Entertainment & Arts

Theatre's Bogdanov reflects on his scandalous history

Thirty years after he went on trial at London's Old Bailey for staging an act of simulated male sex in the play The Romans in Britain, the renowned British theatre director Michael Bogdanov, says he is proud to have been "among those people willing to stand up and be counted".

"It was extraordinary to have found yourself a symbol of freedom of expression, though for the wrong reasons," the 73-year old Bogdanov tells the BBC World Service's Witness programme on the 30th anniversary of his trial.

Accused of procuring an act of "gross indecency" likely to cause offence for his production of The Romans in Britain at London's National Theatre, Bogdanov says he felt "enormous relief" when the case collapsed and the prosecution withdrew its evidence on the third day of the hearing.

He also says he felt "very angry" that the private prosecution brought by the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse had been allowed to happen at all.

Image caption Mrs Whitehouse campaigned against what she saw as the breakdown of moral values

Mrs Whitehouse, he says, "confused reality with an illusion" on the stage. If he had been convicted, Bogdanov could have been jailed for up to three years.

Written by the playwright Howard Brenton, The Romans in Britain, which opened in London in October 1980, was always likely to provoke controversy.

With vivid imagery, strong language and violence, the play sought to draw graphic parallels between the Romans' invasion of the British Isles and the presence at the time of British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland.

But it was one short scene involving the attempted rape of a young Druid called Marban by a Roman soldier ("a metaphor for the rape of one culture by another," according to the director), that eventually landed Bogdanov in court.

When he was first handed the play by the National's then artistic director, Sir Peter Hall, Bogdanov says he thought it contained some of the best new writing he had read. The attempted rape scene, to be performed with naked actors in full light and centre-stage, was "brilliantly written".

But though nudity was not uncommon on the stage - and Bogdanov was careful that no sexual contact was actually made between the actors (the Roman used his bunched up fist and thumb as a substitute for his erect penis) - Sir Peter was clearly worried. He asked Bogdanov to consider moving the scene upstage, in half light.

The director stood his ground, arguing the scene's artistic merit. Sir Peter eventually acceded, but not before warning that there could be trouble ahead.

Anonymous letters

Though playing to packed audiences, the play's nudity and strong language attracted fervent media attention. But more ominously, it quickly came to the notice of Mrs Whitehouse, then head of the National Viewers and Listeners' Association.

She refused to attend a performance in person but in December 1980 sent her solicitor to watch the play in order to collect evidence. He came back convinced there had been a sexual act on stage likely to cause offence.

Having tried and failed to force the Attorney General to initiate a prosecution against the National, the morality campaigner then began her own proceedings under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act, accusing Bogdanov of being the "pimp" who had allegedly procured the act on stage.

Three decades on, Bogdanov's memories of those days are still vivid. He and his colleagues had initially dismissed the possibility of being taken to court, believing their defence of dramatic effect would be enough to discourage a prosecution. But a magistrate and then an Old Bailey judge both ruled that the case should be heard.

Bogdanov became increasingly concerned: "I can't pretend it was easy, it felt like some huge juggernaut rolling over me, especially when they spent hours discussing whether I should be kept in the cells overnight," he says.

Anonymous letters arrived at the family home, while his children became the object of unwanted attention at school. "At one point I was the only thing on the front pages."

Legal precedent

The collapse of Bogdanov's trial three days after it began was one more act in the long-running drama of The Romans in Britain.

Keen to establish what Mrs Whitehouse's solicitor, and chief prosecution witness, had actually seen on stage, Bogdanov's defence team asked him to tell the jury where he had been sitting in the theatre. "At the back," came the answer - much to everyone's amazement.

Lord Hutchinson, lead defence counsel, leapt up: "What if I told you that what you thought you saw was not an erect penis, but a thumb?" And he proceeded to bunch up his fist and thumb under his robes, pulling them aside to reveal his hand to the witness and jury.

Bogdanov, looking on from the dock, says members of the jury burst out laughing, while the prosecution barrister went pale and immediately requested an adjournment. The prosecution withdrew its evidence, and the court set Bodganov free.

Outside the court, Mrs Whitehouse claimed victory. The case, she said, had set an important legal precedent that the Sexual Offences Act could be applied to events on stage and that simulated sex could amount to gross indecency.

But for Bogdanov, the play that got him into trouble has left other lessons. The Romans in Britain, he says, is just one in a long line of stage productions down the years that have caused controversy.

"The thing that gives me most pleasure is that the theatre still has the power to shock," he says.

Mike Lanchin spoke to Michael Bogdanov for the BBC World Service programme Witness. Listen to the programme at 0950 GMT on the BBC World Service,via i-playerordownload the podcast.

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