as we know, films have as Chairman of the Board of Censors my noble friend Lord Harlech, who I am glad to say is going to make his maiden speech in a moment or so; and reference has already been made to the B.B.C. and I.T.V., and to the control exercised on television. In view of recent correspondence in The Times, initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, it may perhaps be doubted whether that discipline is not capable of improvement. I do not think it can be said that either television or the films have suffered artistically or financially by the controls or forms of censorship to which they have been subjected; and if, on inquiry, it is recommended that some form of censorship should persist in relation to stage plays, and that that is preferable to prosecutions under the criminal law, I think that that form of censorship must be one which certainly does not penalise the stage in comparison with television and films.

My Lords, I should like to conclude as I began, by saying that I think we all owe a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for raising this subject, which I regard as of very great importance, and to the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, for the most valuable information he gave to the House.

4.44 p.m.


My Lords, the Government are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for giving the House an opportunity to consider this subject this afternoon. Increasingly in past years dissatisfaction has, rightly or wrongly, been expressed at our present pre-censorship of plays, the theatre, culminating, I think, most recently, in a Bill by the present Solicitor General. The Government are accordingly of the opinion that the time has come when this subject should at least be discussed, as it is being discussed this afternoon in your Lordships' House.

When we have heard the views which are to be expressed, and have had the benefit of the opinions of all noble Lords taking part, I shall leave it to my noble friend Lord Stonham to state, at the end of the debate, what conclusions the Government have then reached; and I would desire only to express, in a few minutes, a personal view, as one who has always had a great love of the theatre. After all, if we are talking about the ill-effect which a play may have, it is the ill-effect on those who have seen the play; and therefore I feel that this is primarily a matter which should be determined by theatre-goers rather than by those who do not, in fact, see plays at all. However that may be, those who have a love of the theatre have, perhaps, a special interest in the subject.

I would respectfully agree with the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, that there are really two separate questions here. The first is: ought there to be pre-censorship? It is not quite accurate, I think, to ask, "ought there to be censorship?" because, of course, our law provides for censorship. We have laws against obscenity; we have laws against seditious libel; we have laws against blasphemy and we have laws against doing something that is likely to create a breach of the peace. I hope it will not be thought I am too much prejudiced as a lawyer if I say that I have a preference for having our laws administered by judges and juries. The question, therefore, is not whether anybody should be free to put on any play he likes, without ally penalty being visited upon him. The question is: should theatres, like most other things in our country, be subject to the rule of law, of the courts, in the ordinary way; or is there to be pre-censorship?

Of course, there is room for a difference of opinion as to whether our law is right. The noble and learned Viscount said that he had some questions to raise on whether the 1959 Act drew the law of obscenity in the right place, if it is drawn in the wrong place, let us alter it and put it right. But the question is: should there be pre-censorship? The Lord Chamberlain is not, of course, a Judicial Officer, and there is no appeal from his decision. And what I have never quite understood is what is the difference, or should be the difference, between plays and books. We have laws which apply to books and under which people who publish obscene, seditious or profane books can be sent to prison, but I hope that we should all join in objecting to any pre-censorship of books. The difference has always seemed to me to be obscure. Sometimes, if the question is raised, someone will say, "If you read in a book that a woman had taken her clothes off and had a bath, that would be quite all right; but it would be very different on the stage". Then everybody nods and says, "Yes, there you are, you see; there is a great difference between books and plays". But as soon as one comes to think of it, the whole thing is ridiculous, because any actress who did this would at once be "run in" by the police. I have never understood why there should be this difference. I am not an ordinary playwright in general practice. I am a specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation has been gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to reconsider its morals. In particular, I regard much current morality as to economic and sexual relations as disastrously wrong, and I regard certain doctrines of the Christian religion as understood in England to-day with abhorrence. I write plays with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my opinion in these' matters. I have no other effectual incentive to write plays, as I am not dependent on the theatre for my livelihood. If I were prevented from producing immoral and heretical plays I should cease to write for the theatre and propagate my views from the platform and through books. I mention these facts to show that I have a special interest in the achievement by my profession of those rights of liberty and speech and conscience which are matters of course in other professions. I object to censorship not merely because the existing form of it grievously injures and hinders the individual, but on public grounds. So wrote Bernard Shaw, in his memorandum to the 1909 Select Committee—the memorandum which, your Lordships may remember, so greatly shocked the members of the Committee when Shaw attended to give oral evidence that they all solemnly handed back their copies of it to him.

Shaw went on to point out that a moral standard is really an acceptance of that which is customary at any given time, and that for those who have neither the intellectual qualities nor the interest in ethics to decide a standard for themselves, it is extremely necessary that there should be a standard of morality and that it should be upheld. But, he said, there is no real danger of its not being upheld, because it is always upheld by the Establishment, by the Government, by the Churches, and by the Establishment in its other forms; but that a great part of whatever is the accepted morality of the day has always been immoral or heretical at some previous times and that therefore it is necessary, in the interests of society, that protection should be given to individuals to express immoral and heretical views.

It is sometimes said that, if there were no pre-censorship it would not much matter, because even if the Lord Chamberlain did not give a licence one could always have a play put on by a theatre club or society. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, pointed out, in the first place that costs the author a great deal of money, and, secondly (although I do not wish to mention the pending prosecution), it obviously depends on exactly what form of club or society it is. You may not even then be saved from prosecution, not because you put on the obscene play (because in that case it does not matter whether it is obscene or not), but simply because you have not drafted your rules of membership properly.

The absurd position we have got into to-day is that, after all, you do not have to go to the theatre: you go only if you want to; and it is quite expensive. You obviously do not go to see a play unless you know the sort of play it is. Yet the very play which may be banned by the Lord Chamberlain may be brought into your home on television—and this, I understand, has actually happened. There have been plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain which, nevertheless, have been brought in, unasked, to the home. And when the set is turned on, young people say: "That is interesting. I should like to see the rest of it."

The other point on which I am bound to say I entirely agree with Shaw is that the one thing I should regret much more than the present censorship is an enlightened censorship. Any sort of board of play censors or any sort of committee of experts to decide on literary views would, I think, be very much worse than the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain. Like the noble Lord, Lord Annan, I have the highest regard for the Lord Chamberlain. I know how extremely courteous he is to everybody; and succesive Lord Chamberlains, taking changes in public opinion into account, have, I think, been liberal and have moved with the times. When I contrasted them with an enlightened censorship, this was not meant in any sort of depreciatory sense. What I had in mind, to put it delicately, is what The Times said in their leading article yesterday: The background of his effective deputies, Eton and the Household Brigade, is of a kind which an outdated popular imagination does not readily associate with the Theatre of Ideas. If you take Ibsen as an example, with one exception, they passed all the plays of Ibsen, saying: "Obviously, all these characters are crackers '." But there is a grave danger that an enlightened censorship would have recognised that the plays of Ibsen were, as indeed they were, revolutionary plays designed to make people do that which was quite contrary to the accepted morality of the time. A minor criticism (I think it is less true to-day than it was, but it is one that a good many people venture to make about the exercise of the censorship as it is at present) is that it always seems all right to mention certain subjects humorously, but you must not deal with them seriously. For a long time, for example, it was perfectly all right to put a homosexual in a musical show, so long as he pranced and wiggled about and moved his hips, and everybody laughed at him. It was all right if you laughed at him. Whereas the playwright who tried to deal seriously with the subject was not allowed to do so.

It may be that before this debate is concluded—and I myself have nearly concluded—someone will tell us whether there is any other country in the world in which there is pre-censorship of plays. I believe I am right in saying that in Italy, and I think only in Italy, there is pre-censorship of musical comedies and revues; but not, I think, of plays. How is it that the adults of all other countries can exist with a theatre which is free and subject only to the same laws of obscenity, sedition and blasphemy as apply to everything else, and that it is only grown-up Englishmen who have to see their plays read by somebody else beforehand who will tell them whether or not they are to be allowed to see them? Whatever the right conclusion, my Lords, there is clearly, I think, a case for an inquiry.

Before I sit down, may I say that, owing to a public duty which I cannot avoid, I may not be able to hear the whole of the rest of the debate, I hope to hear most of it, however, and I shall certainly read any contributions from noble Lords which I have not heard.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with considerable trepidation to address your Lordships' House for the first time. I feel those novel and disconcerting sensations which I think are felt by every maiden speaker; but, in addition to that, I have intervened in this debate on this occasion because I am at the present time the President of the British Board of Film Censors. But the truth is that I have held this appointment for only a matter of six months and, therefore, I cannot claim any long experience with the blue pencil or, perhaps, more appropriately in my case, with the scissors. As has already been indicated in the speeches of other noble Lords, it not possible to have a useful discussion about censorship of stage plays without some reference to censorship in other media of entertainment—and this, of course, includes broadcasting, television and the films.

I thought it might be of some assistance to the House if I gave some rather brief account of the history, of the functions and the powers of the British Board of Film Censors. I do this because it has been tentatively suggested that, if we are to examine other means of providing what the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor calls pre-censorship of plays, there might be certain aspects of the arrangements now in force for censoring films which would be of value to any inquiry into this matter.

It will not surprise your Lordships that the British Board of Film Censors, having been established in this country, is a curious and, in some ways, anomalous body. Its birth was really as strange, although clearly not as beautiful, as the birth of Venus. At the turn of the century, the cinema industry was developing rather rapidly; but the first action taken by Parliament was in 1909, when they passed the Cinematograph Act. I think it is clear from reading that Act that its principal purpose was to safeguard the general public against being incinerated in the cinema-theatres of the time, which were ill-designed, or not designed at all, to handle the highly inflammable films—and I am talking about the actual structure of films, and not of their content—and projection equipment then in use. However, Clause 2(1) of that Act was very widely drawn, and after being tested in the Courts (I think at the instigation of the L.C.C.), it was held that local authorities had the power and the discretion to set out various considerations which had to be taken into account before they would issue a licence, and that this could include a form of control over what was actually to be shown on the screen.

Shortly after this, the film industry itself, no doubt partly concerned about some of the conditions that were being laid down by local authorities, and partly concerned about their own reputation, sent a delegation to the Home Secretary of the day, Mr. McKenna, suggesting that they should set up a board of censorship, and that he should appoint a representative of the Home Office to act as arbiter, if there was any dispute with regard to a decision of the board of censorship. Mr. McKenna, being a wise man, welcomed the setting up of a board, but declined to allow the Home Office to have any thing whatever to do with it. No doubt he felt—and I think rightly—that it would be quite wrong to introduce any form of Governmental or Parliamentary control into the business of censorship. But, having received a welcome from the Home Secretary of the day, the industry went ahead and set up the British Board of Film Censors in 1912.

Since then, the Board has examined all films for public exhibition, except newsreels. Broadly speaking, for the first forty years, it issued "U" certificates for films that it thought suitable to be seen by children, and "A" certificates to films it thought suitable to be seen by adults; but children were also allowed to see these films, if they were accompanied by a parent or guardian. Then, in 1951, on the recommendation of an Inter-Departmental Committee, known as the Where Committee, the "X" certificate was introduced. This enabled the Board to issue certificates to films which would not be seen by children under sixteen, whether or not they were accompanied by adults. I think that, on the whole, the category system for films has worked fairly well. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, said, whether it is a useful idea which could be applied to the theatre is something which I think an inquiry could look into, though I myself have doubts.

I said a little earlier that the British Board of Film Censors was in some ways a curious body. I will now explain why. In the first place, although I am President of the Board, in fact there is no Board, in the ordinary sense of the word. There is a Secretary, and a number of examiners who work in teams of two. Here, perhaps, I could correct something which the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said. Nobody on the Board, in so far as it exists—that is, me—and nobody connected with the present operations of the Board has any connection with the film industry.

The second curious feature of the Board is that it has no direct legal powers. As I have already explained, the power to control what is shown upon the screens rests with the local authorities, under the Cinematograph Acts of 1909 and 1952. In the light of these Acts, the Home Office issues model licensing conditions. These lay down that, before a film is shown on the screen, there must be displayed a representation of the certificate given either by the B.B.F.C. or by the licensing authority. This means, of course, that the local council, as the local licensing authority, have the legal power to decide what is shown, but in practice they find it convenient to accept the judgment of the B.B.F.C.

Normally, the local council are quite unwilling to consider applications to show a film unless it has first of all been submitted to the Board. Sometimes the Board refuses a certificate, and certain local councils are subsequently prepared to issue a certificate. There have been some recent examples. One has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Annan. The most recent case is that of Fanny Hill, a rather squalid little film made in West Germany in order to cash in on the notoriety surrounding the book of the same name. We refused that film a certificate—in my view rightly—but a great number of local authorities took another view. An earlier case was "The Wild One", with Marlon Brando in it, for which we refused a certificate—I think that about two local authorities granted it a certificate. When it was shown in Cambridge, it produced a near riot—but then, perhaps owing to the particular venue, that is not altogether surprising. I give these two examples simply to show that in practice there is a form of appeal from the Board's judgment to the local authorities.

The final curiosity in connection with the Board is that it was found convenient in 1912 to set it up under the auspices of the Kinematograph Manufacturers' Association. This was partly due to the fact that the first Secretary of the Board was also the company secretary of the Kinematograph Manufacturers' Association. Members of this Association, as the name implies, are concerned with the manufacture of cinematograph equipment. They are the one trade association in the industry which has no interest whatsoever in the Board's work.

I need not go into the details of how the President and the Secretary are appointed. But I think that this point is very important: the financial resources of the Board derive entirely from fees which are charged on films submitted for certification. This means that there are no money grants from any section of the film industry to the B.B.F.C., so that pressure through financial control is totally excluded. Therefore, almost by accident, we have a truly independent body which cannot be influenced improperly by Government or by Parliament, or by the film industry itself. Nevertheless, it has a somewhat strange constitution, and it possesses no direct legal authority. Yet, in practice, in recent years it has worked pretty well. But, should it not exist, I doubt whether it would be decided to set up a board precisely on this pattern. This leads me to doubt whether it provides an altogether satisfactory blueprint for any method of dealing with censorship in the theatre if the need for a change is established.

My brief experience in the field of censorship leads me to two rather simple and obvious conclusions. First of all, any censorship body, if there is to be one, must have a constitution and a source of income which cushions it against political pressure and against pressure from vested interests within the industry. Secondly, in my opinion, there ought preferably to be some court of appeal from its judgments. At present, there is no appeal from decisions made with regard to censorship of the theatre. There is no appeal, so far as I know, against the internal censorship in television or in broadcasting. Indeed, if there was some method of appeal, I think it highly likely that the British public would have been allowed to see The War Game, which I saw last week, and which I think ought to be seen by a much wider audience.

