The fight against censorship in the theatre prevailed when, on 18 March 1982, the case trying director Michael Bogdanov for gross indecency with regard to his production of The Romans In Britain collapsed. Yet both sides claimed victory.
The private prosecution against Bogdanov was brought by moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse and concerned a scene in which a young male Celt was raped on stage by a Roman soldier. Whitehouse originally requested that the police examine Howard Brenton’s play as a performance likely to “deprave or corrupt” under the Theatres Act of 1968. When the Attorney General chose not to pursue the case, Whitehouse followed the option of private prosecution.
The production opened at the National's Olivier theatre in October 1980; on 19 December Bogdanov was issued with a writ. The director was accused of procuring an act of gross indecency from actors Peter Sproule, who played the Roman soldier, and Greg Hicks, who played the Celt.
Bogdanov, facing the possibility of three years imprisonment for his part in the staging of a play, endured 18 months of torment preceding the trial in which his children were bullied, he received threatening phone calls and faeces was pushed through his letterbox.
When the case came to trial, however, it was swiftly resolved. Whitehouse’s solicitor, Graham Ross-Cornes, who had been sent to see the show on Whitehouse’s behalf – Whitehouse did not want to subject herself to such moral corruption – was called to the stand. His testimony was undermined when it was revealed he had been sitting 90 feet from the stage and could not have seen the anatomical details he was describing. Though the judge then found that the 1956 Sexual Offences Act could be applied to theatre, Whitehouse’s prosecuting council Ian Kennedy QC felt he could not continue. The case collapsed.
While Whitehouse claimed the case had been withdrawn as important legal points had already been proved, the Bogdanov camp claimed that Whitehouse pulled out of the prosecution as she knew a jury would not support her.
After a quarter of a century, The Romans In Britain was revived at the Sheffield Crucible in early 2006. Though no court cases resulted, Brenton’s piece still managed to ruffle a few feathers in the 21st century.