Uncovering censorship in the V and A Theatre and Performance Archives

Archives Hub feature for September 2018

On the 9th July 2018, the V&A Theatre and Performance Department opened a new display in our galleries titled Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50The display commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Theatres Act, which abolished state censorship of the British stage. As well as tracing the broader 300-year history of stage censorship, the display also looks at the censorship of music, film and print in the UK.

Uniquely for one of our displays, much of the material is taken from our collection of almost 500 named archives that form the V&A Theatre & Performance Archives. A significant portion of these are catalogued on the Archives Hub website, and all can be consulted by appointment in our Reading Room at Blythe House in London.

Poster for The Arts & Censorship gala at the Royal Festival Hall, 1968.
Poster for The Arts & Censorship gala at the Royal Festival Hall, 1968.                              Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Museum no. S.2054-1995].
Telling a story of censorship

Censorship is a story shaped by legal documents and correspondence. Its battles were often fought on paper and were won and lost through Parliamentary Acts.

Patent for Theatre Royal Drury Lane, issued by Charles II to Thomas Killigrew, 1662.
Patent for Theatre Royal Drury Lane, issued by Charles II to Thomas Killigrew, 1662. Credit: On loan from the Really Useful Theatres Group. Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, courtesy of Really Useful Theatres [Museum no. LOAN:USEFUL.1-2000].
This meant that the core of the display had to be taken from the rich resource of company, theatre and individual archives which are comprised of these letters, licenses and administrative records.

Curatorially, we considered the challenges of presenting archives carefully:

  • We wished to avoid overwhelming the visitor with paperwork;
  • To select key documents which could communicate both a specific example and the overarching narrative of censorship;
  • Balance a paper-driven aesthetic with colour and innovative exhibition design

We carried out rigorous research, and found fantastic theatre designs, posters and photographs which equally contributed to the narrative of the display. We were also lucky to work with political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who created a special commission for the display, as well as leading graphic designers Barnbrook who conceived the display design concept.

Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50 display, Theatre and Performance Galleries, Copyright V&A Images.
Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50 display, Theatre and Performance Galleries, Copyright V&A Images.

There were obvious important examples of censorship that we wanted to include, such as the play Saved by Edward Bond. This was performed as a private ‘club performance’ at the Royal Court Theatre after it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain for its violence and profanity.

In the English Stage Company / Royal Court Archive, it was fantastic to find correspondence from Edward Bond to the Lord Chamberlain refusing to make alterations, as well as a handwritten note written by a theatre staff member recording a conversation with a police officer who came to investigate the illicit performances.

Lord Chamberlain’s alterations to Saved by Edward Bond, 1965.
Lord Chamberlain’s alterations to Saved by Edward Bond, 1965.  Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Archive ref: THM/273].
There were also surprising discoveries within named archives. Joan Littlewood of Theatre Workshop had directed a semi-improvised play You Won’t Always Be On Top in 1958. She was prosecuted for producing a show which did not have a script for inspection by the Lord Chamberlain.

We discovered a letter in the Vivien Leigh Archive which Littlewood had written to the actress to ask for her public support. Leigh and husband Laurence Olivier were vocal supporters of the removal of censorship, and Littlewood was successfully defended in court. As well as this letter, we were also generously allowed to display photographs of the production from the Theatre Royal Stratford East Archive.

Letter from Joan Littlewood to Vivien Leigh, 1958.
Letter from Joan Littlewood to Vivien Leigh, 1958.  Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Archive ref: THM/433].
The display also features a section on OZ magazine, which was the subject of a notorious obscenity trial in 1971 for the publication of its Schoolkids Issue. This was edited by children and featured a depiction of Rupert the Bear in a sexually explicit scenario. The successful defence of the magazine’s editors was a ground-breaking testament of an increasingly liberalised culture.

The acquisition of the Felix Dennis / OZ magazine archive in 2017, with the assistance of the Art Fund, provided with us with fascinating material for display. Not only tracing the creative process, including paste-up boards by Martin Sharp, the archive also contains a wealth of material relating to the trial and the magazine editors’ supporters, including flyers for benefit concerts, badges and a fundraising record by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

‘God Save Oz’ charity record by Apple Records, 1971.
‘God Save Oz’ charity record by Apple Records, 1971.  Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London [Archive ref: THM/497].
As well as these examples, we also drew material from our core collection of Production Files, and images from our extensive photographic collections, including the Douglas Jeffery Archive. The Arts Council of Great Britain Archive also provided valuable documents relating to recent productions that had been the target of protest or loss of funding.

Production photograph of The Romans in Britain, National Theatre, 1980.
Production photograph of The Romans in Britain, National Theatre, 1980.            Credit: Douglas Jeffery. Image copyright: © Victoria and Albert Museum [Archive ref: THM/374/1/2283/5].
This a small selection of the fascinating stories uncovered in the archives and now on display. Visit in person to listen to a playlist of banned songs, hear interviews from leading practitioners and cultural critics, and contribute towards the debate ‘what is censorship?’.

Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50 is open until 27th January 2019.

Harriet Reed, Assistant Curator
V&A Theatre and Performance Department
Victoria & Albert Museum

Browse all V&A Theatre and Performance Archives collections on the Archives Hub.

Previous features by V&A Theatre and Performance Archives:

The D’Oyly Carte Archive, October 2016

Curtain up! The Theatre and Performance Collections at the V&A, 2011

All images copyright the Victoria and Albert Museum and reproduced with the kind permission of the copyright holders.

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