There is a form of appeal in the case of film censorship to the local licensing authority. Whether this is an ideal arrangement is just the sort of thing that an inquiry could closely examine. Local option is a procedure which is sanctioned by long and respectable tradition, and one must say in its favour that it is true that moral standards and canons of good taste do vary quite considerably from one part of the country to another. On the other hand, some local authorities are really not very well equipped to wrestle with the intricacies of censorship, and it is quite likely that you would get growing up a whole jungle of anomalies in the land. Perhaps it might be possible to set up an appeals board constituted along the lines of a body like the Arts Council, but, hopefully, very much smaller, which would handle appeals from all the various entertainment media.

I think I have already said enough to fulfil the main purpose of my speech, which was to give an account of film censorship as it operates in this country at the present time. But before resuming my seat I should like to make a few general remarks about censorship. It will no doubt be argued—and it has already been stated this afternoon—that one of the simplest solutions would be to abandon all censorship and leave it to the courts to deal with cases which contravene the law due to their clearly obscene or anti-social nature. With all due deference to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, I am not convinced that this would be a wise solution under existing conditions. First of all, I do not believe that courts are well adapted to making judgments which, in the final analysis in cases of this kind, are subjective judgments. The artistic merit of the piece; the integrity of the producer; the integrity of the author; the intentions of the author, public opinion in particular parts of the country at certain times in history—all these are factors which have to be taken into account.

I must say, with due deference to the lawyers' profession, that, try as they will, I do not think that lawyers here, in America, or in other countries have been able to find words so accurately to define "obscenity" or a "tendency to corrupt" as to enable courts to make a purely objective judgment. In addition, the whole procedure of taking criminal action against a theatrical management, through complaints by private individuals, or through police action, seems to me cumbersome, dilatory and uncertain in its operation; and I cannot but agree with those noble Lords who have already indicated that such a situation might well lead to a more cautious attitude on the part of theatre management, and that this would have its effect upon authors. Indeed, I think in many countries where there is no pre-censorship this is precisely the effect, because certainly the stage in this country is at least as vigorous as it is in any other country in Europe or North America.

Secondly, I do not think that anyone can pretend that we have overcome the problems of living in a modern, affluent industrial society. The figures for crime, for juvenile delinquency and for mental disturbance all tend to show that we are not even holding our own at the present time. The society we live in—and, of course, this does not apply only to Britain—is a disturbed and even a violent society. And I do not think it is possible to argue that whatever is seen in plays, on films or on television can have no detrimental effect upon the social behaviour of viewers; the threshold at which the ill effects of the exploitation of perversion or violence in the theatre can he expected to operate will sometimes fall short of that which is necessary in order to lead to a successful criminal action against a theatrical management.

Intelligent critics of censorships have often argued that it is not possible to prove that a person has been corrupted by a work who would not otherwise have been corrupted. But, my Lords, nor is it possible to prove absolutely that he has not been corrupted by that work. We cannot find two identical human beings and expose one to extreme corruption and protect the other from it and then compare their subsequent social behaviour. But we can use such ordinary common sense as we possess over this matter. If unlimited audiences of vastly different levels of sophistication are exposed to a constant diet of pornography, perversion and sadism, common sense tells us that it will have an unfavourable effect upon their subsequent social behaviour. I have no doubt in my own mind that this is precisely what the result would be. I should therefore regard it as an unjustifiable and irresponsible risk to abandon censorship altogether at the present time.

On the other hand, censorship in a free society is basically distasteful, and to be acceptable it must be exercised in a way that accords with present-day standards of taste and behaviour. While some newspaper critics attack theatre censorship, as they do film censorship, because they think it is too strict, or because it exists at all, I believe that these represent a minority group in the country. Similarly, although it is true that the most usual criticism from the general public is that we are being too liberal in censorship, I believe that this group of people are also a minority in the country.

I am convinced that there is widespread support for some measure of censorship of stage plays, as well as of films, television and broadcasting. Nevertheless, it is clearly the general feeling that the time has come when a new look should be taken at theatre censorship. The Motion which has been proposed is that a Joint Committee should be set up. Whether this is the right body, having listened to my noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne, I do not know—but I am sure that it is right that some inquiry should take place. I can assure your Lordships that if such a body is set up to inquire into censorship, the British Board of Film Censors will give it every possible assistance. For my own part, if the Government decide to widen the terms of reference to include other forms of censorship, I personally would see no objection.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I feel a little embarrassed that it should have fallen upon me, a comparative newcomer, to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and to congratulate him on his brilliant and highly informative maiden speech. I only hope that it will not sound too presumptuous on my part if I say that I am sure I speak for all your Lordships when I say how pleased we are to have him with us, and how much we look forward to hearing from him again.

If, as a result of this debate, it is decided to establish a Joint Committee of some kind or another to look into the general question of theatre censorship in this country, I think that that Committee will find itself at the outset with one tremendous advantage, in that it will see on its own doorstep, operating in this country, practically every shade of censorship of which it is possible to conceive. It will be able to see voluntary censorship, obligatory censorship, censorship veering from the most stringent to the most permissive in all the various media of communication, arts and entertainment.

If, to begin with, it looks at the printed word—the most universal and widespread of all those media—it will find, of course, no censorship at all. If it then looks at what is probably the next most widespread and universal and, therefore, presumably, the most potentially influential, television and sound broadcasting, it will find that there also there is no censorship as such. There may be a certain amount of advice, but the broadcasters are not necessarily bound to accept the advice they are offered. This cannot really be called censorship in the strict sense of the word.

Looking a little further, to the next medium, which doubtless caters for only a sliehtly smaller audience, it comes to the films; and we have just heard from the noble Lord how the British Board of Film Censors works. We have seen that it is a form of censorship which has no legal authority, which normally works hand in hand with the local authorities and is, in fact, a form of censorship considerably more stringent than that which applies to the printed word and broadcasting, but less stringent than the last medium which the Joint Committee will come to examine, the stage. Here they will see a system which was instituted, as we have heard, by a corrupt Prime Minister, Walpole, to defend his regime against the attacks of a fearsome and formidable polemicist, Henry Fielding. They will see a system which has at various times in the past withheld Sophocles. Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Bernard Shaw from the English stage, and which, in more recent years, has been responsible for "prettifying" Pinter and Bowdlerising Beckett.

Having seen that, they will also see—and I am sure that we are deeply grateful and appreciative of the fact—that in the hands of the present Lord Chamberlain and his predecessors and their staffs, censorship has been wielded certainly more sensitively, more understandingly, more sympathetically and more perceptively, than at any time in the past. In fact, it seems to me that recently it has been operated in a way which it will be hard, if indeed possible, to improve upon, while censorship exists, and while the censors have to exert their function. At the same time, they cannot allow this fact, true as it is, to blind them to the other more important fact, that censorship in itself constitutes totalitarian, authoritative infringement of the artistic liberty of this country.

The present Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cobbold, has gone on record as saying that he conceives his functions as being those rather of a licensing authority than of a censorship authority. With great respect, I do not see that it is possible to defend this view, so long as censorship remains compulsory. Except in so far as any censor might be considered to be a licensing authority, in that it is necessary to ask him for a licence, if censorship means anything it means what is at present provided for by the law of England.

It might therefore be argued—in deed it has been argued—and it may well be suggested by the Joint Committee, that the best solution to the problem will be to institute a system, perhaps on the lines of the British Board of Film Censors, which is at least theoretically a voluntary one, and which can be bypassed if necessary. I hope they will not do that, because, just as every exhibitor has effectively to have a certificate from the British Board of Film Censors—certainly every major chain of distributors and, virtually speaking, every other little cinema in the country, either from the British Board of Film Censors or from the local authorities—in exactly the same way, if this scheme were extended to the live theatre we should find 99 per cent. of all the licensees of the theatres always applying to the Censor before going any further. It is natural that they should do so, for exactly the same reason as the large majority of them to-day approve of the present system. This system gives them complete and comprehensive protection at negligible premium, and it is natural that they should want it. But the fact remains that this system, in hands less wise, less permissive or less understanding than those in which it fortunately rests to-day, could be used, virtually speaking, to kill the English theatre stone dead.

What then, my Lords, are we left with? It seems to me that we are left with the only valid, workable, simple, system that remains: the system that has worked extremely well, and is working extremely well, with the printed word and television. This is, in my view, the most important innovation to have occurred in the field of mass communication since the invention of printing, which is the system of freedom—the freedom to "publish and be damned", always, and only, provided that there remains the ultimate deterrent (for want of a better phrase) of police prosecution. We already have this ultimate sanction, and I see no reason why we should wish to saddle ourselves with another unnecessary one.

There will inevitably be abuses. Unless we are dramatic critics we shall not be forced to go and see those plays in which this freedom appears to be abused; the police will be at liberty to act if they think fit though I hope very much that they will in fact consult some authority—not perhaps a Law Officer—before doing so, at least in any case where the play concerned bears the imprint of anyone who has done as much for the English theatre as, for example, Mr. Peter Hall, Mr. William Gas kill or the late George Devine. I hope they will think carefully before taking such action, but nevertheless there will be performances which many people will consider to be in bad taste or may indeed consider actively offensive. But surely it will be a sad day for this country when the risk of being offended is considered too high a price to pay for liberty.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, some of the points I had intended to make have already been made and my speech will therefore be the shorter. Also my views have been modified by some of the things which have already been said by noble Lords who have, from their expert knowledge, made such valuable contributions. However, we need to remember the views of those who are not so well informed. Recently I was talking with someone who was interested in the subject of our debate and he told me that he considered the existing system works quite well but he had three criticisms to make. I quote them, though I do not share them, for they seem to me to represent a wide sector of public opinion. His criticisms were, first, that it muddles along but it is vulnerable upon grounds of irresponsibility; secondly, it is vaguely connected with the Royal Family; thirdly, the Lord Chamberlain's officers might be more representative.

I had in mind, before listening to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, which I greatly enjoyed and to whom I pay my tribute, that something on the lines of the British Board of Film Censors might be the model for the future censorship of the living theatre, but now I feel the case for that suggestion has been destroyed. Nevertheless, I believe a great number of actors will welcome a body that will have positive as well as negative responsibilities—not just refusing to licence a play but authorised to promote the interests of the theatre. It may be there is not that amount in that suggestion. I speak as an occasional theatre-goer, to both professional and amateur productions. I like to enjoy the theatre and I wish I could find more free evenings to go with my family and friends. To me the theatre is a place of entertainment: I want to think and to laugh and to grieve, but not to be revolted by indecency or over-emphasis on sex, violence, cruelty, or sheer ugliness. Where a play is terrible or revolting I hope for some beauty or strength in thought and language and production to compensate.

I have consulted actors and producers and my impression is, as a number of your Lordships have said, that many prefer some form of censorship. I can see that wise censorship gives them protection and security; if critics condemn a play the theatre at least has the censor behind it. This support may not save the play, and it may have to be taken off after a short run, but to some degree censorship can spare the actors from degradation.

With this and other benefits in mind I want to pay my tribute to the Lord Chamberlain and his staff for the way they have done their duties. Presumably the qualities needed for the office of censor are a knowledge of, and enjoyment of, the theatre, with an appreciation of its history and practice and prospects. That first, and then wide experience, the ability to discern the mood of the times, and to sift the varied opinions of men and women of sound judgment who are slightly ahead of public opinion. After that, the capacity to take a line and stick to it, and to base your line, I would hope, on principles of morality and Christian ethics. If the censor in the future is not to be the Lord Chamberlain, he should be someone who has the qualities of a Lord Chamberlain.

I have two further points to make. The first concerns the visual representation of Jesus Christ on the stage. The second concerns the position of clubs. As has been mentioned, the Theatre Act 1843 gives the Lord Chamberlain an absolute veto on any play. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, referred to the attention the Lord Chamberlain is expected to pay to offending religious susceptibilities. I understand that the Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament in 1909 agreed upon certain limitations upon plays, and the first of them was that a portrayal of the Deity must not appear. Since then it has been the considered policy of the Lord Chamberlain not to license any portrayal of Christ on the stage.

I received a copy of a memorandum on this subject which I believe was sent also to the Lord Chancellor. It came from the Religious Drama Society of Great Britain, and Christians in our country are indebted to this society for its lively work. I shall quote from it, for I accept its arguments. The society raises the question whether this policy of refusing to allow a play where the Deity is represented is in line with the views of Christians to-day. Before the Reformation, Christ was presented in mystery plays, both in church and in the open air. His life, death and resurrection were shown in great detail, but these scripts, being earlier in date than the grant of the powers to the Lord Chamberlain, did not come under his censorship. In the last fifteen years many mystery plays have been revised, and they have been seen in cathedrals and in the open air and in licensed buildings such as the Mermaid Theatre in London. Millions, too, have watched them on films or television.

Among modern religious plays is one called A Man Dies, and this play the Lord Chamberlain refused to license. It was written a few years ago for a Presbyterian Youth Club in Bristol, and was shown on television. It tells the story of Christ's Passion in a combination of Bible words with songs and dialogue in a contemporary idiom natural to a young cast, and it also used a good deal of mime. Christ is portrayed by a non-speaking Christ figure from among the young cast. His words are spoken from the Bible by a narrator. This play was produced last Holy Week in St. Alban's Abbey. We had an œcumenical cast of St. Alban's young people, all of them, I think, under the age of 30 and drawn from different churches in the city. It was performed in modern dress; jeans, slacks, guitars, drums and tape recordings were not out of place as that play was presented in St. Alban's Abbey, and the Christ figure simply and naturally took his place at the heart of the play.

I consider it helps the spread of the Gospel that on the stage, as already in many other media, the Christian religion should be interpreted in modern terms and by modern techniques, and that the portrayal of Christ be permitted under certain conditions. The script should be approved by competent judges, and it is so important that attention should be paid to the producer. A Man Dies produced by a well-meaning amateur might be disastrous; at St. Alban's, competently produced and acted, it gave vitality and relevance to Holy Week, and I had no protests.

I therefore hope that the Joint Committee or some other committee, if appointed, will reconsider this question. Provided there are safeguards, many Christians, perhaps the majority of Christians, would be glad if a permissive policy were substituted for a prohibitive one. I have in mind two safeguards; that a small panel of experts should be appointed to assist the censor with advice when scripts in which Jesus Christ is portrayed come before him. There must be censorship here, for a play could be written without reverence or understanding. I should hope, too, that the panel of experts would be qualified to advise on production, and that they would be consulted about it. I realise that the censor's decision must be based on script, including stage directions. I accept this as the norm, but I submit, because the number of plays in this category is likely to be small, that for an experimental period of, say, ten years a panel of experts should be given the advisory powers I have outlined.

