Thirty years ago this month, a new play opened in London’s National Theater that was to change legal and theatrical history. Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain contrasted Julius Caesar’s Roman invasion of Celtic Britain with the Saxon invasion of Romano-Celtic Britain, and finally Britain’s involvement in Northern Ireland during The Troubles of the late 20th century. Epic in scale, Brenton’s intelligent analysis of the effects of imperialism was sidelined when The Romans in Britain became center of a farcical court trial over a simulated act of buggery.
The son of a Methodist minister, Howard Brenton was born in Porstmouth in 1942, educated at Chichester High School, and at Cambridge University, where he won the Chancellor’s Gold Medal for poetry. In 1965, he wrote his first play Ladder of Fools, described as an “Actable, gripping, murky and moody: how often can you say that of the average new play tried out in London, let alone of an undergraduate’s work.”
A highly talented and original writer, Brenton quickly proved he was unafraid to investigate controversial or contentious political subjects. His first big success as a playwright was Christie in Love (1969), which examined the public’s fascination with murderers through the life of John Christie, who had murdered at least 6 women at his home, 10 Rillington Place. The play opened with a monster-like Christie rising from beneath a grave of torn newspapers, and then masturbating in front of the audience. His next Brassneck (1973) followed the rise of an inner city family over thirty years, from radical politics to drug dealing. While The Churchill Play (1974) questioned the rise of state security against individual liberty, and opened with a dead Churchill rising from his catafalque in Westminster. The play briefly caused a national scandal, as it questioned Churchill’s actions as a political leader. Brenton followed this with Weapons of Happiness, an examination of a factory strike in London. In 1977, he was then commissioned to write The Romans in Britain.
Commissioned by Sir Peter Hall, director of the National Theater, a key establishment figure and founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who formed an odd collaboration with the left-leaning, libertarian Brenton. The key to their relationship was Hall’s genuine respect for Brenton, and his belief that playwrights should deal with contemporary political issues, in particular, at that time, the situation in Northern Ireland. To direct the production, Hall brought in Michael Bogdanov, a young, imaginative director, known for his acrobatic and physical productions for the RSC.
It was soon apparent that a key scene in the play would be troublesome. This scene centered on the anal rape of a native Celt called Marban, by a Roman centurion, played by actors Greg Hicks and Peter Sproule. The action was symbolic, but its effect was literal. Both actors bravely agreed to play the scene naked, and it was decided that Sproule, as the rapist centurion, would grasp his penis and extend his thumb to simulate an erection. He would then jab at Hicks’ behind in a simulation of sodomy. During rehearsals word went out that alleged hardcore sex was being performed by the actors under Bogdanov’s direction. This led to a planned boycott by the theater’s ushers. To stop this, Bogdanov invited the ushers, and any other concerned parties, to an open rehearsal. Beer was suppled and the audience gave the performers and their scene overwhelming approval - a literal thumbs up, one might say.
In October, The Romans in Britain opened to mixed reviews, ranging from a disparaging “These ignoble Romans are a national disgrace” in Now magazine, to discussions of the play’s political content. Only one thing remained constant, the shock of the rape scene. Its effect was later compared to that of the news of John F Kennedy’s assassination.
Tipped off by a journalist, Mary Whitehouse, a busy-body President of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, an unrelenting campaigner for censorship, who wanted anything distasteful (i.e. that she didn’t like) off TV screens, raised her concern that the play would “over stimulate” men and incite them to bugger young boys. Though she refused to see the play herself, as she was too frightened it would lead to the “corruption of her soul”, she requested the Metropolitan Police to examine whether the play was “an offence against the Theaters Act of 1968” which outlawed performances “likely to deprave or corrupt.” After a brief investigation, the Attorney General, Lord Havers, decided there was no case to answer. But Mrs. Whitehouse didn’t agree and discovered that a private prosecution could be brought against the director on grounds that he had “procured an act of gross indecency by Peter Sproule with Greg Hicks on the stage of the Olivier Theater,” a law intended to stop men wanking in lavatories.
On the night of 19 December 1980, a rather non-descript man appeared at the stage door of the theatre to see Bogdanov. The man smiled and held out what appeared to be a piece of paper. Thinking he was an autograph-hunter, Bogdanov readily approached, only to have a writ stuffed into his palm. The man was Graham Ross-Cornes, Whitehouse’s solicitor. Brenton later described what happened:
Bullied by Whitehouse, the police visited the National’s production of The Romans in Britain three times. They found there were no grounds, under the laws that govern public decency in entertainment, to prosecute. Everything went quiet. The play was doing well, the production was getting better and better. Then one night Michael Bogdanov, the director, and I were having a celebratory drink with the actors in the green room. Peter Hall had just extended the play to a second season. A call came: someone was at the stage door for Michael. It was Whitehouse’s solicitor with a writ. Wham! The strobe lights were blasting at us again.
Whitehouse’s lawyers had spent a couple of months going through the laws of Olde England to come up with a bizarre way of prosecuting not me, the play’s maker, but its director, under the Sexual Offences Act. They claimed he was a pimp because he had cast the actors. This nasty little legal manoeuvre made Michael’s life hell for a year.
