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1959 Obscene Publications Act

The law that defines obscenity and separates it from serious works of art

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The 1959 Obscene Publications Act was introduced in order to resolve issues whereby previous obscenity legislation could also be applied to entirely legitimate works ranging from distinguished novels (James Joyce's Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Radcliffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness) to medical textbooks. The aim was both to clarify the law and to, in the words of the Act itself, "provide for the protection of literature".

To illustrate this, the opening definition of obscenity stresses that the work "taken as a whole" must "tend to deprave and corrupt" - and later on, a section entitled "Defence of public good", specifically exempts work "in the interests of science, literature, art or learning, or of other objects of general concern".

The first big test of the OPA came in 1963, when D.H.Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover was prosecuted and famously acquitted - a major milestone in the history of censorship in Britain.

Although the Act was originally intended only to cover literature - in the House of Lords debate that accompanied its drafting, Lord Denning said that the Lord Chamberlain (then responsible for theatre censorship) and the British Board of Film Censors were covering the same ground more than adequately - in 1977 an amendment to the Act brought film under its jurisdiction.

This had been lobbied for by the then Secretary of the BBFC, James Ferman, on the grounds that it would strengthen his hand when it came to defending serious films against threats of prosecution (this was shortly after attempted private prosecutions of films such as Last Tango in Paris (Italy/France, d. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) and La Grande Bouffe (Italy/France, d. Marco Ferreri, 1973).

To support Ferman's reasoning, no BBFC-approved film has ever been successfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, and few such prosecutions have ever been attempted.

Michael Brooke

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Thumbnail image of Ferman, James (1930-2002)Ferman, James (1930-2002)

Censor, Director