I conclude with this point. When a Prelate speaks on such a subject as this in your Lordships' House, it is probable that any negative remarks he makes will receive first attention. I end, therefore, by expressing my positive gratitude to those authors, actors and producers who enrich our days, and to the Lord Chamberlain's office for its wise guidance in the past and at the present time.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I have first to declare an interest, that as an executor I found myself somewhat unexpectedly the lessee of a London theatre. I am happy to say that it is a theatre which has had no conflict or collision with the Lord Chamberlain. Our plays are duly licensed without trouble. I have a less tenuous interest in that as Chairman of the Arts Council I preside over an organisation one of whose most important functions is to promote and sustain an interest in the live theatre. On that account we are profoundly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for having introduced this subject; and I would add that I personally am particularly grateful for the terms in which he introduced it. His introduction was from the point of view of the subject, if I may say so without appearing patronising, impeccable.

This is a very difficult subject, and it would be quite wrong for anyone with a knowledge of it to dogmatise about it. It is not a matter that admits of dogmatic views. We of the Arts Council have a committee, composed of very authoritative persons, which was set up by the Council when it was presided over by my predecessor Lord Cottesloe. This committee has been sitting a considerable while, and has not yet arrived at final conclusions. I hope that any Select Committee appointed as a result of this Motion may receive the benefit of the deliberations of this committee which, from what I have read, I consider to be useful and valuable. I may say that, having read those deliberations, I myself have undergone several changes of view. I said at the outset that I think this is a difficult subject, and I have arrived at a very paradoxical conclusion.

I should state first that I am wholeheartedly in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, on the question of principle; I disapprove of and dislike censorship. I think that my paradoxical conclusion is that from the public's point of view there is no benefit whatsoever in continuing the existence of the censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. I hasten to add that, from personal knowledge, I would wholeheartedly associate myself with the remarks and tributes paid to the incumbents of that office. I have had dealings with that office in a number of particulars over the years, and they have discharged their duties, in difficult circumstances, in irreproachable fashion. The remarks we wish to make are not about the officers but about the office, and in that regard very trenchant observations are called for.

I do not think censorship, as I have known it over the years, serves any purpose whatsoever to protect the public. I think the way of looking at it is this. The function of the Censor falls broadly into activities of two distinct qualities. The first and least palatable is to deal with the deliberate commercial pornographers. This is, I think, the greater part of his function. I think it undignified and absurd that a Government office should be in existence to debate with deliberate, calculated pornographers just how far they may go in the way of pornography. I do not think it right that examiners of the Lord Chamberlain's office should be sitting down to discuss a double entendre, or how far an indecent joke can be indecent before it is blue-pencilled. The gentlemen who perpetrate such things should be left to the criminal law. I am quite convinced it is wrong that they should be given any form of reassurance in the way of a licence. If they wish to perpetrate obscenities I feel they should run the risk and at least have the neurosis of not sleeping at night, uncertain about the police visiting next morning. I do not think any Government should set up an office to give them protection.

We then come to what may appear the smaller part of the Censor's function, though it is, in fact, the larger and more important part of the Lord Chamberlain's duties; that is, dealing with the serious theatre. Here I think the best way to review the matter and determine what use his function has served is to view it retrospectively. Consider now what benefit has come to the denizens of this country by prohibiting over the years, shall we say, The Children's Hour, A Penny to see a Peepshow, Green Pastures—and I was very gratified to hear the remarks of the right reverend Prelate, because I believe that a liberalisation in that respect is very important. I cannot for the life of me see what damage or harm would have been done by showing the very charming and reverent depiction of the Divinity in Green Pastures. I am sure we should be the better for that reform. If we review this matter retrospectively, are we, in fact, a better race of men, and have we got a more virile, more moral community because we have prevented them over the last twenty years from seeing these plays? Do we need an answer to that question? The question is an absurdity. Of course we have not.

So far as the serious theatre is concerned, it is quite unnecessary to have a formal official protecting the public from serious playwrights, and it is an affront to the serious playwrights that there can be any question about it. In a way, the existence of the Lord Chamberlain is a goad to them. They are prompted, I am sure, to go beyond what they might write, because they think the Censor should not be there and they want to provoke him: their aim is, epater les bourgeois. I am perfectly convinced that if we could have a moratorium on censorship for a couple of years, and invite all writers to think of the most extreme forms of obscenity they could envisage, and put them on the stage for the next two years, they would get it out of their systems, and would get down to writing their plays. Far from censorship protecting the public, I think that it does positive damage. And censorship in regard to the serious play ought to be abolished from the point of view of public welfare.

I have suggested that we cannot dogmatise, and that one may arrive at a paradoxical conclusion. I am by no means sure that the same conclusion is right from the point of view of the interests of the theatre. The noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, spoke of the abolition of censorship in the belief that this would open the gates of freedom, and that thereupon plays not now performed would immediately be performed. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, instanced Mr. John Osborne's A Patriot for Me. That is a very good instance. I am quite satisfied that, unless we associated with the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain the abrogation of the obscenity laws, which no one in his right senses would advocate, we should not have seen A Patriot for Me in the commercial theatre. That is not because the play is obscene—on the contrary; and I ventured to engage in correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, on the subject—but because it would not be possible to find a lawyer (and in his delightful and remarkable maiden speech Lord Harlech made some remarks with which I, as a lawyer, am in profound agreement) who would express the view that this play might not undergo a conviction by a jury of twelve ordinary people. That would be the test which would replace censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. We should be no better off by abolition of the Lord Chamberlain. In fact, I arrive at this conclusion: that, ironically, we have had a more liberal theatre in the last few years, under the administration of the Lord Chamberlain, than we might have had had we abolished him altogether. I can think of two or three plays now on the London stage, and a number of plays that have appeared on the London stage but are no longer being performed, that would not in my opinion have seen the light of day if they had not been licensed by a liberal and progressive Lord Chamberlain.

Having paid those tributes to the Lord Chamberlain, I want to make a few less flattering observations. I think in regard to a play like A Patriot for Me, it is presumptuous for any one man to set his voice against those of a distinguished literary mind. I think that perhaps the Lord Chamberlain may not be conscious of the effect abroad of proscribing the work of one of our most distinguished intellectual dramatists. If I may say so, we have witnessed in the last few days a horrible instance in another country of the persecution of human thought. I do not know, but perhaps the House might feel that we should from here send out a message of a feeling of abhorrence at countries that persecute people who wish to examine their views carefully on matters of the human mind. But we have witnessed that kind of thing.

We are prone to forget that an effect of that kind may be produced abroad when it is read that one of our most distinguished dramatists has had a play refused performance by the Lord Chamberlain, whom they believe to be a Court official in this country. I think it behoves the Lord Chamberlain and his office to think most carefully before they proscribe plays by people whose previous record as intellectual dramatists, as important dramatists and people who demonstrably are not pornographers, entitles them to have their work considered. As it is likely that the Lord Chamberlain, or someone in a similar position, will continue for many years, it is important that the exercise of his office should take this factor into account; this is of the first importance. I do not think we have appreciated quite the shock that this is to people abroad. I have no axe to grind for people like John Osborne, many of whose views I would not agree with—neither would many of your Lordships—but the fact remains that he and a few others like him are regarded as the people who speak for this country and for young people in all parts of the world; and if it is thought that we are persecuting them, or shutting them off from public performance, then it will be thought that we are operating an illiberal and oppressive form of Government in this country. However satisfied we may be as a country, we shall not succeed in convincing others abroad to that effect.

This brings me to another matter which I think is of first and cardinal importance. If the Lord Chamberlain's office were to go, the whole question would turn on prosecutions. Here we have a bad record so far as intellectuals are concerned. I do not apologise for using this word, because the intellect is the commodity we are dealing with in this debate. There is certainly current among intellectuals a feeling that in the Establishment, and particularly among prosecuting officials, there is an anti-intellectual bias. Every so often the Establishment demonstrates the truth of this. I am not suggesting it is wholly true, but they provide evidence of its truth by some colossal gaff such as the prosecution of Lady Chatterley's Lover. I do not believe that Lady Chatterley's Lover would have been prosecuted by any literate body of men. I think it could only have been prosecuted by people with firm preconceptions—honest but foolish people. I think it is terribly important that before any prosecution is launched on subjects of obscenity, on subjects that affect letters, on subjects that affect the arts, people who know what they are talking about should be consulted.

Here I strongly support the view of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that a consultative committee should be brought into being. I do not think that this is in the least a matter for lawyers. I do not think they need any protection in the way of asking an unfortunate Judge in Chambers to cease his other activities in determining whether an injunction should be given for a lady who is trespassing on somebody else's property, to have to decide whether somebody's play is a prima facie case for a prosecution. I think that there is no standard by which a Judge could reach any decision on this matter, and certainly a Judge's training does not make him more eligible, and in many ways makes him much less eligible, to determine matters on the basis of broad common sense and an appreciation of current conventional morality.

We need a committee of literate persons to determine this question, and I think that if these matters were determined by a committee of literate persons, half the problem would disappear. I should like to think that the Motion of Lord Annan might be carried into effect. What are we to do? My own personal preference is to maintain a voluntary system. This was touched upon by the noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, who said that he thought that if there was a voluntary system everybody would be encouraged to act as volunteers and there would be timidity and nobody would put on plays that might otherwise not be shown because they would not get a licence. I think that the main affront of the present system is, as Lord Harlech said, that there is no appeal. I do not think that by abolishing the system there will be any greater audacity in the production of plays. But I think that if there is a voluntary system so that a man may put on a play if he wants to and take a risk, or otherwise can go to some organisation, be it the Lord Chamberlain or someone else, and ask him for a licence, and know that if he has a licence he is free from prosecution, we shall probably have the best of both worlds. That is the system I myself, after a good deal of thought on the subject, should like to see adopted.

It may well be that if a Select Committee consider this matter they will arrive at some other and better conclusion. But my present belief is that in the situation where there is no perfect solution, where some controls are obviously necessary, where, on the whole, something has to be done to protect theatrical managements, the best thing to do is to allow a means whereby the timid manager may go and get his licence, and the audacious manager can take his risk, and the man who is not satisfied with the decision can take the risk if he is courageous enough.

That brings me to my concluding point on this matter, which is that I think we want to view it in perspective. I think it is important to do this. I do not think that the English theatre has suffered terribly under a horribly oppressive tyranny by the Lord Chamberlain. It is right to say that under the Lord Chamberlain, in so far as he impinges on the topic, the English theatre has arrived at the moment at a situation of considerable good health and prosperity. We have a most distinguished collection of young dramatists. We have a virility and a vitality in the theatre that has been unequalled in my recollection. It must be plain, therefore, that we do not want to make too much of this matter; that it would be wrong to send out an exaggerated notion that the theatre is burdened oppressively by what is happening by censorship. I think it is right to say that censorship is an anomaly. I agree with the Lord Chancellor, and The Times, that to some extent the anomaly is made worse by the Lord Chamberlain's very "personality", by the fact that he is or is not an old Etonian, that he lives in a charming old house adjoining a Palace, that he is a gentleman and courteous, and so on. This conveys a patrician image that is violently in conflict with many of the non-patrician plays that are coming on. This is a slight but not a total irrelevancy.

It may be a reason for making a change. A man can be too nice for the job. But what I think is of importance is to establish an organisation for controlling the theatre that will have the confidence of the writers. At the moment there is a feeling of resentment over the whole situation. Rightly or wrongly they feel humiliated and they feel affronted. I hope the outcome of to-day's debate will be that some machinery will be set up, if any is needed, in which they will have confidence.

The last thing I want to say is that I find myself having regard to the remarks of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, on the question of a Select Committee. I am by no means sure that this is the right kind of body to investigate this matter. It is a highly professional question. The conclusions one arrives at when one first looks at this question are never the conclusions one reaches when one studies it carefully over a long period. I think, therefore, it is of great importance that whatever committee or commission examines this question it should be a really expert one acquainted with the theatre. If you abolish the Lord Chamberlain or have a voluntary system, you have to consider what one may call the public policy aspects of his activities. Here I should like to say a few controversial words. It has been suggested that the problem of Royalty arises. I consider that this is no problem. Royalty have resorted to the courts recently and found complete freedom where there has been an undue invasion of Royal privacy. I do not think it is necessary to maintain the Lord Chamberlain for that purpose. Common Law provides a perfectly effective remedy for Royalty, as for anyone else. The position of the Sovereign herself may be another matter. I regard it as quite unnecessary on that score to regard the retention of the Lord Chamberlain as necessary.

On the question of living persons, and so forth, we have a law of libel which, misguidedly, some people are thinking of diluting. If we leave it as it is, it is a very effective weapon, and it is unnecessary to maintain the Lord Chamberlain as an auxiliary for people who have been defamed. I do not think that any of these peripheral activities are necessary to maintain at all. On the question of obscenity, this is a matter for the Commission. I am sure that we can forgo these other safeguards without feeling that we are going to be murdered in our beds. I speak as somebody who for years has derived pleasure and enjoyment from the theatre. I am therefore grateful that this debate has been initiated, and I hope that its results will be fruitful and encouraging to those people who work for and with the theatre.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, The Censor's arbitrary rights must be a deterrent to men of any intellectual independence and self-respect. We rub our eyes, we writers accustomed to freedom in other walks, to think that this cause has still to be argued in England. That is not an angry film producer complaining at the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, whose maiden speech I so enjoyed, nor is it anybody complaining about the Lord Chamberlain's office to-day. It was written by Henry James many years ago. Writers of all sorts are still rubbing their eyes that the cause has still to be argued in England. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, made such a distinction between the officers and the office, because I, too, should like to add my name to those who pay tribute to the officers. I should like to add my name to that of Lord Goodman as one who has a few uncomfortable things to say about the office.

One would think nowadays that the extraordinary situation whereby, for instance, because of the madness of King George III, King Lear was forbidden on the stage, and anomalies of that sort, would be impossible. Yet the Royal Shakespeare Company (of whom, by way of declaring an interest, I must say that I am a Governor) was quite recently preparing a play in which it was proposed to quote a complete poem by the noted American poet E. E. Cummings. They submitted the text to the Lord Chamberlain's office, and cuts amounting to some six or eight lines were requested and, indeed, insisted upon. It happened that that poem had recently been read in its entirety on television on a programme called Monitor, and not a single complaint had been received. It also happened that the poem had been read twice within the Aldwych Theatre at Sunday performances, and in the end, when it came to produce the play, the company were forced to leave gaps in the actors' speeches at that point. The audience could then look down at their programmes where the poem was printed in its entirety, since it had already been printed in many countries and anthologised widely. This is the sort of anomaly which still exists.

