Saturday, 5 May 2012

399: The Romans in Britain

“The Romans in Britain” was a play by Howard Brenton first staged in 1980 by the National Theatre. The play alternates between contemporary English troops in occupied Ireland, and the titular Romans in Britain as a study in imperialism and violence. The fact that all the ancient Celts appeared on stage naked was enough to raise a few hackles. But newspapers took a lot more interest in the scene in which a Celtic druid is raped by Roman troops.

Michael Heath
“Punch”, 29 October 1980
An opportunity for a little-same sex explains all these rather fey, twinkly-eyed persons on stage in a quasi-S&M scenario.

The play would probably have faded in the nether realm where most theatrical productions reside with just a few more sniggers given the sexual aspects and a little more outrage than usual given its pro-Irish independence theme. However it really hit the headlines due to the activities of censorious religiously motivated prude and all-around screw-face Mary Whitehouse. Never knowingly without sand in her vag, though Whitehouse knew nothing about politics (the subtleties of rape as a metaphor passed over her head with a sonic boom), she knew filth when she heard about it. If the depiction of sodomitical intercourse between men on stage wasn’t filth then nothing was. The self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals didn’t go see the play, but did send one of her minions to attend a showing. He reported he had seen one of the actors insert his penis into another actor's rear. Despite Whitehouse’s urgings the Director of Public Prosecutions said no legal action would be taken, so Whitehouse initiated her own private prosecution against the director for having "procured an act of gross indecency” contrary to the Sexual Offences Act of 1956 – the same law used against cottaging.

Not the Nine O’Clock News, 1981
(First half is a parody of the somewhat raunchy dance troupe “Hot Gossip”, a few of whose members were fairly obviously gay. Here you can you see Rowan Atkinson, Griff Rhys-Jones and Mel Smith as “The Nancy Boys” swishing about to Blondie’s “Atomic” as some rather bored dancers more than just a little cheesed off with their lithe female colleagues tarting it about – whereas real gay dancers would probably try to outshine the females and hog the spotlight. This is closer to the cliche of male ballet dancers bored and envious of the attention given to then women).
Starts at 1.18
The play makes the perfect occasion for an “I’ll be buggered if I go out there” joke.

The trial went around with terrible consequences for the accused if found guilty. The prosecution though had only one witness, the minion who had reported to Whitehouse. His evidence was that he had seen a penis penetrate. Upon questioning it was revealed that he had purchased a cheap seat at the rear of the audience making him unreliable, so that he had not seen what had really happened on stage - the actor had in fact simply made a fist with his thumb sticking out and mimed penetration.

“Punch” 2 September 1981

The presiding judge said the case could still continue on the Act's grounds of obscenity as the tendency to deprave or corrupt, but then Whitehouse’s lawyer refused to proceed and the case collapsed in an unprecedented manner. Both sides claimed victory, although since she was the party who initiated a £40,000 law case on the basis of an obscured thumb, you can’t help but feel Whitehouse looks the more foolish.

Mile Kington, “The Times”, 24 Mar. 1982

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