HL Deb 24 February 1970 vol 308 cc37-41

4.15 p.m.

VISCOUNT NORWICH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government: Whether, in view of the fact that no charges have been preferred against anyone, and no proceedings have been issued for forfeiture, the police will now return the print of the film Flesh which they seized on Tuesday, February 3; and if not, on what grounds they justify its continued retention. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I should like, if I may, to take up a few minutes of your Lordships' time to tell you a little (some of your Lordships may know it already) about the Open Space Theatre from which the film was seized three weeks ago, and about the events of the night of February 3.

The Open Space is an experimental theatre club—what in New York would be called an "off-Broadway" theatre— which exists in order to put on worth-while plays which, for one reason or another, have little popular appeal and, but for establishments like the Open Space, and several others, would probably never see the light of day at all. As such, I think it performs an extremely useful service to the artistic life of this country, and I am delighted to see that this contribution has been recognised in the form of a £1,500 grant from the Arts Council. It also appears that recently the results of this theatre have gone beyond our own shores, because in the last week or two it has received invitations to take its production of Macbeth—which I have no hesitation in saying is the most exciting and intriguing performance of Macbeth that I have ever seen—to both the Rome Festival and the Holland Festival.

Until last month, the Open Space had never shown a film. It did so, ironically enough, because of the intervention of the Secretary of the British Board of Film Censors, Mr. John Trevelyan. Mr. Trevelyan was shown the film to which my Question relates, Flesh, by the American film maker, Andy Warhol. He decided, understandably, that it was not the sort of film that was suitable for public release for the local Odeons. He did, however, see considerable merit in it, and he suggested to the distributors that they should approach the Open Space with a view to having it shown there. The Open Space agreed to do this. The film ran for three weeks without, so far as could be seen, causing any annoyance. Then, on the evening of February 3 the police swoop occurred. By that time the film had been seen not only by a great many members of the Open Space Club but also by all the principal theatre critics of the leading London newspapers. Dilys Powell of the Sunday Times wrote of the film chat it, is often funny, sometimes pathetic, and once when the handsome naked boy plays with his baby and feeds her, warm, delicate and pretty ".

Miss Margaret Hinxman of the Sunday Telegraph described the film as: intermittently amusing, sad and quite moving. Finally, another lady reviewer, Miss Charlotte Jennings, said that the film, is neither sordid nor snotty. There: is no feeling to laud or condemn. It leaves me with a sense of peace.

My Lords, a sense of peace was not what anybody else had at half past seven on the night of February 3, and I think I can do no better than tell your Lordships what happened that night in the words of Miss. Thelma Holt, who is the executive director of the Open Space. She says: On the evening of February 3, 1970, at approximately 7.30 p.m., a police superintendent and thirty-two constables and plainclothesmen stormed into the Open Space, … seized the copy of Andy Warhol's Flesh, which had been playing here for three weeks, and proceeded to confiscate our projector, screen and sound-equipment. At the time, the superintendent informed the theatre's directors that the seizure was being made under the Obscene Publications Act 1959. The following day, … we were obliquely informed that the offence was not 'obscenity' but infringement of licensing laws. The day after that it was implied that the real offence was violation of fire regulations. Here I may interject: if this were so, one wonders whether 32 policemen were really necessary. She goes on: Towards the end of that week, after consultations between solicitors and the police, is was darkly hinted that we were suspected of being concerned in a 'conspiracy to defraud' —although it was never made clear whom we were defrauding of what, and by what means…. We are still uninformed as to the charges that may be brought against us. The books, letters, records and accounts seized along with the copy of Flesh, are still being kept.

The distributor of the film, who was present at the Open Space that evening, immediately telephoned Mr. John Trevelyan, who came round in a taxi to try to minimise the effect of what was occurring. But he failed, I am afraid, to do any good. Meanwhile, it was three days before the Open Space were even able to recover their file cases and card indexes with the names and addresses of their members, many of whom they had immediately to communicate with to send back the money that had already been paid in advance bookings.

This leads me, my Lords, to the second question that arises: the amount of money that the Open Space have lost through this seizure. The film was to run for another two weeks. Not only did the Theatre lose all the income that would have accrued from those two weeks; they were put to very considerable secretarial expense. They also had to continue to pay the expenses of extra rehearsal space which they had rented, since they were preparing their future presentation and they anticipated that their theatre would be used in the evenings. Subsequently they found that they did not need the additional rehearsal space, although they would have to continue to pay for it. All this is to say nothing of the mental and nervous strain of not knowing where they stood; not knowing what charges, if any, were to be preferred against them. They estimate that they have lost something in the nature of £600; that is to say, very nearly half the grant made to them this year by the Arts Council. The distributors of the film calculate that they have lost roughly the same amount of money.

I know that the police have a difficult job to do—it has become almost a cliché to say so—and they are doing it in extremely difficult and trying circumstances. I also agree that it is our duty to help them. But, as I pointed out last week, when they set themselves up as guardians of public morals the effects are almost invariably disastrous. As we all know, within half a mile of the Open Space Theatre in Soho, there are "strip clubs", "clip joints" and pornographers galore. If any swoop had to be made— and I am not saying that one did—surely such places as these would have been better targets. I am well aware that the police have not in this matter infringed any regulations: they are perfectly within the law. We have looked up the laws, and I understand that they can hold on to this film for a year, if they wish, without preferring charges. But there are occasions when justice and the law do not march quite so hand in hand as one would like to think, and I believe that this is one of those cases. Surely it is common justice and fairness that if the authorities are going to prefer any charges, they should inform the Open Space as quickly as possible of what those charges are.

Meanwhile, my Lords, the Open Space, who have, as I said, received invitations to travel in May to Rome and Holland, do not even know whether they can accept those invitations. They do not know whether they will be in gaol by then. They know nothing. The film Flesh lasts for an hour and a half. Surely it does not take three weeks to discover whether or not it is obscene, and whether or not proceedings are going to be taken. If no proceedings are going to be taken, I hope that it will be possible for the police to return as quickly as they can a film which, if they had thought about it a little more, or if they had been better advised, they would never have taken in the first place.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, I indicated earlier to the noble Viscount that I thought it would probably be better if this matter was not raised this afternoon. I appreciate the reasons for the concern which he has expressed to us, but I say again that it is a little piemature to raise it at this time. It is true that no charge has been preferred or other action taken. But, as was said on February 19 in another place, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has sought the advice of the Director of Public Prosecutions about possible offences relating to licensing and obscenity.

That remains the position, and in view of that it would be inappropriate for me, or indeed for others, to comment until a decision has been reached. If there is a prosecution and we debate the matter now, then surely we are in danger of prejudicing the case. It is therefore my duty to advise the House that it would be better not to discuss this matter further at the present stage. If noble Lords agree to that, and will leave further discussion for the time being, I undertake for my part, to answer any other Question or to make another Statement as soon as possible, or to let the noble Viscount know personally what decision has been taken. I hope that a decision would be taken certainly before Easter, and indeed within the next few days.