One would have thought also that the days of the first performance in this country of Richard Strauss's opera Salome were over. Your Lordships will recall that Sir Thomas Beecham put on the opera for the first time, and that its German libretto was taken from the celebrated drama by Oscar Wilde. The text of this was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain of the day—this was between the wars. A large number of cuts were also insisted upon in the German text. These were duly carried out, and the German singers were forced to learn a whole lot of new lines and a whole lot of Bowdlerised German. On the night of the first performance, however, under the stress and excitement of every first night—and, no doubt under the sway of the music—very early on in the performance the singers forgot all the alternatives which they had been forced to learn, and reverted immediately to the original text and continued so until the end of the opera. Sir Thomas was a little alarmed to see a representative of the Lord Chamberlain's office, with whom he had been dealing, bearing down on him after the performance, and was a little surprised to find his hand warmly shaken, and to hear the man say how pleased he was at the immense cooperation that he had received from everybody concerned.

This, one would think, was something of the past. Yet the noble Lord, Lord Annan, pointed out that cuts had been requested, and changes made, in the German texts of plays by Brecht, who is, after all, whether you like him or whether you dislike him, a modern classic. I am pleased that the right reverend Prelate gave us some hope that the present practice regarding the portrayal of Scriptural characters on the stage might be on its way towards being changed.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodman, mentioned Green Pastures, which we should all be the better for having available to us. It might be worth adding to that George Moores' play The Passing of the Essenes. It is more controversial, but it is published and may be read by any of your Lordships who wish to do so. Encouraged though I was by the right reverend Prelate's remarks, the thought of what would happen to a controversial play, even one as smoothly controversial as The Passing of the Essenes, in the hands of a committee of experts, who would advise the Censor, and another committee of experts who would advise the producer, makes me wonder whether in fact we are on the road to any reform in this direction at all. If we are to liberalise our view of our laws or practices, let us by all means liberalise them, but let us not hedge them around with committees of experts who are notorious in retarding progress.

Many suggestions have been made as to possible alternatives to the office of the Lord Chamberlain. The whole question of film censorship, which has been so carefully outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, is possibly not the answer. If films and theatre are to be considered, then I would beg your Lordships not to accede to the suggestion of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, who suggested that terms of reference might be made which would equate films, television and theatre, and somehow make common ground between them. If this were done, I fear that the terms would have to be so wide, and the net so large, that nothing would escape it. In fact, we should be making a blanket of censorship so thick that I doubt whether a novel idea could ever penetrate it. If there is to be reform in theatre censorship, or, indeed, abolition, then let it be considered on its own merits and in its own right.

Many previous speakers have pointed out that the biggest problem of setting up any alternative board or alternative organisation to the Lord Chamberlain's office is the problem of the right to appeal. One of the greatest criticisms of the present system is its lack of that right. Let us suppose that a body is set up with the agreement of stage managements and the theatrical world in general, and let us suppose that it is genuinely agreed that there must be some appeal from it, to whom is such an appeal to be made? To the courts?—probably not. The legal view, so learnedly expressed this afternoon by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, and, indeed, by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor himself, leads one to suppose that using the courts as a kind of advisory body to the world of the theatre is unlikely. Could it, perhaps, be to local councils? Could there be some form of certificate which local councils were obliged to abide by, but to whom an appeal might be made if it were not granted? The instance of the film Fanny Hill, to which the noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Harlech, referred, shows what dangers there would be in leaving things in the hands of local councils. That any film or any play should be awarded an "X" certificate in some places, an "A" in others, a "U" in others, and in some places banned altogether, is so hopelessly inequitable that it is not to be considered. Could an appeal against censorship be made to some Government body? This, I doubt, too. The dangers of Government censorship are graver than any other.

Already, imputations of political censorship have been made about many plays. Indeed, at this moment one of the productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company—the famous Marat-Sade—has been invited to open the Paris Festival of Theatre. The Advisory Panel for Drama of the British Council recommend that the British Council should make a grant to send it there. The British Council refused to do so, and I think it is little secret that the grounds for its refusal relate mostly to the nature of the play. In any event, a private individual has supplied enough money to take it to Paris.

The fact remains that this production, which might well not have reached Paris, is a production whose prestige has grown enormously throughout the world—and not only in this country, for it has had immense success in America. It has been pointed out, I think, that as an example of production, and, above all, of ensemble playing, it has no peer at the moment in the British theatre world; and ensemble playing is not something to which we are so accustomed. Many other countries have had their great ensembles. We tend to have our great actors, and for a piece to receive this sort of praise is not only gratifying; it is quite obviously a matter of great concern to British prestige that it should be done abroad.

Yet the nature of the play itself, I believe—and I must not be dogmatic about this, because there has been no public statement of the British Council's view—has prevented this from being sponsored, at any rate by the British Council. Therefore, I think that a Government body, even in the loosest sense, must not be allowed to be an appeal committee from any censorship body which may be set up. Indeed, so grave is the problem of appeal, that it seems to add yet another argument to the already formidable arguments for abolishing censorship altogether and relying entirely upon the law.

It would seem that the biggest danger to those likely to be offended by plays is ignorance. A friend of mine, who is responsible for one of the biggest ticket agencies in the country, is always receiving complaints from people about plays which they see. A notable example which he quoted to me was of two ladies who came up for an occasional visit to the theatre, went to this ticket agency, asked for no advice, and looked down the list of titles. They chose one called "Entertaining Mr. Sloane", possibly because they thought it would be entertaining, or possibly, indeed, because they knew a Mr. Sloane. When they got to the theatre, however, they discovered that the play concerned two people of considerable sexual deviation, one of whom was murdered later in the play in full view of the audience. They naturally complained bitterly to the ticket agency, but I have very little sympathy with the two ladies.

Every play that comes on is reviewed in one newspaper or another. Pictures are published. The publicity given to the Arts in general, and to the theatre in particular, is so considerable now that it seems to me inescapable that you no longer have to subject yourself unwillingly to any form of offence. Yet there are few angrier people than those who have been to the theatre and been disappointed or upset in some way. A curious factor about the entertainment business is that it so often causes immense resentment in those who pay money. Let a man plant a rose tree in the autumn, if it fails to come up in the spring, although he has paid 10s. for it, he will be philosophical about it. Let a man pay 10s. for a book, not enjoy it and find it distasteful, he will put it down with a sense of disappointment. But let him pay 10s. at the box office of a theatre or a cinema and be disappointed, and his righteous indigation will know no bounds. Paying an entrance fee at a box office does not entitle anybody, by a kind of moral right, to be entertained in his own terms.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Annan, should have made the point that to be shocked is not necessarily a pejorative phrase. Most of us were taught in our schools that the earliest form of drama which is currently revived to-day—the Greek drama—depended for much of its tragic effect upon catharsis. Indeed to-day, Œdipus Rex which, as has been mentioned, the censor of the time duly banned for a little, or The Baccghœ are plays which even to-day can scarcely be seen without a tremendous sense of shock—a sense of shock which I cannot help feeling is entirely beneficial. The one comparison in this direction between theatre and books, which is perhaps instructive, is that if you are about to be shocked by a book you know more precisely why. It has a dust-jacket. You can look at a page or two. You can read a piece on the flyleaf which gives you a synopsis of the story. In the theatre you cannot do that. You sit down and you must face it. But, heaven knows! there is no reason why a man should not leave a theatre if he is offended or upset. In that respect, books have an advantage over the theatre; it is easier to know what is about to be presented to you.

They certainly have an advantage over the theatre in the fact that they are not pre-censored, and I was delighted to hear that the Lord Chancellor himself finds it difficult to understand the distinction between the theatre and literature. I find the same difficulty. Yet the abolition of theatre censorship has an advantage over the abolition of literary censorship, and it is this. A book may be published clandestinely: it could defy the law. There being no Censor for it to defy, the author and publisher could defy prosecution by attempting to avoid detection. It may be published under the counter. But, of course, it is almost impossible to put a play of any size on "under the counter". It must be known; it must be seen. Thus the risk of its evading prosecution and detection is, I think, negligible. This seems yet another argument for leaving its career to be dealt with by the law and not by any body of censorship.

The arguments for abolishing the function of the Lord Chamberlain, and for entrusting the public's livelihood or protection entirely to the law, are so strong, in fact, that any Select Committee which is set up will have to consider very carefully what alternatives are better. I feel that the debate so far has brought us to the point where only an alternative better than abolition can be canvassed. I feel that I can do no better, in finishing, than to quote something which was said in your Lordships' House over 250 years ago by Lord Chesterfield, when he first opposed the setting up of censorship in the time of Walpole. He said: 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. It is a higher, a more absolute Power than we trust even to the King himself; and therefore I must think we ought not to vest any such Power in his Majesty's Lord Chamberlain.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for putting down this Motion, and giving the House the opportunity of discussing this vital question. I myself have had only one or two brushes with the Lord Chamberlain. I think that in 1948 or 1949 one of my first plays went to his office, and it came back with a long list of words which had to be omitted, including the word "bloody", which it was requested should be removed, I think, fourteen times. Subsequently, of course, in 1956–57, I went to see a play called Billy Liar, which had that same word in it 249 times. I do not quite know what this proves: either I was ten years ahead of my time or the Lord Chamberlain was ten years behind it.

I should also like to pay tribute to the Lord Chamberlain for the courtesy, delicacy and generosity with which he treats writers. But, my Lords, a man can be courteous, he can be delicate and he can be generous; but if he is a jailer it makes him no more pleasant—and to my mind the Lord Chamberlain, in his role as theatre censor, is a gentle and kindly jailer. In this matter I am a "wholehogger" and an abolitionist. I believe that any compromise would be worse than the present system. I agree that there must be some special measures—and this perhaps is what the Select Committee, if it is set up, could do—to protect managements against frivolous prosecutions; but, by and large, I do not want the theatre to be privileged. I want it to be subject to the same checks and controls in law as any other form of art or literature, or any activity of any citizen.

Some critics oppose the office of theatre Censor because, they say, it is irrational and illogical that the duty should be vested in a member of Her Majesty's Household. To me, this is completely unimportant, and I think we should not venture too far along this track in your Lordships' House, because there are many institutions in this country which cannot be justified on rational or logical grounds, and if we push that argument too far we may find ourselves arguing ourselves out of a place to sit. Not only that, but I am not one of those advocates of great tidiness in public life. I remember the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth once complaining, with regard to the Greater London Bill, that there seemed to be this madness in local government for tidy parcels of government. I think the office of the Lord Chamberlain is untidy, and that the whole matter is untidy; but I do not regard that as a good reason for abolishing him. I think we must abolish him on principle, and not for any of these reasons. In fact, I agree with those other speakers in the debate who have said that, if we are to have a Censor, then the present method of censorship is by far the best. I would much rather have Lord Cobbold than Bertrand Russell; I would much rather have Lord Cobbold than some of my Labour M.P. colleagues, or even the British Council.

My Lords, I am opposed to theatre censorship in its present form for eight reasons, which I will give your Lordships as clearly as possible. I am opposed to it, first of all, because it is a childish way of dealing with an adult problem. I am opposed to it because it puts a barrier around free expression and limits the dramatist. It builds a tariff wall against free trade in ideas, and that must be bad. I am opposed to it because it forces one man to set himself up as a judge and to apply absolute standards—absolute standards which just cannot exist in any fixed form at any one time. In fact, we have heard in this debate to-day, in the very good maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, that his Board tries to take the middle point of view of a particular section of the public as the guide line. That is the most powerful argument against any fixed form of censorship that I have ever heard. In fact, listening to Lord Harlech—and this is no reference to the quality of his speech—I felt absolutely horrified. I could not realise that the British Board of Film Censors was the same body as that which he had described in this particular way.

I am against the theatre Censor because it puts one man in the position of immense political power; and this point has to some extent been overlooked because of the concentration on sex, violence and pornography in the theatre. The fact that the present Censor has tried not to abuse these powers, and has tried to be as progressive as possible, is beside the point. In the past, we have had examples of works by Ibsen and Shaw—classics—being banned from the theatre; and Mrs. Warren's Profession particularly, was banned, and could only have been banned, whatever the excuse, on political grounds. I do not think that any man should have that sort of power.

Next, I am against it because it operates in a way which is objectionable in a democratic society. Although in practice the censors do give reasons, they are not bound to do so, and the dramatist is in effect, tried in secret, and has no effective right of appeal. Then, censorship is hypocritical in effect, if not in intention. For example, I have seen lists of the changes that have been required to be made, and for the life of me I cannot see why it should be all right to say "God Almighty" as an expletive but not "Jesus Christ"—but that is the rule. But, more important than this, to me it seems that it forces the dramatist to subterfuge in the portrayal of some of his ideas, so that what was honest vulgarity becomes sophisticated smut, and what was open and frank becomes dirtily suggestive. It replaces, very often, the laugh by the giggle, and the truth by the innuendo. This is nobody's fault: it is a built-in defect of the present system.

Finally, I think it is time we released the poor Lord Chamberlain from the whole tedious, sordid and revolting business. As I said, I have seen lists of the various changes which the Lord Chamberlain has asked dramatists to make in their plays. Most of the references are to what is generally called "bad language", or something which is offensive to good taste. Whenever this issue of bad language or good taste comes up, I am reminded of the Englishman who said of Hamlet's scene in Gertrude's bedroom, "No gentlemen would speak to his mother like that". I will not bore your Lordships with any long details about some of these cuts: I just want to pay tribute to the immense stamina of the Lord Chamberlain and his staff in carrying out this unique and rather dreary task—and I could not help wondering who were the secretaries who typed these particular lists that go back to dramatists. But to ask grown men and women to debate whether the phrase "man in the boat" is more or less likely to shock than the 'phrase "button in the forecastle", or to consider suitable alternatives for the word "latrine" is to reduce the whole thing to the level of a schoolboy joke.

Turning away from that aspect for a moment, my Lords, there is a strange kind of logic in many supporters of the Lord Chamberlain's present powers which says that because you are in favour of abolishing the Lord Chamberlain, because you want to abolish the threatre Censor, you must therefore be in favour of pornography and smut on the British stage. Indeed, I had an obscene, anonymous and smutty letter this morning accusing me of exactly that: that, because I was in favour of abolishing theatre censorship, I was therefore going to open the floodgates in the British theatre to smut, pornography and dirty plays. This is about as logical a suggestion as that a man who does not like a waistcoat is a sex maniac.

