obituary: Lieutenant-Colonel Sir John Johnston

September 14, 2006

The Telegraph obituary has some interesting sidelights on the career of Sir John Johnston, who was for many years Assistant Comptroller then Comptroller in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

“Until 1968 the Lord Chamberlain was required to licence plays and theatres under the Theatres Act of 1843. This involved censoring plays. Johnston was closely involved in the work, which he described in his entertaining book, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil (1990). Plays were first read by Examiners, who produced a synopsis and sometimes recommended cuts. Johnston then read the works, adding his own suggestions. Some subjects were taboo. God was banned on stage until 1966; royalty and the recently deceased could prove a problem. Actresses were allowed to be nude on stage so long as they were motionless, expressionless, artistic and dimly lit. Johnston recalled that there was never a shortage of volunteers from the office to pay a visit to the Windmill Theatre to check that the nudes were static. When his censorship duties came to an end (rightly in his opinion), he missed hearing the lady clerk ring up the theatre managers, blushing as she read out the disallowed lines.”

I remember in the early fifties the theatre in my home town was adept at providing shows with dimly lit motionless nudes. Occasionally, however, they were caught out and I used to read the odd piece in the local paper about how they had been prosecuted for offences under the Theatres Act of 1843. I imagine one of the actresses had twitched and the eagle-eyed person checking for such things (now there’s a job!) had spotted it. Around 1956 the theatre came under new management and started putting on plays by John Osborne and Ibsen. I expect theatre-goers would say that was an improvement, though it certainly meant a decline in the art of the tableau vivant.

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