Posts Tagged ‘Henry Fielding’

Hairposter49 years ago this very evening, the stage musical HAIR opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, heralding the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. A troupe of hirsute performers led initially by Oliver Tobias and including Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry (yes, the seeds of Rocky Horror) delighted London audiences for the next five years until the theatre roof literally came down.

The previous era –  the Age of Stage Censorship – had ended the previous day with the Theatres Act 1968. This new law extinguished the considerable and centuries-old powers of the Lord Chamberlain to curtail all sweary bits, nudy bits and politically subversive bits from the theatres of the nation.

As the title suggests, the Lord Chamberlain is a Royal official. Originally, the approval or otherwise of new productions fell to the Master of the Revels, a powerful and lucrative royal sinecure. His physical office between 1578 and 1607 was based at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell. Whenever I visit there, I always imagine the work of Shakespeare and his great contemporaries  having their first airing in front of the Master or his officials.

This situation pertained (not forgetting, of course, outright suppression during the Commonwealth) until 1737. Robert Walpole happened to be the Master of the Revels at that time. Weary of anti-government satire by the likes of Henry Fielding, Walpole put censorship on a statutory footing with his Licensing Act 1737, giving the responsibility of stage censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain. Under the Act, the Lord Chamberlain could suppress any performance without recourse of appeal. The measures were softened with slight modifications in 1788 and 1843, but essentially our public entertainment remained thus bridled for over 200 years.

Interesting article on HAIR and contemporary theatre censorship here.
Complete 1968 HAIR soundtrack on YouTube here (terrific!).


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There were two fabulous back-to-back programmes on BBC4 last night as part of its Books on the BBC season. First we had, by way of starters, Ancient Bibles, the first of four episodes  in the Beauty of Books thread. Instead of spreading itself too thin – often a danger – we were shown just two tomes: the Codex Sinaiticus, written in Greek in about 350AD; and the Winchester Bible from the late 12C . 

The Sinaiticus resides in the British Library. It comprises just the Gospels, it is unillustrated and laid out in plain four column format. The fascinating thing is the thousands of corrections that had been done on it, extremely neatly. No crossings-out, or deletions, hence a treasure trove for bibilical scholars. The book was kept for well over a millennium at the  St Katherine’s monestary in Sinai (which I visited once: utterly inundated by tourists) until discovered (from a Western point of view) by a German scholar in the 19C. What wasn’t fully explained was how the thing ended up in the British Library. A pity. The Winchester Bible, commissioned by Henry, Bishop of Winchester, the brother of King Stephen, is an enormous book, created in over 10 years from the 1160s. It is quite simply one of the most stunning objects I have seen on TV. The illuminations, created by six different artists, clearly identified as being masters from the Continent and not England, are quite breathtaking. Something I did not know: a book is only considered to be “illuminated” if the pictures are properly embellished with either gold or silver.

But for me, the treat of the evening was what followed: the Birth of the British Novel. It was an hour long programme and not a second was wasted. Never leaving the 18C, presenter Henry Hitchings took us on a guided romp  from Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe through Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Burney, Walpole H. to William Godwin.  I have not come across Hitchings before; his presentation is authoritative and unobtrusive, just how it should be. A  host who realises he is the guide, not the star. Of all the authors covered, only Samuel Richardson – hitherto unfamiar to me – was given a bit of a kicking for being a perv and a sadist, although his contribution was acknowledged. Historical backdrop and context were fully explored. Locations were wonderfully exploited (including Strawberry Hill House and the Foundling Museum, joy of joys). Talking heads, such as Will Self, Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble, were intelligently yet sparingly probed.

the gallery strawberry hill house

The Gallery, Strawberry Hill House. Horace Walpole based many scenes from The Castle of Otranto here.

And once again – as we see over and over – there intruded the industrious hand of a man who was at the nexus of  all that mattered in mid-18C art and societal affairs, yet he wrote no novels: the mighty William Hogarth.

I found myself – having known a little about each of these pioneering Georgian writers – much, much better informed: equipped, ready and itching to read or re-read their works. What more could one ask from a programme?

So well done the Beeb. This is the stuff that justifies the licence fee.

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newgate: london's prototype of hellBack from freezing France where I was, at least, able to do some chunky reading, quickly despatching the above-titled narrative history of Newgate prison by Stephen Halliday. The descpription “prototype of Hell” comes from Henry Fielding, one of the 18th century’s big personalities. A dramatist, writer and impressario, on becoming the chief magistrate of Bow Street, he set to work cleaning up the local criminal justice and penal landscape which had become saturated in corruption. Unfortunately, after the death of his brother John who succeeded him, the system soon returned to its old ways.

The Fieldings were two participants of dozens who populate the Newgate story. The prison, sited next door to the Old Bailey, witnessed the trials, incarceration and deaths of many thousands of men and women for some seven centuries. More died from disease within its walls than ever did at the gallows. Along with petty criminals and debtors, its inmates included celebrities such as Dr Dodd, Jonathan Wild and Jack Sheppard, political agitators, traitors, sex offenders and those deemed to be a general thorn in the side of authority such as the writer Daniel Defoe. All the significant dramatis personae of the Newgate story here are given separate pen-portraits, an approach I really like. One can take a break from the narrative and make a mental note to find out more later about those whose story extends beyond their relationship with the prison.

The value of this book is not just in the absorbing tale of Britain’s most notorious prison, but the history of crime and punishment in England across the ages and society’s response to them. One soon gets the measure of the essentially medieval system that persisted through to the late Georgian period and how it failed to contain crime, despite the “Bloody Code”, in the world’s most populous city. But the most interesting part of the story is how the penal system was thorougly transformed, from its faltering beginnings with the Fieldings through the Victorian era and into the 20th Century.

One would think it not too challenging to write a story as colourful as Newgate’s that was thoroughly entertaining and indeed, Stephen Halliday achieves this with ease. But the reward of a good history book is to leave the reader truly enlightened on a particular subject and in this the author is throroughly successful.

Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday, The History Press, 2006. 317 pp. ISBN 978-0-7509-3896-9,

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