Sex and violence have of course been legitimate elements of drama for hundreds of years, and will continue to be so in any adult society where there is drama. But, honestly, my Lords, like many others I am disturbed and puzzled by the excessive emphasis which some of our younger dramatists place on these aspects of human behaviour to-day, and by their constant preoccupation with the darker corners of human society and the human soul. But before we condemn them, ought we not to try to understand them? We must remember that they do not write in this way because somebody forces them to do so: they write in this way—and most of them write with great talent—because they have a wish to do so; because they feel impelled to do so; because they believe the issues that they are trying to describe in their plays are every bit as important as the issues which Shaw tried to describe or fight for in his plays.

Why do the young people of to-day, more than ever before, challenge the verbal and visual taboos that we have created in our society? When I was young, I saw my own particular revolution in social terms. I saw as the object that I believed in, and believed in with starry eyes, the liberation of this country from poverty and dreariness; and I can remember, as a very young man, lying on the green grass of Finsbury Park and really believing, in my innocence, that England's "green and pleasant land" was only a very few short years away. My own early plays tried, rather badly, I admit, to reflect this particular theme of social justice. Much of what I dreamed of then, and what many of us dreamed of, has been realised—much, but not all. We have full employment; we have wider freedoms; we have far less real poverty. But is it not true that the dignity we dreamed of is lacking? The vision has soured somewhat; we have given too much scope in our society to the hucksters; we have created too much that is cheap and tawdry. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Beeching, said in a public speech the other day: we have gone for the immediate gain rather than the long-term benefit. The young deeply feel the hypocrisy that is rife in so much of modern society. They feel that the greatest hypocrisy is in our attitude towards the human body, towards sex. And so they have directed their fire to this area particularly; because the areas of social justice have to a certain extent been covered, and are being covered, by Government action.

It is a revolution, and like all revolutions it is sometimes extreme and coarse and one-sided and savage and intolerant. We may disagree with the aims of this revolution—that is our right. But it is their right to be heard. We do not answer an argument by stifling it. In fact, if we stifle it, we do so at our own peril. If you stifle the voice of the young, you stifle the voice of the future. I hope personally that the emphasis will change in the writings of our dramatists. I want to see a greater and more liberal attitude towards sex; I do not want this to be a continual theme in plays on our stages. I believe our talented young dramatists will begin eventually to realise that reality is not bounded by bed-sheets; that people have brains as well as genitals; that love is often more important than lust; and that gentleness and wisdom are not luxuries but necessities. I think they may sometimes ponder the fact that great dramatists and writers like Arthur Miller, Dickens, Tolstoy, Ibsen and Shaw, manage to convey an enormous amount in all their works without the need to use four-letter words.

But, my Lords, the point I want to hammer home is that we cannot legislate for this; we cannot censor our dramatists into what we may consider to be the paths of righteousness. They must have freedom. We must listen to them; we must learn from them; we must fight them; we must argue with them; we must hammer out the issues. But we must give them freedom of expression. We must let them shock us, if they can; for shocks are the best medicine for our complacency. They want to create a moral purpose in society. Some of your Lordships may consider they are going about it in a perverse and paradoxical way. I think we all want to re-create a sense of moral purpose in society; and if we want to do that, we must look to them and realise that they are allies, and not treat them as enemies.

That is why I am an abolitionist in this matter. I want a greater freedom for our writers. That is why I have no fear that if we come to relieve the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, of his duties as censor, there will be a great wave of depravity to hit our theatre. There are enough checks and balances in our law to prevent the venal and corrupt operators from peddling their pornography. If there are not, we can threngthen them.

The matter of theatre censorship may seem a small matter when compared with what is going on in Vietnam or Rhodesia or with the problem of the balance of payments. But it is not. No issue of artistic freedom is ever small or unimportant. Do not let us muddle on any longer with this; do not let us say that because it works in a liberal fashion, therefore we shall tolerate it. It is an affront to the freedom of artists. It must be abolished. In present hands it may operate in a liberal way; in other hands it may not. As an institution it is wrong. As an institution it is false and it must go.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I am attending this debate more to listen than to speak. I wanted to listen, in particular, to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, and to the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and I was very far from disappointed. I only want to say two things. First, the theatre censorship carried out by the Lord Chamberlain's office is undoubtedly as good as any other method of censorship that could be devised; secondly, I see no need for censorship at all. I dare say that those of us who demand as much freedom of speech on the stage as there is off it will be accused of weakening the moral fibre of society and of encouraging licentious ribaldry, sexual promiscuity and so on. What humbug and nonsense! I refuse to believe that the ending of censorship would persuade every theatre management in the country to put on a series of strip-tease shows or to try to put on displays of obscenity. That type of entertainment is quite adequately provided in London already, so I am told.

The difference might be that plays such as John Osborne's A Patriot for Me could be seen by an audience who have not had to go to the petty trouble of joining a club for the purpose. That is the kind of thing that leads me to use the word "humbug". Anyone who really wanted to see A Patriot for Me could quite easily have done so when it was on at the Royal Court Theatre. But it was a bit of a bother: one had to fill in a form to join a club, and wait a few days to become a member before applying for tickets. Therefore, because it could not be shown to the general public, a lot of people missed a tremendous theatrical experience, an experience which left one sadder and wiser and certainly not inclined to any form of vice. The theatre is a form of art which has flourished in this country for several hundred years, and elsewhere in the world for several thousand years. I hope your Lordships will agree with me that it has now grown-up and therefore no longer needs a nurse or a censor.

6.36 p.m.


My Lords, after some of the speeches we have heard today I feel that little has been left to say; but I want to fill in one or two nooks and crannies of the history of this matter to try to trace what I perceive to be a continuing guerrilla between different forces in our society about it. The 1909 Committee, about which we have heard, came to a definite recommendation which was that there should be voluntary censorship: that is, those who wanted to get the protection which they Imagined lay in the Lord Chamberlain's certificate should be entitled to get it, and those who preferred to do without it should be free to put plays on and risk prosecution at law. Nothing was done because the opinion in Parliament at that time came down as it has done more than once later, in favour of preserving the safety of the theatre managers, and specifically the Society of Theatre Managers, commonly known as the West End theatre managers, who find de facto protection in this system.

For forty years thereafter there was no move in the theatre censorship situation until the presentation of the Levy Bill, in 1949, which the noble Lord, Lord Annan, mentioned in his opening speech in this debate. This would have done very much what the 1909 Committee recommended. It was for a voluntary censorship. The Bill introduced in that year received a Second Reading, but was not passed because a General Election came. It never met a definitive defeat at the hands of Parliament. During the nearly sixty years since the 1909 Committee first recommended a voluntary censorship, the situation developed in the way it did before.

If we take tally of the playwrights who have suffered either total ban or major excisions you find they include Tolstoy, Shaw, Ibsen, Granville Barker, Aristophanes and Sophocles themselves (the "business" in their plays has been subject to intervention by the Lord Chamberlain at different periods), Oscar Wilde, O'Neill, Maeterlinck, Shelley, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett. John Osborne, Anouilh, Brieux, Pirandello, Schnitzler, Lilian Hellman, Hugh Ross-Williamson, and so on, I do not know whether your Lordships can remember any other playwrights—it is about the lot. Anybody who has had anything to say in the theatre has been crossed at one stage or another by the British Lord Chamberlain—I mean, by the different incumbents in the office. Let me assure your Lordships, as other noble Lords have done, that we are being rude about the office, and not about the holder of it, because he has been marked always by extreme courtesy, if not by logical and social justification.

The situation between the Lord Chamberlain and the playwrights came to a head in two cases in 1958. One was the Theatre Workshop case, concerning a play put on by Joan Littlewood, which contained a large element of improvisation. A sort of text was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain and was approved, so far as it went, and the actors improvised, as they always have under Joan Littlewood, because that is her purpose in the theatre. They departed from the text, and in the course of their improvisations they said and did certain things which incurred the displeasure of the representative of the Lord Chamberlain, who came to the theatre to see the play. A prosecution ensued before the East Ham magistrates. We have here a case in which something which appeared to the Lord Chamberlain of the day to be impermissible was sent for trial at law. Largely, I think, because my noble and learned friend the present Lord Chancellor was far-sighted enough to give his services for free—I do not think that this company could have paid for them—the company got off with a token fine, and Joan Littlewood and those associated with her have continued to be major ornaments in the British theatre.

The second case was that of Paul Slickey. I should like to give your Lordships a short extract from the correspondence between the Lord Chamberlain's office and the legal representative of the playwright, John Osborne. I quote, first of all, from a letter from the Lord Chamberlain's Office: Act 1, scene 2, omit the lines: They'll make it much too hot for us to tackle any crumpet '. The answer from the playwright's legal representative was: With respect, the expression crumpet is now one in fairly universal use and can be construed as referring to ladies or girl friends, and not as appertaining to any particular part of the physical anatomy.' Third movement—a letter from the Lord Chamberlain's Office: His Lordship cannot agree to the word ' crumpet being used. Fourth movement—a letter from the playwright's lawyer to the Lord Chamberlain's office: Act 1, scene 2. With regard to this my client is prepared to substitute for the word 'crumpet', the word 'muffin '. It is ridiculous, is it not?—and the very ridiculousness of the situation is perhaps a more potent element for change than emphasis on injustices or long-standing struggles of one sort or another.

After these cases, in 1958 there came into existence the Theatre Censorship Reform Committee, about which I should like to inform your Lordships. This Committee met many times over a year, mainly in my house, and among its members were the noble Lord, Lord Annan, the present Home Secretary, a wide spectrum of theatre people, and representatives of the League of Dramatists and Equity. Our first move was to communicate with the Lord Chamberlain in order to seek from him certain facts, not about his powers, which are there for all to read in the 1843 Act, hut about the way in which they were exercised, and to ask whether he would be prepared to meet this committee and discuss the functions of his office in order to help us to make more sensible proposals for reform. He answered our approach by saying that it would not be proper for him to enter into correspondence with any unofficial body. We were, therefore, deprived of that possible means of arriving at sensible solutions to the problems which were boiling up at that time.

So we got down to it, as best we could without help, and drafted a Bill which would have abolished the powers of the Lord Chamberlain over the theatre and placed nothing in their stead. When we looked at this a little, we were much impressed by the argument that this left the theatre manager too exposed, because in practice it has always turned out that the Lord Chamberlain's licence is a guarantee against prosecution. We were also impressed by the evidence from the United States, where the degree of audacity—otherwise stated, the degree of interest—in any production is conversely proportionate to the amount of money sunk in it, simply because one cannot afford to put on a big expensive show and send it to Boston, where it may be banned and prosecuted by local enthusiasm under State law. Anything of interest in the theatre has to be done cheaply in America. We did not want to reproduce that situation in this country.

We therefore started on a second draft Bill, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the 1909 Bill and the Levy Bill in 1949. It provided for a voluntary censorship—that is, a theatre manager or playwright could send his play to the Lord Chamberlain and get a licence, in which case he would be in the same position as he is to-day, or he could put on the play without the protection of a licence. Then we had a second part of the Bill, which proposed that no prosecution should be possible against a play without a licence except by permission of a Judge in Chambers.

At this point, the Lord Chamberlain made a public announcement that he would "liberalise" himself. He said that henceforth the mere presence of a male homosexual on the stage, or the fact that homosexuality was part of the topic or thread of a play, would not be sufficient reason for the withholding of a licence. At the same moment he licensed a certain number of plays which, though not dealing with homosexuality, dealt in a more explicit manner than usual with heterosexual matters. It seemed as if our committee had, de facto, had an effect on the situation. Therefore, we abandoned our intention to introduce a Bill and turned ourselves into a sort of watchdog committee to see how things developed. I have told your Lordships this story for two reasons—first of all, as an example of the sort of thing that happens, and, secondly, to say that I shall be more than ready to give the records of the committee's deliberations to whatever form of inquiry may be set up as a result of this debate.

Let me wind up by mentioning a popular fallacy and a logical impression, both of which seem to be false. The fallacy is that once a play has received the Lord Chamberlain's licence, under present law it is untouchable. This is not so. There is nothing in law, so far as I have been able to ascertain, which says that the play which enjoys the Lord Chamberlain's licence may not be prosecuted on grounds of obscenity or of libel or as being dangerous to public order, or on any other grounds whatever. The fact that plays which have such a licence are not prosecuted, interpreted in real social terms, means that the enthusiastic opinion which would like to prosecute that which offends it on the stage is held in check, shall we say, by the licence issued by the Lord Chamberlain's office. It need not be. It is not held in check by any legal provision whatever, simply by custom. But for myself I hope that, supposing we are to abolish theatre censorship, this enthusiasm for prosecution, which occurs largely in the Provinces, would be held in check by the custom which would develop, the custom being simply that writers should be allowed to write what they want, and actors should be allowed to act what they want—in other words, the custom of freedom.

That brings me to my second point, which is that I very much hope that the first inquiry to be made by the Select Committee, or the Royal Commission, as it may be, will be what happens abroad—and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has referred to this aspect. At the time of the Theatre Censorship Reform Committee in 1958 we carried out a small inquiry into this matter, and among all the countries of the Free World about which we asked—which was most of them; or, at any rate, most of those that can claim what we are accustomed to call a culture—there was only one that we could find which had a pre-production censorship in the theatre. That was Spain. I think that most noble Lords will agree that this is not very good company to be in a matter of this sort.

Lastly, I should like to say a word about the question of theatre clubs. It has always seemed to me quite absurd that by the payment of 5s., the lapse of 48 hours and the inscription of my name on certain forms and lists I could become incorruptible. There are many thousands of British citizens who have been declared to be incorruptible by obscenity or seditious libel, or things of that sort, simply because they have paid 5s., have waited two days and signed their name. That is what the law says at the moment. This is another of the ridiculous situations which acts against the seriousness of the art we are discussing, and, as I think, the seriousness of our society as a whole. Obviously any inquiry which may be set in being will have to address itself to this manifest absurdity, along with all the others which are queueing up for attention. I should like, in conclusion, to agree strongly with what the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, said about the common experience: that once you get into this field it is difficult to decide what should happen. It is easy to decide what should not happen. The right answer is hard to find, as we discovered in the 1958 Committee. But I have every hope that, with the skilled secretarial assistance which any Committee of inquiry having Government support may expect, the time and effort that can be put on to it, and, above all, with the inquiries abroad, we may get at least to a reasonable solution, and one worthy of the traditions of freedom in this country.

