Lord Chamberlain's report and correspondence about A Taste Of Honey

Description

This report on A Taste of Honey was written in 1958 by the Chief Play Reader at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office (LCO). Until 1968 every new play in Britain required a licence from the LCO before it could be publicly performed. Few plays were banned outright, but censorship was severe, with arbitrary and inconsistent limits imposed. This posed a huge challenge for Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop, where plays evolved in rehearsal and performances thrived on spontaneity. A Taste of Honey went to the LCO several times with changes and alterations, some of which were imposed by the censor, and others which were made by Littlewood during rehearsals and between productions.

What was the censor’s reaction to A Taste of Honey?

The play caused a furore among the team of censors at the LCO. At the time, it was prohibited to openly depict gay characters or discuss gay themes in stage plays. Playwrights and directors commonly resorted to innuendo and allusion to avoid the censor’s veto. Yet Shelagh Delaney did something that hadn’t been done before: she portrayed gay art student Geof not as a figure of fun, but as someone with dignity and sensitivity.

The Chief Play Reader, C D Heriot, concluded:

This is a surprisingly good play – though God knows it is not to my personal taste. But the people are strangely real and the problem of Geof is delicately conveyed.

He proceeded to mark several phrases for excision, including ‘an effeminate young boy’ and ‘a castrated little clown’; and a section at the beginning of Act 2 where Geof explains why his landlady had evicted him: ‘It isn’t what I’ve done, it’s what she thinks I do. She doesn’t like the way I walk’.

Believing the play to be ‘balanced on a knife-edge’, Heriot called the play

… the perfect border-line case, since it is concerned with the forbidden subject in a way that no-one, I believe could take exception to.

But the Lord Chamberlain's Assistant Comptroller, Brigadier Sir Norman Gwatkin, commented: 'I think it's revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits … To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on'.

What impact did A Taste of Honey have on censorship?

The LCO was aware of changing attitudes towards sex and morality. The Wolfenden Report, which had been published the previous year, recommended that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence. As John Harding points out, it would take another ten years before the report was acted on to bring about a change in the law regarding homosexuality, but the LCO acknowledged that the serious treatment of homosexuality on stage should be allowed: hence A Taste of Honey provided the first real test of how far the censors had changed their attitude.[1]

Delaney was the first dramatist to successfully overcome the veto on gay characters in stage plays with her sympathetic portrayal of gay art student, Geof. Commentator Nicholas de Jongh believes that Delaney’s ground-breaking portrayal of a gay character, and the favourable critical and public response to A Taste of Honey, played a significant role in persuading the Lord Chamberlain to partially relax his ban on homosexuality later the same year. According to de Jongh, ‘Shelagh Delaney ought to rank as a gay heroine’.[2]

‘A sordid and melancholy play’

It wasn’t only the portrayal of homosexuality in A Taste of Honey that concerned the Lord Chamberlain. The true-to-life depiction of working-class life proved too much for the censor, who was more used to the genteel antics of drawing room drama beloved of traditional West End audiences. In June 1958 Gerry Raffles, of Theatre Workshop, sent the LCO a revised copy of the play as it had ‘evolved in rehearsal and performance’. The Reader commented that:

The character of Geoff has been toned down in accordance with the LCO’s instructions and the lover, Peter, has been given a silly drunken scene to indicate his life with Helen is not all as it should be. This is, in my opinion, a mistake and coarsens the play.

In a reply to this letter, Raffles wearily agrees to cut the line, ‘worn out but still a few good pumps left in her’.

When A Taste of Honey transferred to the West End in early 1959, one audience member complained to the LCO about blasphemy in the play. In his reply, Sir Norman Gwatkin assured the complainant that because the play depicted ‘such a sad collection of undesireables’ it couldn’t possibly do the public any harm:

… if the actors are to perform the play in the spirit in which it is written, they have, within bounds, to speak and act in accordance with the author’s conception of the mentality and outlook of the characters … in character this is a sordid and melancholy play.'


[1] John Harding, Sweetly Sings Delaney (London: Greenwich Exchange Ltd, 2014), p. 44.

[2] The Guardian, 25 November 2011, Taste of Honey led to end of gay ban. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/nov/25/taste-of-honey-gay-ban.

Full title:
Lord Chamberlain's Plays: Correspondence file for 'A Taste of Honey' (1958)
Created:
1958–59, Lord Chamberlain's Office, St James's Palace, London
Format:
Manuscript / Typescript / Letter / Report
Creator:
Lord Chamberlain's Office, Raffles Gerry
Usage terms

Lord Chamberlain's Office: © Crown Copyright. This material has been published under an Open Government Licence.

Gerry Raffles: © Gerry Raffles Estate. You may not use the material for commercial purposes. Please credit the copyright holder when reusing this work.

Held by
British Library

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An introduction to A Taste of Honey

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Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.

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