True Born Englishman: did the BBC ban this Buckingham Palace play?

The most celebrated set of dramatic monologues for broadcasting and theatre are Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, first performed in the 1980s. But, at around the same time, a lesser-known dramatist created another trove of solos. Peter Barnes had 14 soliloquies on BBC Radio 3 under the umbrella titles Barnes’ People and More Barnes’ People. They attracted remarkable actors, including Laurence Olivier (in his final role), Judi Dench, Alec Guinness, Alan Rickman, Janet Suzman and Jeremy Irons.

Barnes wrote, though, a 15th monologue, which the BBC, in mysterious circumstances, withdrew from production in 1990. A True Born Englishman, in which a Buckingham Palace lackey recalls his career, will now have its world premiere online, performed by Adrian Scarborough, on 18 February, alongside new versions of three monologues that did go out on radio.

Director Philip Franks says: “The Bennetts tend to have a sting in the tail, or narrative surprise, and often cover weeks or months. What Peter was after was someone like the Ancient Mariner, who just buttonholes you and won’t let you go until the end.”

Except for the one that never reached its radio beginning. Publicity for the new production states that A True Born Englishman was “originally banned from broadcast by the BBC” after having been commissioned, with Antony Sher cast in the part. The BBC, though, has always denied that Barnes suffered censorship. In a preface to a 1990 collection of the later monologues, Barnes claims that the script had been “bought … and scheduled” when “someone had the idea that it should first be passed to higher authority for vetting”. Production was subsequently halted. Barnes believed, he wrote, that “it was banned, not because of politics, sex, or bad language, because neither politics, sex, bad or even good language are taken seriously enough in this country. No, the piece had references to royalty and that is something that is taken seriously.”

In that preface, Barnes recalled complaining about the play’s fate to “a producer” at the BBC, who insisted: “No, no, no, we’re not banning A True Born Englishman, we’re just not doing it.”

Controversy was no surprise to the writer. His best known stage play, The Ruling Class (successfully revived six years ago in London starring James McAvoy), premiered in November 1968, a significant date because, until UK theatrical censorship by the Lord Chamberlain was abolished earlier that year, its depiction of an aristocrat who believes himself to be the risen Christ could not have been performed. Later, Barnes’ Laughter! (1978) explored whether it was possible to write a comedy set in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Another test of the limitations of taste was Red Noses (1985), an RSC stage play set during the black death, with Sher as a monk who runs a comedy troupe committed to cheering those who are suffering.

Sher was a close friend of Barnes, and contributed to a Radio 4 obituary I did after the dramatist died in 2004. So the actor seemed a good place to start in solving the mystery of the lost monologue. But, when I contacted him, he replied: “Sorry, but I have no recollection whatsoever of that monologue, or of the BBC banning it, so I’ve nothing to contribute, I’m afraid.”

Those most directly involved in the disappearance of A True Born Englishman have died – producer Ian Cotterell, head of drama John Tydeman and controller of Radio 3 John Drummond. However, a surviving junior colleague from the era, who prefers not to be named, remembers the script being “referred to the RLO, who blocked it”.

No stranger to controversy … Jake Curran and Jordan Mallory-Skinner in Noonday Demons by Peter Barnes, revived at the King’s Head theatre in 2015.
No stranger to controversy … Jake Curran and Jordan Mallory-Skinner in Noonday Demons by Peter Barnes, revived at the King’s Head theatre in 2015. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

The “royal liaison officer” is, in an arrangement that still exists, a senior BBC manager in contact with the palace over the broadcasting of Windsor funerals, weddings or interviews; editorial guidelines state that all non-news material involving royalty should be seen by this soothing bureaucrat.

The playwright’s widow, Christie Barnes, recalls: “I just remember the laughter over Buckingham Palace requesting the BBC not produce the play. They wouldn’t call it censorship and producer Ian [Cotterell] bent over backwards to not besmirch Buckingham Palace in any way, and insisted ‘it wasn’t censored, the palace just preferred that it not be produced’ – which Peter insisted was censorship, laughing.”

A request to the BBC for any record of the decision in the archives was unproductive, so I suspect from collating the various accounts that this is what may have happened. The RLO is often wrongly assumed by outsiders to be a palace press office post, but is on the BBC payroll. This confusion may have led the Barneses to think that the monarchy had blocked transmission, whereas it seems most likely that the palace was never directly involved. Under BBC rules, Cotterell would have felt obliged to consult the RLO, who would have made a decision, which reflected general corporate caution on subjects abutting the crown.

And, if so, what would the BBC protector of the realm have found so shocking? The speaker in the play is Leslie Bray, who, after 30 years in royal service, has attained the dizzy position of first doorkeeper. The text contains no outrageous lèse-majesté; indeed, Bray seems awestruck by employer and workplace.

Which, perhaps, was the problem. Barnes’ target in the play is the “natural servility” of the English, their instinct to cringe before tradition. Also, the conceit of the play is that Bray is giving a free public talk on his life, although “as a Conservative, I always feel there is something offensive about any transaction in which money does not change hands”. It is easy to imagine BBC blue pencils twitching at that line even now. There may also have been concern that, in a passage where the character suggests that the key to a successful royal career is to avoid having “thoughts” or “ideas”, he was thinking of other establishment institutions, perhaps the BBC itself.

“You can imagine that needling someone in authority,” says Franks. “It isn’t really about the royal family at all. It’s about a certain obsequiousness in the English psyche. Buckingham Palace is almost incidental.”

So, the BBC’s instinctive servility towards the monarchy may have played a part in the decision, but the greater danger of the writing, from the perspective of authority, is its critique of easy obedience. The context may also have been significant. In 1986, the BBC director general, Alasdair Milne, was forced to resign by a new chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, who was married to a lady-in-waiting for the Queen. So it was a time when the BBC hierarchy, including the RLO, was perhaps keener even than usual to keep feathers unruffled.

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The new video versions were recently recorded under Covid-safe conditions – “Everyone in masks, like an operating theatre without the knives,” says Franks – in the empty Theatre Royal Windsor. Scarborough agrees that Barnes “would have enjoyed the irony of it finally being played at Windsor”.

The actor’s superb performance, capturing a man who has been crushed but counts himself a success, should – alongside those of Jon Culshaw, Jemma Redgrave, and Matthew Kelly in the other plays – revive interest in an unfairly neglected writer. When live theatre returns post-lockdown, with demand for small-cast, socially distanced shows, Barnes’ 15 monologues could be staged in the way that some of the Bennetts recently were at the Bridge in London.

“Absolutely,” says Franks. “You could do three or four in an evening.”

“They’re remarkable,” Scarborough agrees.