A talent to amuse (and offend): English theatre is not cuddly — it’s often crude

A kind of domino-theory applies here:

Act ye ffirste:

Sheridan Morley (one of the near-greats, himself) entitled his biography of Noël Coward, A Talent to Amuse. Which Coward certainly possessed in abundance.

Coward also came with a very waspish tongue:

There are bad times just around the corner,
The horizon’s gloomy as can be,
There are black birds over
The greyish cliffs of Dover
And the rats are preparing to leave the BBC …

That, apparently, dates from The Globe Review of 1952 (and a Columbia recording 78, DB3107); but I hear in it an echo of Auden and Isherwood ‘funking’ off to New York in January 1939. Vera Lynn trilled Walter Kent and Nat Burton (two good new York Jewish lads who’d obviously never seen any blue bird near the Kent coast) in 1942.

Not to mention the sardonic humour involving the recently-widowed Mrs Wentworth-Brewster.

Noël got away with his saucier stuff because it was between consenting, well-heeled adults in private clubs. Hoi-polloi received a toned-down version.

Act ye seconde:

That somehow emerged from reading The Guardian‘s obituary of Glynn Edwards (Dave the Barman in The Winchester Club of Minder). In particular this:

He also appeared in Littlewood’s production of Lionel Bart’s musical version of Frank Norman’s play Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be, opposite Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor. When the stage production transferred to TV, Edwards recalled, some of Bart’s riper lines (such as “Once in golden days of yore/Ponces killed a lazy whore”) were suppressed.

Remember the essential conceit of the play is chancers, crooked cops, tarts and their pimps, off-duty, in a 1950s basement club. Even after the transfer to the West End (886 performances at the Garrick Theatre), the actual delivery changed from night-to-night, not just because that was Joan Littlewood’s improv style, but — more important — in 1960 the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship (see below) still ran.

The bowdlerisation of decent filth became total when Max Bygraves turned the title-song into well-scrubbed pop. Look far enough and one may find an ‘original cast recording‘, with Alfred Marks and Joan Heal doing that lyric. Pasty chalk and very whiffy cheese.

Act ye thirde:

A few weeks ago I spent some days touristing in a van. The other inmates included three teenage girls from Noo Joisy, who knew, and belted out, their better-known lyrics from Hamilton. Since then I’ve seen the UK production: it may — just may — have had some rough edges sanded smooth. Even so (and get the full opener here), there’s something illuminating, and even chilling when 15-year-old girls (one my grand-daughter) are bellowing:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar? …

And more.

Act ye fourth:

  • Where was I on the evening of 26 September 1968?
  • At the theatre in Colchester (not the new Mercury Theatre), allegedly overseeing a group of sixth-form boys, for a performance of Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.
  • How do I know?
  • Because that was the day the Lord Chamberlain’s theatrical censorship (see above) was abolished, by the Theatres Act, 1968.
  • And, predictably, the actor playing Grusha Vashnadze marked the occasion by whipping out her boob.

Act ye laste:

None of this ought to phaze me.

I spent five decades delivering the saucier bits of Chaucer and Bill Shagsper to impressionable young minds, always trying to measure the distance from what is on the page (with the back row of hard men, once they’d sniffed which way the wind blew, way ahead of me) to what is acceptable to adolescents and near-adults.

And I’ll tell all-comers: the stuff fed to these tender years is filth. Filth, I tell ‘ee!

Romeo and Juliet? My memory is that was Gove’s first selection for his up-graded English syllabus. I guess he hadn’t fully appreciated the character of Mercutio. The tone of the play is set by that opening exchange:

SAMPSON: A dog of the house of Montague moves me.
GREGORY: To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand: therefore, if thou art moved, thou runn’st away.
SAMPSON: A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.
GREGORY: That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.
SAMPSON: True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall.
GREGORY: The quarrel is between our masters and us their men.
SAMPSON: ‘Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads
GREGORY: The heads of the maids?
SAMPSON: Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.
GREGORY: They must take it in sense that feel it.
SAMPSON: Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.
GREGORY: ‘Tis well thou art not fish; if thou hadst, thou hadst been poor John. Draw thy tool! here comes two of the house of the Montagues…

I trust you were catching and counting the knob-jokes there.

Just when we’ve navigated past that, we run into Juliet (‘not fourteen’), as her mother tells her—

think of marriage now …
The valiant Paris seeks you for his love. […]
So shall you share all that he doth possess,
By having him, making yourself no less.

With the of-the-earth, earthy Nurse intervening (lest we miss that insinuation):

No less! nay, bigger; women grow by men.

And we’ve got the Queen Mab speech (II.iv) still ahead.

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