6.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for raising this subject which has given rise to a most interesting debate, during the course of which the main tenor of the speeches seems to have been that it is high time that a committee was appointed to review the question of censorship in the theatre. It certainly is an incongruous situation that nowadays plays and films should be subject to censorship, while plays on television, books, newspapers and magazines are not subject to prior censorship, but only to the criminal law. At present, we have a situation—and, indeed, we have had it for many years—that a play when performed must be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. But that same play can be published as a book without any prior licence from anyone.

As has been said, the present powers of the Lord Chamberlain are defined by the Theatres Act 1843. The Lord Chamberlain is responsible to no Government Department, his decisions cannot be questioned in Parliament, and there is no appeal from them. He need not even give any reasons—although I believe, through his courtesy, he usually does—to the playwright concerned. As the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said so rightly in his interesting speech, the position of the Lord Chamberlain as head of the Sovereign's Household can also be an embarrassing one.

Another anomoly—and this is one of the most extraordinary of all—is that, although the Lord Chamberlain is a censor, he has no control over plays written before his appointment. This could include any Restoration play, many of which, if highly amusing, are very bawdy. So really he is not a censor in the full sense of the word; he is a kind of censor with a small "c", censoring modern literature.

If we consider hooks, we remember that the recent trend of the law is that a novel must now be judged as a whole. It is considered in the courts. It cannot be banned for isolated passages. Yet the stage censor can ban single sentences and isolated words, and quite often these are words that are common currency in real life. Even more objectionable, in my view, is the way the Lord Chamberlain's Office attempts to restrict comment on religion and politics, and even sometimes attempts to control opinion. This should not be its function. Recently the Royal Shakespeare Company put on a serious play about the war and the background of a public figure, who by then had been dead for several years. The licence to perform it was only granted if along with that another point of view was printed in the programme. Yet this same play can be purchased as a book without this proviso. What should we say if the Home Office threatened to prosecute a publisher for publishing a biography critical of a public figure, who was then dead, unless that publisher withdrew the book and added an appendix giving another point of view?

Like my noble friend Lord Willis, I am an abolitionist; but, unlike him, I am an abolitionist only in theory, and not in practice. I agree that if censorship was abolished, this would place a heavy onus on theatre management. They might risk prosecution on a costly show in which they had invested a great deal of money. I concede that censorship of a kind is a certain protection to them; and, indeed, if there was no censorship, quite apart from the licence that might be the result of it, I think it might be difficult for theatre management to get backers for plays where there was an element of risk. But I agree that the time has come when the matter should be reviewed and consideration should be given to whether this is a burden which should now be removed from the Lord Chamberlain's shoulders. Possibly there is a case for some kind of voluntary censorship on the lines of British Board of Film Censors which operates in the film industry. I know that one or two noble Lords have been opposed to this for various reasons, but, while respecting their views, I am not really persuaded that there is not some case for it.

Some people trace the decline in the British drama to censorship methods. I do not know whether this is a valid argument, but the knowledge that his play must first be submitted for a licence to the Lord Chamberlain's office can, I am told, have a most inhibiting effect on the playwright, who never knows whether what he is writing, either a word, a scene or a single sentence, will get through. It is high time that the present system was revised so that the British theatre can once again begin to flower. My Lords, we have liberated the printed word; let us now liberate the theatre.

7.1 p.m.


My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for having enabled us in this House to discuss a matter of great public controversy. I believe that this is the kind of subject which your Lordships' House is particularly qualified to discuss, because we can do so without any fear of Party recriminations; and this has been a most subjective debate.

The great dramatist Henrik Ibsen wrote to his publisher, Hagel, after his play Ghosts had received a great deal of controversial notice, these words: Ghosts will probably cause some disquiet in certain circles, but if it were not to do so I should not have needed to write it. I believe that a great many of our plays, both the modern plays and the older plays which have caused controversy, have been written because the author has had a message to convey. In many cases it is an important social message, and in my opinion such plays deserve to avoid the more drastic censorship which other plays most certainly need. My own experience of the theatre has been confined to amateur dramatics, first at school, and then, just before the end of the war, by appearing in two dramatic productions at the Ministry of Information. My father had a great friend at the Ministry who introduced me to the chairman of their dramatic society, who was rash enough to ask me to appear in two of their productions, which I did. I have always had a great interest in the theatre, especially in the repertory theatre, around which most of my brief comments will be centred.

The great difficulty about this subject is who should be the Censor if, as a result of this debate, the Lord Chamberlain was relieved of his post. I should like to join other noble Lords in paying a great tribute to Lords Chamberlain throughout the years for the patient and conscientious work which they have done in what is, after all, an unenviable job. I think we are fortunate in this country to have such public-spirited people, who I know show as much impartiality as they possibly can. I think the objection to Parliament undertaking this job is two fold: first, because Parliament is busy enough as it is, particularly another place, and, secondly, because it might well be that Members of another place, who represent constituencies which have religious or social problems, might find themselves in some difficulty as regards judgment if it became known that they allowed a play of a controversial nature to go on. I think this is a difficulty which must be faced. There are no doubt Members of your Lordships' House who have the time to devote to this business; but it is an onerous business, and it means seeing a great many plays every year and passing objective judgment upon them.

Therefore, my Lords, who should do the job? I have given this question much thought, and I have discussed it with friends in the theatrical profession. This may be a loaded matter, but I feel that the theatre itself could provide its own Censor. After all, the Press Council carries out this job for the Press. It is true that they are not liable to prosecution in the event of something going wrong, but as I understand it the law of libel applies. Dealing with the theatre, in my opinion representatives of the profession, which could include members from repertory companies, producers, and many other grades in the executive and in the acting spheres, could do this job. Possibly one experienced legal representative from the Lord Chancellor's Department could be briefed to advise them on legal matters. I wonder whether this is a suggestion which might be investigated. As I say, I am not professionally connected with the theatre, and therefore these are largely personal views as a suggested solution to what is undoubtedly a difficult problem.

My Lords, so far as the repertory theatres are concerned, of course no repertory theatre dare put on a really salacious, sex-ridden and sadistic production and hope not to be put out of business very soon. Here we have another real difficulty. Perhaps I may quote an example of a production put on at the Leatherhead Repertory Theatre, which is near my home, and of which I am a frequent patron. Miss Joan MacAlpine, one of our leading young theatrical authors, who has also worked in many other capacities, last year presented the first straight dramatic production of Tom Jones at the Leatherhead Theatre. I saw this production, and I was very impressed with it. In it there is a bedroom scene, where a couple are seen getting into bed. Being a club theatre, this was quite uncensored. When the play went to a theatre in Colchester, which is not a club theatre, the Lord Chamberlain insisted that this scene was altered, and it was agreed that a curtain should be put around the bed. The producer saw the Lord Chamberlain, who was extremely helpful, in an effort to get the original scene restored, and the Lord Chamberlain allowed this. The play is now on tour, possibly as a prelude to a West End run, and the original scene, as at the Leather-head Theatre, is now in evidence. I think this proves that the Lord Chamberlain is very accommodating and reasonable in matters which are submitted to him. But, at the same time, it shows up the present censorship problem.

If there is a decision to be made, in common with many other noble Lords I should rather keep to the present situation, which, with all its shortcomings, I think is the fairer one, rather than have Parliament, and still less the legal profession, taking on this job. I say this with no sense of denigration of either body, but I feel that both the law and both Houses of Parliament have quite enough to do, and I do not believe that they could carry out these vital duties with sufficient care. I end by again thanking the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for allowing us to discuss this, and I am sure that the words of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, are now eagerly awaited.

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, I must begin by apologising to your Lordships' House, and to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in particular, for my absence during his speech and most of the earlier speeches, which I very much regret, but it was due to a public engagement I was not able to defer. I do hope I shall not rehearse too many of the points already dealt with, I am sure far more eloquently and effectively, by earlier speakers.

In principle, I agree that censorship is bad. After all, the freedom of expression in a society is really a test of its maturity. It is a test of the degree of tolerance that we are prepared to show, and in particular I think it involves the willingness to accept that other people are no more likely to be corrupted by public displays of which we disapprove than we are ourselves. Are we a mature society in this sense? I should very much like to think that we are, but I rather doubt it. I for one, would think that we cannot extend in the present state of our society an absolutely unfettered scope to public performances, because I think this would provoke such furious reactions in many quarters that things would be likely in the end to be rather worse, if not much worse, than they are at present.

So far as the drama is concerned, I think everybody responsible for putting on a play would feel himself subject to a great many pressure groups which unfortunately operate in this and similar matters, and it would soon become apparent that nobody would be prepared to take a serious commercial risk in putting on a show or play which might arouse the disapproval of what some of Her Majesty's Judiciary describe in other connections as "right-thinking people". Of course, with all respect to the present Lord Chamberlain, whose contribution to this debate I await, as I am sure we all do, with great interest, the position is a little absurd, that a court official whose function is mainly concerned with ceremonial should be given this task of censoring stage plays. It might indeed have been more logical to retain the services of his predecessor, the so-called Master of the Revels, who protected the Royal interest by licensing plays in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

But, for all this, I think it is reasonably clear that though no doubt there are instances where criticisms can be made—and we have heard some of these this afternoon—by and large the Lord Chamberlain does, at the present time, exercise his powers in a fairly reasonable and sensible way. It is quite true that some responsible critics, such as Mr. Tynan, apparently, would like a total freedom on the stage—apparently to have even sexual orgies performed there if this were the desire of particular authors. But for my part I am a little doubtful whether the public as a whole would be anxious to support this sort of view. Logically, of course, we might argue in favour of transferring the Lord Chamberlain's office to some body which is not hampered by the historical and other associations of the present Lord Chamberlain's office. But one cannot help wondering whether this would improve matters. After all, the present censorship has learned a good deal, and it might be quite a long time before another body would develop to a point even as liberal as the present system.

Is there a case for some kind of appeal from the Lord Chamberlain's decision? Of course, the criticism is rightly raised that these powers are despotic and that the Lord Chamberlain is not accountable to anybody, and naturally the legal mind thinks in terms of some system of appeal. But one cannot help wondering whether an appeal would be valuable, because first of all you have the difficulty of saying what criteria the appeal tribunal is to apply, and is there any reason to believe it would be any more liberal than the existing censorship? Be this as it may, however, the really vital point remains, I would think, that there are many advantages in being able to obtain a prior licence to perform. Provided this power is exercised reasonably, it provides protection, not only against unreasonable prosecutions, but against attacks of narrow-minded groups and individual Mother Grundies, and I think this is a point very much appreciated by theatre managers—and not by theatre managers only.

It is said that of course we have no power of censorship of books or newspapers, and, therefore, why should we have them with plays? But I should have thought, with respect, that there is a considerable difference between reading words in private and watching a public show. After all, some censorship has been found necessary in other public media, such as the films and television. The I.T.A. exercises a sort of censorship over the commercial television companies, and the B.B.C., as a public body, exercises its own form of censorship, albeit some people take the view that this is not always adequate. However, this is a point I need not discuss.

Some people argue, why not leave it to the courts? If it is a criminal case, let there be a prosecution; and if it is not criminal, then there ought to be no restriction. I am rather doubtful whether, if the law were changed in this sense, those who argue in favour of the change would be satisfied. Neither courts nor prosecutors have shown themselves to be outstandingly liberal in their approach to such matters as obscenity, and in non-criminal matters such as anti-religious plays or matters of this kind, private unregulated censors, or possibly theatre managers themselves, would, I should have thought, soon impose a much more rigorous pruning of such plays than the relatively mild régime that we have with the present Lord Chamberlain.

But—and here I come to what I think is the really important point—that is not the whole issue. Surely, in a free society there is a case for saying that if an author wishes to assert his right to "publish and be damned", as the phrase goes, within the limits of the criminal law, and the limits which the law of defamation permits, then he ought to be entitled to do so. In this respect I think that there is a case in principle for an alternative system, one which allows, on the one hand, prior licensing which is to confer immunity, at any rate so far as the criminal law is concerned; or alternatively, a system of publishing without licence, where the author and the producer are exposed, at their own risk, to the tender mercies of prosecutors and Mother Grundies and all the other pressures to which they may be subject.

I would also suggest that the principle of freedom of expression is so important that it ought not to be left to any private individual, or any public or local authority, to launch a prosecution at will. I think that this could lead to unfair harassment of authors, as well as to a good deal of intimidation. There ought to be safeguards. Of course there may be arguments as to what safeguards should be provided. Some have argued in favour of getting the prior leave of a Judge in Chambers. With all respect to those who put forward that suggestion—and of course one entirely accepts the fact that on this, as on other matters, Judges would be completely impartial—one must accept the fact that, in a case of this kind, Judges may vary enormously in their view as to what is a proper limit of tolerance. For this reason I should have thought that this kind of safeguard would not be appropriate.

For my part, I should prefer a safeguard in the form of some committee (this is, on the footing of authorising prosecutions) set up, perhaps, by the Home Office, with a legal chairman and a number of members drawn from spheres of activity, such as drama and literature and education, of which they could be assumed to have some expert knowledge. I would have a system where no prosecution could be launched unless such a body held that it was in the public interest for a prosecution to take place. I would also submit that there is a strong case for not allowing local authorities to exercise a form of censorship under the guise of regulations which are designed to enable them to protect the safety and health of theatre audiences, which is an entirely different matter.

To introduce a scheme of this king would be an experiment in the exercise of an important freedom, which I think must be cherished in a society such as ours. The world of literature and drama, which, after all, is entitled to serious consideration, would, I think, regard this as an important advance in principle, and I should have thought that the time has come when we can safely concede this advance. It may be that the difference in practice will not be great; but I believe that anything that encourages greater tolerance and freedom of expression in our society, and does not involve any manifest threat to the social order, is deserving of the support of this House, which has recently shown so much good will towards other forms of tolerance. As your Lordships know, a Select Committee of both Houses in 1909 recommended a similar optional system to the one to which I have just referred. It is perhaps not too encouraging that no progress has been made on this suggestion in the ensuing 57 years. Surely the time has come to institute a fresh inquiry into the whole question. I therefore warmly welcome the proposed reference to a Joint Committee, and I can only hope that its deliberations may be more productive of results than those of its predecessors.

7.27 p.m.


My Lords, it is the normal convention of this House that the Lord Chamberlain does not intervene in any debate which may be controversial. The Lord Chamberlain's duties in matters concerning the theatre were, however, laid down by Parliament in the Theatres Act 1843. They are wholly separate and distinct from his duties as head of the Sovereign's Household. As this debate is solely concerned with the theatre, I hope that your Lordships will feel that it is proper for me to take part.