A trial date was set for March 1982, and though only Bogdanov was charged, it was expected that both Sproule and Hicks would be called to give evidence, and if Bogdanov was convicted, both actors would be tried and fined. Bogdanov faced up to 3 years in jail and endured, in the run-up to the trial, abusive and threatening telephone calls, excrement pushed through his letterbox and the bullying of his children at school.
Writer and critic, Mark lawson has since written that:
John Smythe - a committed Christian barrister employed by Whitehouse to prosecute Gay News over the “queer Jesus” poem - was expected to probe into the actors’ sexuality. Hicks was asked about whether he became aroused during the scene and whether he found it necessary afterwards to masturbate in the wings. As neither thought had ever previously occurred to him, (Hicks) realised how unpleasant the trial might be.
Lord Hutchinson acted for the defense, assisted by Geoffrey Robertson QC, as junior defence counsel. Robertson has since recounted how the original prosecution lawyer became ill with a virus and was replaced by one who was chosen on the grounds that he was believed to be knowledgeable on laws pertaining to sodomy. In fact, he was an expert on Maritime Law, or Bottomry - one can see the association Whitehouse made.
On the 15 March the trial began, and immediately made national news, becoming a regular of the front page. It soon turned out that the prosecution argument rested on one eye-witness, Ross-Cornes, who had attended the play as Whitehouse’s proxy. He claimed to have seen the act of offending act that was alleged to have been committed by the two actors.
Seeing a potential weakness in the prosecution’s case, Robertson cleverly presented Ross-Cornes with a seating plan of the auditorium, and asked him to mark with an ‘X’ where he had sat during the performance. Ross-Cornes gave his mark. Rather than being near the front, as was expected, Ross-Cornes placed his ‘X’ at the very back of the auditorium.
When asked again if he was certain he had seen the actor’s erect penis, he said: “Well, what else could it be?” This was to prove the fatal mistake in the prosecution’s case. After a bit of deliberate distraction, Hutchinson quickly flashed Ross-Cornes his thumb, showing how easily a thumb could be mistaken for a penis, and this was in fact what he had seen.
This should have been the end of the trial. The case for the prosecution had been lost, but in an amazing twist, the judge ruled that the 1956 Sexual Offences Act could be applied to theater, which “removed any hopes that the case would be be dismissed as bad law.” However, one further twist was to come.
The prosecution lawyer, Ian Kennedy QC told his client, Mrs Whitehouse, he could no longer continue the case. At the time, it was rumored Kennedy had had a crisis of conscience. Robertson believes with the loss of Ross-Cornes there was no case to win. While others suggest Kennedy could not face putting an innocent man behind bars. Kennedy has never disclosed his reasoning, but at the time stated in court that, “The consequences of conviction - irrespective of penalty - would greatly damage Mr Bogdanov in his personal and professional life.” As Mark Lawson has since noted:
There was no real precedent for the curtain falling at the Bailey in this way. After consultation with Havers, who had long ago blocked this case through the usual channels, an official of the Queen was sent to the court to offer a plea of nolle prosequi, or no prosecution.
Leaving court, Whitehouse expressed confidence that God would pay her costs. The National Theatre chaplain issued a statement that he found it impossible to believe in a deity of the kind described by Whitehouse. Her true feelings about the case can perhaps be surmised by the fact that she omits the events entirely from the final volume of her memoirs.
What was a powerful and important piece of theatre had been “turned into something it is not. It was no longer a piece of theatre - it was either a cause or an outrage.”
In an article about the production and its trial for The Guardian in 2006, Howard Brenton wrote:
In 1980, my play The Romans in Britain was playing in the National’s Olivier Theater. Its opening caused a “silly season” scandal in the press. The attack on the play was taken up by Mary Whitehouse, a campaigner for censorship in broadcasting and the arts. Her target was a scene, set in 54BC, in which a young druid priest is sexually assaulted by Roman soldiers. It dramatises a war crime.
There are similar stories today from Iraq. The obscene assaults of prisoners in Abu Ghraib gaol were just a bit of fun to the American guards. One can only speculate on the trauma of their Iraqi victims. Why my scene shocks is that I tried to give it a casual authenticity. The Romans kill with a rough, army humour that clashes, shockingly, with the suffering they inflict. For them, the incident is nothing; for the young druid, it is the end of his world. Later in the play, he calls for armed resistance against the murderous invaders. He fails to gain support and kills himself.
But though my druid’s story is strong meat, it is only drama. Yes, only drama. At an Irish university, I met an ex-Provisional IRA man who had been in an active service unit. Having served his time in gaol, he was educating himself. “Why drama?” I asked. He replied: “Because the theatre is harmless.” He was right. Theatre is a peaceful, democratic activity. All plays strive to entertain, even the terrifying Oedipus Rex by Sophocles or the blood-drenched Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare. It is one of the mysteries of the craft that when acted out on a stage, the extremes of human experience, even violent death, can uplift us in the audience. We can all have a good night out at a tragedy.
Here is Howard Brenton discussing one his more recent plays In Extremis on the BBC in 2006, and a bonus clip of Julie Walters as Mary Whitehouse in the BBC film Filth