Censored! Stage, Screen, Society at 50 was a free exhibition cunningly hidden somewhere in the fascinating labyrinth that is the third floor of the V&A Museum. The exhibition, which ended on Sunday, marked the 50-year anniversary of the 1968 Theatres Act, a piece of legislation which abolished state censorship of the stage in Britain. A one sentence disclaimer carefully marked the prospective visitor’s entry into an uncensored history of adult themes.
A series of insightful videos, documents and texts were artfully strewn throughout the lone exhibition room. These items traced the progression of media censorship from seventeenth century theatre to modern day film. Controversial works such as A Clockwork Orange, a film initially withdrawn from cinemas by its concerned director; and Saved, a work known by some as “the baby-stoning play” were included; alongside Shopping and Fucking, a play which was never officially banned (although one document noted that four people left after the “fucking” scene). It just goes to show that media-related moral panics are hardly a modern concept. Although censorship may no longer be state controlled in the UK, it is still a matter of constant debate within various regulatory bodies.
My personal favourite of the shocking exhibition items on display was an OZ magazine obscenity trial badge, which featured a sexually explicit Rupert Bear. To give a little context, the OZ obscenity trial was a legal situation which arose after a late-sixties counterculture magazine allowed teenagers to edit a now infamous “School Kids” issue. The result featured, amongst other things, lesbianism on the front cover, and a playful depiction of Rupert Bear having sex with a cartoon character known as “Gypsy Granny”. When this issue fell into the hands of the Obscene Publications Squad, it launched the censorship trial of the century and all three of Oz’s co-editors were found guilty on obscenity charges. Indeed, I simply had to capture this bizarrely adult portrayal of my father’s favourite childhood bear on camera.
The exhibition ended with a large print of the classic theatrical mask duo: one mask had its tongue snipped off, and the other was gagged. This delightfully gruesome imagery was accompanied by a video of satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who was commissioned to create the design concept.
Interviews with creatives and scholars on topics of controversy in theatre and cinema were also scattered throughout the exhibition. Generally speaking, the only complaint I had by the exhibit’s end was the lack of seating. However, despite my sore feet, I was intrigued, amused and keen to learn more.
It would’ve been particularly interesting to explore this realm of controversy in TV, a medium which remained largely undiscussed in the exhibition, perhaps due to how quickly the industry is being shaped by modern streaming platforms. The controversy surrounding the explicit portrayal of suicide in 13 Reasons Why, and the seemingly unending popularity of real-life serial killers, both on Netflix and in cinemas, raise interesting ethical questions that the average viewer encounters on a daily, albeit almost unconscious, basis. Whether it’s through startling fictional narratives, the proliferation of “fake news”, or the ongoing institutional debate regarding the issue of free speech, censorship is an ever-present topic in modern day life, and the relevance of the Theatre Act and its subsequent impact is still worth reflecting on today.
Words, Hazel Meades
Images, V&A Museum