Naturally, I have listened to the debate with the greatest interest. In particular I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for initiating the debate, and also for his kindly references to the Lord Chamberlain's office and to myself. As a humble member of his college, may I congratulate the Provost on a balanced and thorough speech, I hope later on to cover some of the points which he raised, but here I should just like to add one note to his historical survey. On May 31, 1832, towards the end of the melancholy hundred years to which the noble Lord referred, a Select Committee was appointed to inquire into the state of the laws affecting dramatic literature. Its Report, in 1832, did the spadework for the Act of 1843—an interval between Select Committee and legislation of 11 years— absit omen ! Your Lordships will understand that it is of some personal interest to me that the chairman of that Select Committee in 1832 was my wife's great grandfather, Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

I must also thank the many noble Lords who have expressed the view that the Lord Chamberlain's office does a reasonably good job in fairly difficult conditions. From the kind remarks that have been made around the House about my predecessor and myself, I begin to feel like (I think the current phrase is) anti-hero. If it is not out of place I should like, as a comparatively new incumbent, to pay my own tribute to the staff of the office. When I took over these responsibilities from the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, who made such a helpful contribution earlier to-day, I was greatly impressed not only by their knowledge and experience, but also by their very genuine feeling and concern for the theatre. In so controversial a business one might have expected to find an atmosphere of strain and animosity. On the contrary, I found an atmosphere of easy personal contacts, of sympathetic understanding and, despite an occasional and inevitable clash, of sensible and practical give-and-take.

The noble Lord, Lord Stonham, will, of course, be stating the Government's views on the matters of policy which have been raised. It may, however, be convenient if I deal with one or two points which have been raised about the present censorship administration, since the responsibility for this administration lies, under the Act of 1843, with the Lord Chamberlain and not with any other Department of State. I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time with too many details of fact or practice. I set them out at considerable length in an interview published by the Sunday Times on April 11, 1955, copies of which are available in the Lord Chamberlain's office if any noble Lord would care to have one.

I must first join issue with the noble Lord, Lord Annan, on two small points. Despite one or two much publicised incidents a year or so ago, I do not think that the facts actually support the suggestion that the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare are, to quote his words, "most hampered by the censorship regulation". Certainly nobody admires their work more than I do—and I seem to have done a little better for them than the British Council lately. Secondly, as I think any commercial theatre manager would agree, the recent revival of drawing-room comedy, as the noble Lord put it, of "the language and wit of Wilde, Maugham or Coward" is due to box office considerations and not to the action of my Department. If the noble Lord thinks that we impose the language of gentility and prevent racy and vigorous language (which, in his words, is often in more general use in this House) he cannot have read and seen as many plays as I have in the past three years.

If I might presume to correct the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor (I do not know whether it is in order to do so), he made a point which I know is often made, that serious plays got worse treatment than humorous and comic plays. He instanced homosexual treatment in a serious play and in a music-hall. I must say that the music-hall would lie outside my responsibility, and therefore the Question would not arise. I know that that is a complaint that is often made. It is a point we try to take into consideration, but it is frequently a very difficult one. The noble Viscount, Lord Norwich, is not now in his place. I was going to thank him for what he said. But, at the same time, I would say that there is some importance—and Perhaps I may stress this—in the phrase he quoted and disputed, that I said that a Lord Chamberlain likes to see himself more as a licensing authority than as a censoring authority. I believe that it is his licensing functions which give the theatre so much certainty and protection and on which so much stress has been laid to-day. They are at least as important as his censoring functions and it has always been my objective, and I know it has been that of my predecessors, to license where possible and only to censor where one has to.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St. Albans spoke about religious matters, and I shall be touching upon some of them a little later in my speech. May I now say a word at this stage about the play A Man Dies? I found this a particularly difficult case since I have never doubted that it is a reverent and sincere play, and could be helpful to a modern audience. The trouble is that, once representation of Christ on the stage is allowed, it becomes extremely difficult to draw the line. Furthermore, as the right reverend Prelate agreed, even with the same script, what is reverent and sincere in one production can become the reverse in another—and once a script is licensed it is difficult to control exactly where it is going to be produced. I accept that this is a problem which needs to be looked at again. I shall shortly be receiving a deputation from the Religious Drama Society to discuss this subject, and I hope that the right reverend Prelate or one of his colleagues may be on the delegation.

I come to the very forceful speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodman. I say at once that I agree with a great deal of what he said. I thought that he was absolutely right in saying that without the censorship which exists at present, particularly in matters of obscenity, things would be far more restrictive than they are to-day. He said that he could think of two or three plays which would not be running in the West End to-day if they had not had a licence from the Lord Chamberlain. I think that I could multiply that number by two or possibly three.

The noble Lord, Lord Birkett, mentioned the question of differential licences and of trying to explain what plays were suitable to certain types of theatre-goers and what plays were unsuitable. I think that he slightly deprecated the practice. I am hound to say that I think that it would give some help to theatre-goers if some managements—and some are doing it—were in general terms to suggest of a play, "This play is not suitable for general audiences", or something of that sort. That would seem to me to be a helpful line of argument. I agree with Lord Birkett in his suspicion of a proliferation of committees of experts. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, made a very robust speech and I shall be covering one or two of the points which he raised as I go along.

If I may comment on Lord Strabolgi's speech, he referred to the decline in the British theatre and suggested that the decline was in some way due to the action of successive Lords Chamberlain. If I could think that the Lord Chamberlain was responsible for the present state of the British theatre, I should be proud. I do not regard it as being in decline: I regard it as being at an extremely high level at the moment.

The noble Lords, Lord Annan and Lord Goodman, both had something to say about the play A Patriot for Me. I accept the force of the points made by Lord Goodman about foreign reactions. They are important, and I hope that they were duly taken into consideration. But there it is, the decision is mine and I have to decide. I can only say that I was very grateful to the noble Lord for taking up the matter with me, and we gave full attention to the points he put forward. It is perhaps a little misleading to say, as was said here and there at the time, that this play was banned. The facts are as follows.

In August, 1964, a script was submitted, without a production date but with a request for my reactions. A reply was sent to the effect that I felt unable to license the script without some modifications, particularly as regards two scenes. Discussions were then held between my officers and the producers, but we were eventually informed that the author did not wish to consider making any alterations, and that it had been decided to offer the play, unlicensed, to members of the English Stage Society. Subsequent to this production an approach was made to my office for reconsideration, with a view to the grant of a licence. Further correspondence took place, and it was left that the producers would discuss with the author whether any revised script could he submitted to deal with the points at issue, about which I still felt difficulty. There the matter remains. As always, we are very ready to consider any suggestions, and my objective is always to reach a position in which I feel that I can properly issue a licence.


My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord in this interesting speech, but I think that, in fairness to the author, it ought to be said that those changes, as I understand, involved the removal of at least one complete scene, apart from other very material changes. It was not a question of a young man being difficult about a few textual changes. This being said in public, I thought it right to make that observation.


I entirely agree with that, my Lords. I hope that I did not make any contrary suggestion.

In this debate, there are two main questions: should there be a theatre censorship; and, if so, who should do it? I will deal, if I may, with the second question first. As many noble Lords have said, there are practical advantages in the present set-up. Theatre managements get quick answers, and when they have got them they know where they are. Whatever his other defects, the Lord Chamberlain, by virtue of his office, is independent and has ready access to advice in any quarter. In retrospect, I feel myself that Parliament was wise, in considering these matters from time to time up till 1909, to leave things as they were as a practical and efficient, even if increasingly anomalous, arrangement. Even to-day, if I may say so, I think that the Lord Chamberlain's office gives an efficient service to the theatre and to the Public—incidentally, at very little cost.

To avoid any risk of possible misunderstanding from what I have to say later on, I should perhaps make one thing clear at this stage. So long as the present Act remains on the Statute Book, whatever may be the outcome of this debate and of deliberations in the next few months, I shall see it as my duty to Parliament to do my best both to administer the Act and to see that it is enforced. But many things have moved since 1909, and I cordially agree with those speakers who have urged that it is time for a new look. I see three main reasons for this.

First, and I think most compelling, is the development of films, broadcasting and television, and, more particularly, the increasing scope of drama in those media. It is true that different considerations apply to each medium, and that it would not be desirable or practicable to have a uniform code of censorship for them all. But, equally, it seems to me absurd that theatre censorship should now be in a completely separate compartment. Most people, as I go about the world, seem to think that I am responsible for films as well. When I tell them that I am concerned only with such plays, and that films, broadcasting and television are dealt with quite separately, I find it no easier to explain to them than to myself the logic of this arrangement.

Secondly, I personally agree with the criticism often heard, and mentioned today, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, that it is not in line with present-day thinking that these powers and responsibilities should be entrusted to any one individual without any form of policy supervision or any provision for appeal. Thirdly, there is the association of the censorship with the Crown. The link between the Court and the theatre goes back over several centuries to the days of the Lord Chamberlain's Players, but of recent years it has, I think, been bedevilled by the much-publicised controversy over censorship. I doubt whether it is wise nowadays, even if the two functions are generally recognised to be separate, that the person who for the time being is head of the Queen's Household should also bear these responsibilities.

Any censor, particularly a censor of plays is a natural target for criticism. If he can be portrayed as a dyed-in-the-wool old courtier, it all adds to the fun. I daresay, too, that it adds to the publicity and market value of the more abusive form of criticism. But abusive articles are the exception, and they tend, I think, to defeat their own ends. The bulk of recent comment in the Press has been fair and constructive, and, as has been said many times during this debate, criticism that we are too restrictive is balanced all the time by a stream of complaints, which have little publicity value and do not often see the light of day, that we are too lax. But whether criticism is sensible or silly, whether it comes from the Social Morality Council or from the avant-garde theatre, I do not feel it a happy arrangement that it should come so close to the Crown.

I conclude on a balance of arguments, that if theatre censorship is to be maintained it would be more appropriately dealt with in some other way. In saying this, I should not like to leave the House with any impression that I find this task personally distasteful. On the contrary, it is interesting and extremely enjoyable, as I think the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, will agree. One meets a number of very attractive people, one sees a great deal of theatre, and one is very well served. The difficulties and the occasional tiresomenesses have many compensations.

I turn to the other main question: should some form of theatre censorship continue, or should it be abolished? Here I do not presume to express any, as it were, official opinion as Lord Chamberlain. I speak only as an individual who has given a good deal of thought to the subject over the past three years, and who has discussed it with many people in many walks of life. The big question is obvious enough: what is the object of censorship? Broadly, through the centuries, the answer must be to prevent offence being given. Originally, when the censorship was exercised under the Royal Prerogative, it was, presumably, to protect the Court from offence. Later, when Walpole brought the question to another place, it was to protect the political figures of the time. To-day the basic philosophy, at any rate as I see it, still centres on the conception of preventing offence to individuals, to sections of the community or to the community at large.

I do not see myself as an arbiter of taste or morals on the stage. Public opinion on these matters is not static, and my objective is to move, as the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, said was his objective in his time, with the mood of the times and to keep as near as possible to the centre of public opinion. The 1843 Act referred to: Preservation of Good Manners, Decorum, or of the public Peace which leaves the field pretty wide. Otherwise, the only form of guidance I have is contained in the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1909. I think it is worth while quoting these recommendations in full. They were that plays should be licensed unless they were judged:

  1. " (a) To be indecent;
  2. (b) To contain offensive personalities;
  3. (c) To represent on the stage a living person, or any person within fifty years of his death;
  4. (d) To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
  5. (e) To conduce to crime or vice;
  6. (f) To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any Foreign Power; or
  7. (g) To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace."
These recommendations—all of which, my Lords, are concerned with offence to the community or to individuals—are over fifty years old, and they were never endorsed by Parliament. But in exercising our personal judgment, as the law requires us to do, my recent predecessors and I have kept them in our minds. We have sought to interpret them in the light of changing climates of opinion and of any advice on particular subjects or particular plays which it has seemed appropriate to take.

My Lords, I took on this office with an open mind, and with the sort of vague general suspicion of censorship which is probably shared by most of your Lordships. After three years I have come to the conclusion that, at any rate for the immediate future, some form of theatre censorship should be maintained. If there were only the question of obscenity, I should be inclined to take the risk of abolishing censorship, to let things find their own level and to leave managements to decide how far they could go without inviting prosecution. So far as obscenity goes, I am entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Goodman. I am much more concerned about some other things, particularly violence, religious questions and the offensive treatment of personalities.

In the present state of public opinion I do not think it would be generally acceptable, or indeed in the best interests of the theatre, that extreme violence, sadism and the more horrific types of crime should be allowed on the stage. To me—and, as I say, I am expressing only a personal opinion—one can acceptably go some way further in these directions on the screen. In the theatre, with its more human and direct relationship between player and audience, the limit of acceptability is reached a good deal sooner, Similarly, I believe that public opinion as a whole would not at the present time favour complete freedom in the treatment of Christianity on the stage, or offensive representation of living personalities, from the Royal Family and foreign Heads of State downwards.

If that judgment is correct, the idea of an optional censorship, under which plays could be, but need not be, submitted which at first sight is attractive and offers to theatre managements some of the protection which they now enjoy, is not the right answer. Too much offence would have been given while the processes of law were being invoked, and in many cases it might not be convenient or possible to invoke them. With respect to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, I do not myself believe that it would be an adequate solution to abandon pre-censorship of these matters and to leave them to be dealt with entirely by the law.

For the future, there are, of course, various possibilities. The line of thought which attracts me most at the moment (I put it no higher than that) is the setting up of some independent body, on lines somewhat similar to the Board of Film Censors, preferably working in close conjunction with them—although I fully accept the view of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, that precisely the same hat would not fit both heads. I entirely agree, it is scarcely necessary to say, with the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, that any body of this sort should be entirely independent of Government. But it would certainly need a great deal of independent authority and would need to have complete Government blessing and support. I should also like to echo the words of the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough: that the new body should be in a position to give simple and certain decisions for the benefit of the theatre.

But, my Lords, it is not the purpose of this debate to examine the merits and demerits of possible alternatives. That will be the task of the Select Committee if this Motion is accepted. For the reasons which I have given, I should welcome a new look at this problem, and I hope that the House will accept the noble Lord's Motion. If it does so, I trust that the Select Committee, or whatever other form of Committee may be appointed (it may be a Royal Cornmission, or a body of any other form: I express no view on the merits of one as against the other), even if its terms of reference are limited to the theatre, will continuously bear in mind the relevance of cinema, broadcasting and television. I do not believe that the problem of theatre censorship can sensibly be examined to-day in a narrow context. Finally, may I express the hope that the question will be dealt with, as it has been to-day, as a non-Party matter, and will be handled as speedily as possible? I can assure the House that the resources and experience of my department will be fully at the disposal of a Select Committee—and, indeed, of any body which may subsequently be charged with any of these responsibilities.

