If it’s a surprise to see Cockney geezer Phil Daniels masquerading as the erudite (and non-Cockney) Thomas De Quincey in The Art of Tripping, it’s even more of a surprise to see Hugh Grant in wig and hippy gear as Richard Neville in this 1991 dramatisation of the obscenity trial against Neville’s Oz magazine. Grant wasn’t exactly unknown when this was made but it was prior to Four Weddings and a Funeral so the casting didn’t seem very notable at the time.
The play was written by Geoffrey Robertson QC from the trial transcripts to observe the 20th anniversary of a lengthy and very public trial. Robertson in 1971 was an assistant to John Mortimer, the magazine’s lawyer, so the reconstruction may be taken to be an accurate one. In addition to Grant as Neville, Simon Callow plays Mortimer, Nigel Hawthorne is prosecutor Brian Leary, and Leslie Phillips is Judge Michael Argyle. Among the witnesses there’s Alfred Molina as George Melly (yet again; see yesterday’s post), and Nigel Planer as DJ John Peel, both of whom were called to testify that the notorious “School Kids” issue of Oz wasn’t an obscene publication. The trial, like the earlier drug busts against the Rolling Stones, was as much about the State trying to clobber a bunch of anarchist upstarts as anything that involved the pros and cons of antiquated laws. The three defendants—Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson—were also accused of “conspiring to corrupt public morals”; the obscenity issue was merely a pretext for getting the longhairs into the dock.
Oz 28 (1970). Art by Raymond Bertrand.
This isn’t a lavish production—it’s stylised to the extent that the public gallery is made up of cardboard figures—but it’s good to know that there’s a (rough) copy out there after my tape of the original broadcast developed a fault. Not available, unfortunately, is the live studio discussion that followed in which Jonathan Dimbleby spoke to Geoffrey Robertson, Germaine Greer and others about the trial. The discussion featured a delicious moment when Dimbleby referred to Greer’s feminist issue (no. 29) as “C-Power Oz“. “Come on, Jonathan,” said Greer, “it was Cunt Power Oz!” Dimbleby then spluttered “Anyone can say ‘Cunt Power Oz‘…” and hastily moved on the discussion.
A year after his TV appearance Geoffrey Robertson was in Manchester Crown Court appealing an earlier ruling of obscenity against David Britton’s Lord Horror (1990) novel. I was in the public gallery on that occasion, and it was an education seeing how little had changed since the Oz trial, with a similarly Philistine and deeply ignorant judge presiding. Robertson overturned the ruling against the novel but a ruling against one of Savoy’s Meng & Ecker comics was upheld. In 1995 we were back in court attempting to argue for a jury trial against further rulings of obscenity, this time against one of my own comics, Hard Core Horror 5. (That issue is now the opening section of the Reverbstorm book.) We failed that time thanks to a magistrate who was even less inclined to listen to any argument.
The Oz trial may seem quaint and farcical today but the issues remain pertinent: some forms of art will always be in conflict with laws that are out-of-date, badly written or maliciously applied. And once you’re standing in a courtroom your opinion about the situation is of no consequence; you’re at the mercy of the people who make the rules.