The Trials of Oz


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 coincide with the 20th anniversary of a long 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. (Update: It’s now on YouTube.) 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. (Update: The studio discussion is also on YouTube!)

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.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Martin Sharp, 1942–2013
Raymond Bertrand paintings
Raymond Bertrand’s science fiction covers
The art of Bertrand
Oz magazine, 1967–73

Joe Orton


Gary Oldman as Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears (1987).

Ken: At least you can say you’ve sat in the same chair as TS Eliot.
Joe: Yes, I’m never going to wipe my bum again.

Gay playwright Joe Orton receives a welcome renewal of attention this month with a showing of films at the ICA in London and the 20th anniversary re-release of Prick Up Your Ears, the great Orton biopic by Alan Bennett and Stephen Frears. Gary Oldman is marvellously sexy (and funny) as Orton in Frears’ film, Alfred Molina is equally good as his increasingly neurotic lover, Kenneth Halliwell (who eventually murdered Orton before killing himself), and there’s decent casting throughout, with Vanessa Redgrave playing Peggy Ramsay and Julie Walters hilarious as Orton’s mother.

Prick Up Your Ears was originally Halliwell’s title for a script Orton was writing for the Beatles (“…much too good a title to waste on a film,” said Orton.) That film idea, variously titled Up Against It and 8 Arms To Hold You, was deemed “too gay” by McCartney and co., not least because Orton had all four Beatles sleeping in the same bed. He also wrote that “…the boys, in my script, have been caught in flagrante, become involved in dubious political activity, dressed as women, committed murder, been put in prison and committed adultery. And the script isn’t finished yet.” Now you know why the third Beatles film was an animated one.

A feature in The Guardian examining Orton’s legacy, as well as the film, has this to say of Prick Up Your Ears:

it was the first mainstream British film to depict the gay underworld of West End toilets and sign language that existed in an age when homosexuality was still illegal.

And much of it was filmed on location in Orton’s haunts. Every time I’ve been through Islington tube station I think of the scene where Gary Oldman picks up a guy he’s been eying in the lift.

Orton had the misfortune to die in 1967, the year homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain. Well… decriminalised so long as you were both 21, not members of the Armed Forces and there was no one else in the room with you; Orton could have made a play out of such farcical restrictions. But the film makes it clear that the existence of a stupid law—which caused the downfall of another playwright, Oscar Wilde—did nothing to prevent him enjoying himself. The Guardian has another quote from him:

[The police] interfere far too much with private morals—whether people are having it off in the backs of cars or smoking marijuana, or doing the interesting little things one does.

They still do, Joe.

The web doesn’t serve Orton’s memory very well; the links below are some of the more interesting finds.

An interview from June, 1967
Joe Orton at the BBC Sound Archive
Joe Orton at GLBTQ
The Disappearing Gentlemens’ Lavatories of Old London
(A hymn to the public convenience by Dudley Sutton, dedicated to Joe Orton.)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Passion play
The Poet and the Pope
Please Mr. Postman
All you need is…
Queer Noises