7.55 p.m.


My Lords, at the end of a long debate, and as the last speaker, I feel, in terms of the theatre, somewhat like the boy who stood on the burning deck when almost all but he had fled; and, again in terms of the theatre, some of the players appear to have been killed off in the second act, and have no doubt retired to the green room. But if so, my Lords, they have missed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, which has been extremely enlightening and has greatly eased my own problems.

I should like to join in the general chorus of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Annan, for initiating this most interesting and important debate—a debate which could have been staged only in your Lordships' House. For speakers have included the present and immediate past holder of the office of Lord Chancellor; the present and immediate past holders of the office of Lord Chamberlain; the Chairman of the Arts Council; the President of the British Board of Film Censors (whom we were all glad to hear contributing a notable maiden speech—and we hope to hear him, as I am sure we shall. on many more occasions on many subjects), and a noble playwright who frequently entertains one of the largest mass audiences in the country. To me, the most remarkable thing is that all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate appear to have combined in saying to the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold—and, indeed, they have said it with a degree of delicacy unimaginable elsewhere—"We do not like what you do, but we admire the way you are doing it ". They have also said, "There is a job to be done: we do not agree precisely what job, but we do agree it is not your job". I think that is a not unreasonable summary of the general views that have been expressed.

My Lords, I think it would be not unfair to say that, in recent months, your Lordships' House has established a tradition of giving the nation a lead in dealing with difficult questions involving morality and the liberty of the subject which, for various reasons, no doubt including the pressure of business, have received little attention in another place. We have had a lead in your Lordships' House, which is being followed elsewhere, with regard to homosexuals; we are at present in the midst of dealing with the subject of abortion; and I understand, through the "grape-vine", that my noble friend Lord Willis will soon be asking us to initiate what he regards as necessary reforms with regard to Sunday Observance—


A very unhappy conjunction.


Then to-day we have been asked to take the first step towards reviewing what most of us regard as an archaic anomaly which has been left undisturbed for more than a century. I think that Lord Annan's speech illustrated just how your Lordships' House is acquiring a reputation for radical thinking, because his attack on the anomalies was incisive without being provocative, and he generously recognised the difficulties of creating a better system—and I am glad to echo his tribute, and that of others, to the work of the Lord Chamberlain and his staff.

My Lords, it is nearly sixty years since the last review of the law on this subject. The Select Committee of 1909, which has been mentioned many times in this debate, made recommendations for change which were not found acceptable and therefore the present system of censorship is still based on the Theatres Act 1843 which was itself an extension of previous Statutes and of practice reaching as far back as the early years of the 17th century. The persistence of the present system of censorship is in itself a remarkable fact. It can be ascribed to a number of causes; but one at least, I suggest, is that it has always been a good deal easier to point to the anachronisms and anomalies of the present system than to suggest what exactly, if anything, should replace it. As Lord Annan admitted in his speech, he has canvassed many opinions but has found that the sole issue on which there is general agreement is that the present arrangements should be changed. This has been borne out by the debate. By implication this indicates that the arrangements have not worked as badly as has sometimes been suggested.

All this is, I am sure, a tribute to good sense of successive holders of this great office; not least the present holder and his immediate predecessor, the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, who made such a helpful contribution to our debate this afternoon. They have together, not only in this debate but over the last thirteen years, when between them they held this office, destroyed the conception, if it ever existed, of the Lord Chamberlain as Terence Rattigan's Aunt Edna, in a coronet and pin-stripe trousers; but they gave some ground for the view of the head of the Royal Household in the position of a universal Aunt Sally. As the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, said at the conclusion of his speech: this is not a position to be desired. Nevertheless, one is bound to agree with the view expressed by Lord Cobbold that, when the system is isolated and looked at independently of the background of practice and experience, it does appear extraordinary, and perhaps unwise, that in this day censorship should still be exercised by a single individual, and he still (as in Renaissance times) the head of the Royal Household.

Clearly, it is time for the system to be re-examined. As Lord Cobbold put it, it is time for a new look. In taking that new look we have to take into account, for the purposes of comparison, the different arrangements applying to films, broadcasting and television. These new media, unknown to the Committee of 1909, have added to the arguments then canvassed concerning freedom of expression, the anomaly of maintaining an archaic system for the theatre, while related art forms are free to develop in no inhibited manner. But although the arrangements made for these other media may be relevant for the purposes of comparison to the problem presented by stage plays I do not agree that they also should be made subject to formal review. A uniform system of censorship for these different media would be neither desirable nor practicable.

It has been suggested outside this House that there should be some kind of public body to supervise the programmes provided by the B.B.C. and the I.T.A., and that the Inquiry suggested by Lord Annan should be extended to cover television. There are two broad objections to this: the constitutional and the practical. The constitutional objection is that broadcasting is conducted as a public service by two public corporations: the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. It is to the Chairman and Governors of the B.B.C. and the Chairman and members of the authority, that Parliament has entrusted the conduct of the television services; and it is in them that Parliament has consciously vested full responsibility for the content of the programmes they broadcast. Within this general responsibility, both broadcasting authorities are under certain more particular obligations. Thus, they have a duty to satisfy themselves that, so far as possible, their programmes shall not offend against good taste or decency, or be likely to encourage crime or disorder, or be offensive to the public feeling. These are matters not of fact but of taste and opinion—and especially of taste and opinion as it develops.

Certainly, mistakes are made. Many people think a recent television programme on the police was one of them; but in the presentation of matters of taste and opinion, there is bound to be criticism—unless programmes are to be such as will offend no one, and presumably interest very few. If we want lively and enterprising television, ready to experiment and to explore new areas of experience, then we must recognise that some viewers will be disturbed, and some annoyed. This is not to say that the two corporations, as trustees for the national interest in broadcasting, can be careless of people's feelings and attitudes. Rather, it is to say that they have positive responsibilities to make the most worthwhile use of the medium entrusted to them, as well as the negative ones of restraint and censorship, if I may speak as a consumer rather than as a Minister, I consider the standard of broadcasting in this country to be generally of the highest quality. It is certainly the envy of most of the rest of the world. We all sometimes see programmes which annoy, infuriate, or offend us. But we can exercise our own form of censorship, which consists of turning off the set.

The second objection to censoring material for broadcasting is a practical one—the sheer volume of the material would create difficulties and in particular, a great deal of it is unscripted and must be uncensored. For example, Mr. Kenneth Tynan's four-letter word could not have been prevented by censorship. For this practical reason, the more effective way to secure proper standards to make those responsible for producing the broadcasts responsible for the maintenance of standards in every sense of that word.

The noble Lord, Lord Harlech, covered the question of film censorship very thoroughly, and I do not think I need say any more; but we would all support his view that generally it works very well, despite the anomalies. It is a body set up and paid for by the trade; yet it has complete independence in its decisions. But, apart from the wisdom of its decisions, this may well be because of the additional safeguard that the local authorities who license cinemas can and do permit public exhibitions of films for which the Board has refused to grant a licence. Indeed, in my own recollection, as to the only film of which I have had personal knowledge of a licence being refused by the board (mistakenly, I thought, because it was a film which deliberately set out, by exposing vice, to tell a moral story), the view I then held was supported by some 100 local authorities who licensed it for exhibition. But it is a safety valve.

Certainly there has been little or no pressure for a change in the present system with regard to films, which appears to command our general support. Occasionally the Home Office receives complaints about the Board's decisions on individual films, but almost always that the Board has been too lax. The total number of complaints received over the last two years is about a dozen, which gives the idea of a fairly satisfactory pro- cedure. I note the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, nevertheless, that this method of censorship is not wholly suitable for the theatre. It is the archaic structure of the system of censorship which principally distinguishes it from others and suggests that an inquiry would be useful. I hope I have shown that it is neither necessary nor profitable to tie consideration of theatre censorship too closely to the consideration of other art forms. If we attempt to deal with the whole subject at once it will be 1909 all over again—a lot of talk and very little "do".

The basic problem in the theatre, as the noble Lord, Lord Annan, made so clear, and as my noble friend Lord Willis robustly emphasised, is the problem of freedom of speech, one of the most cherished liberties, and Parliament takes its responsibilities for safeguarding this liberty very seriously.

What emerges also is that there is a wide divergence of opinion both on what, if anything, is wrong, and on what should be done about it. During the debate suggestions have ranged from tightening up the existing controls through a variety of suggested modifications to proposals for the total abolition of control, which came from my noble friend Lord Willis, the noble Marquess, Lord Hertford, and others. Because of all these different views within the consensus of opinion that the time has come to take a new look at this, the Government accept that there should be a review of the law and practice relating the censorship of stage plays. The next question is what form that review should take. In the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, we are invited to agree to the setting up of a Joint Select Committee of members of both Houses of Parliament. The alternative would be a Committee on which experts could serve, with perhaps in addition representatives of your Lordships or of another place.

Bernard Shaw had some hard things to say about Select Committees in general, and about the 1909 Committee in particular, but as he himself once wrote: People must not be forced to adopt me as their favourite author. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, advocated a Committee of persons from outside Parliament and stated what he regarded as the advantages, thinking that it might develop into a form of Royal Commission. He emphasised that there is nothing of Party politics in this question—and I entirely agree—and he was supported by my noble friend Lord Goodman.

Nevertheless in our view this is not a question for specialists and experts. Obviously, there is no shortage of noble Lords and Members of another place with knowledge and experience of the problems of the theatre. But the difficulties of the problem lie in neither legal nor administrative complexities, and it is not just a question of literary appreciation. The Committee will not be sitting in judgment on particular plays but deciding whether there should by a system of theatre censorship and, if so, by whom it shall be carried out. The crux of the problem, therefore, is a question of values—a combination of conscience and common sense. I do not claim that we or, for that matter, the Members of another place have a monopoly of conscience or common sense, but appreciation of the one and use of the other are basically what we and they are here for—to see that the right thing is done in a sensible way.

The noble Lord's proposal for the appointment of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses to undertake the proposed review has received the support of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, of the noble Earl, Lord Scarbrough, and of the majority of noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. It also commends itself to Her Majesty's Government. I therefor invite the House to accept the Motion. I am advised that by so doing we shall be taking the first formal step in the setting up of the proposed Select Committee, so ensuring that there is no undue delay in embarking on the review which we all believe to be urgently needed. I am sure that your Lordships will join with me in wishing the members of the Committee, when they are appointed, well in their deliberations.

8.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Stonham, very much for his most gracious answer to the question I put. It is a great relief to me to hear that the Government will back the idea to set up a Joint Select Committee of both Houses. I hope that what the noble Lord said may have done something to allay any doubts which noble Lords have had on the wisdom of a Joint Select Committee being the means of dealing with this problem. I can only try to persuade the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, who I see shaking his head, by saying that it is surely a proposal which Members of your Lordships House could be said ex officio to be incompetent to deal with.


My Lords, if the noble Lord would give way for one moment, I did not suggest that any noble Lord would be incompetent to do anything or, indeed, that any Member of another place would be. But I have some experience of the operation of Joint Select Committees, and while I recognise the good work they can do, I should have thought that here there is room first for an inquiry, independent of Parliament, by people who could report to Parliament; then if need be a Joint Select Committee might serve.


My Lords, I am afraid I cannot accept that suggestion. It seems to me to be another instance of the noble and learned Viscount's great ability to produce delaying tactics where a matter of reform is concerned.


My Lords, the noble Lord really should not say that. If he had listened to my speech he would have heard that I am in favour of a review. I supported him. I do not wish to delay, but I wish to get a really workable reform and it was to that end that I made this suggestion. I rather resent the noble Lord suggesting that I wished to delay something which I advocated.


My Lords, I am not entirely prepared to withdraw what I have just said. Although, of course, the noble and learned Viscount said he was in favour of reviewing this matter, I did detect more reluctance on his part than on the part of some other noble Lords, precisely in the way I have suggested.


My Lords, there was no reluctance on my part. If he thought that was intended or if he got that impression, I can only assure the noble Lord that he is entirely wrong. I thought I made it clear—as he can see if he looks at Hansard—that I support his Motion. I said clearly in terms but I had my doubt about whether this was the appropriate body. The noble Lord should not seek to represent that I am seeking delay by suggesting an independent Committee for a reform which I had supported.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount, and of course I unreservedly accept that that was not his intention.

At this late hour I certainly should not be doing what your Lordships wished by answering every individual Member of the House who has so kindly taken part in this debate. I can only express my gratitude to those who have spoken and, in particular, to the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for a notable maiden speech, to which he brought not only the long experience of speaking in another place, but also the wisdom and distinction of mind which we associate with his mission to Washington from which he has recently returned. I should wish to say words of thanks to many noble Lords, but perhaps I may single out the brilliant and fascinating paradoxical speech, in some ways, of the noble Lord, Lord Goodman, who has obviously given great thought to these problems.

In particular, I should wish to refer to the Lord Chamberlain and his predecessor, and to assure the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, that the only thing that I in any way regretted in his speech was his obvious feeling that in some cases he had to give an explanation to the House of certain decisions that he had taken. I am sure it was not in the minds of any of your Lordships to question decisions which he had taken on a personal basis. Those decisions, of course, arose from the 1843 Act and the way it was interpreted

Court Dangerous, Careless Driving Long Cases Other Police Informations Public Authority Informations Domestic Cases Other Private Informations and Complaints
Balham 5 3 5 5 6 6
Bow Street 6 6 6 6–8 8 5–6
Clerkenwell 5–6 1–4 4 4 4 3–4
Greenwich 7–8 4–5 8–9 3–4 3–4 3–4
Hampstead 4 4 3–4 3–4 3 3
Lambeth 2 2 2 4 4 1–2
Marlborough Street 4 2 4 4 3 3
Marylebone 6 3–4 3–4 6 5 6
North London 11 5 9 4 3
Old Street 6 5 6 4–5 7 4
South Western 5 2 4 4–5
Thames 8 2–3 7 7 6 9
Tower Bridge 5–6 5–6 4–5 5–6 3–4 4
West London 4 2 5 4–5 6 5–6
Woolwich 6 5–6 5 4 4 4

in the light of the recommendations of the Select Committee of 1909, I hope the noble Lord recognises the affection which many of us feel for him personally, and our appreciation of the difficulties that he faces in his job.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Ordered, That a Message be sent to the House of Commons to acquaint them therewith, and to desire their concurrence.