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Trials of Oz, The (1991)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Trials of Oz, The (1991)
BBC/Australian Broadcasting Company for Performance, BBC2, tx. 9/11/1991
87 minutes, colour
DirectorSheree Folkson
ProducerSimon Curtis
ScriptGeoffrey Robertson

Cast: Hugh Grant (Richard Neville); Peter O'Brien (James Anderson); Kevin Allen (Felix Dennis); Leslie Phillips (Judge Michael Argyle); Nigel Hawthorne (Brian Leary); Simon Callow (John Mortimer)

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The prosecution for obscenity brought against the three editors of 'Oz' magazine in the summer of 1971.

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In May 1970, the provocative counterculture magazine 'Oz' published a special issue edited entirely by secondary school children. Despite its meagre circulation (around 30,000), the issue resulted in its editors - Richard Neville, James Anderson and Felix Dennis - being put on trial. They were accused of three very serious crimes: sending indecent material through the post, contravening the Obscene Publications Act and most seriously of all, conspiring to corrupt public morals, an offence carrying a potential life sentence. Author and barrister John Mortimer QC defended two of the editors, while Neville eloquently defended himself.

The television script by Geoffrey Robertson, who was part of the original defence team, sticks to the letter of the transcripts (the opening disclaimer reads, 'All dialogue guaranteed verbatim') and successfully provides a snapshot of some of the best-known parts of what, at 27 days, remains the longest-ever British obscenity trial (Mortimer's final summation alone took several hours). The presentation of the play emphasises the absurdity of much that took place in court, such as the celebrated exchanges on the actual age of Rupert Bear, or George Melly's re-definition oral sex for the judge as 'yodelling in the canyon', with a determinedly artificial style. The walls of the courtroom include giant blow-ups of pages from the magazine while the upper galleries have cardboard cut-outs instead of a live audience.

Of the portrayals of the many celebrities who gave evidence, the most convincing is probably Nigel Planer's uncannily accurate impersonation of radio DJ John Peel, while Simon Callow is excellent as Mortimer, ably replicating his slack-jaw countenance and light voice as well as his passion and occasional impatience, as witness his irritation at the long-winded responses by Scotland Yard's pompous Detective Inspector Luff, who claims that reading 'Oz' would lead to a "dirtying of the mind". Nigel Hawthorne and Leslie Phillips represent the Establishment in court and Phillips is particularly good delivering the disdainful summing up of Judge Argyle that was largely responsible for the guilty verdict being so quickly overturned.

The play includes some very strong language and Jonathan Dimbleby gave several warnings of this in his introduction to the original screening, which coincided with the trial's twentieth anniversary. Dimbleby also hosted a post-transmission debate, which included the three editors as well as Robertson and 'Oz' contributor Germaine Greer, none of whom had seemingly lost their sense of irony or combative spirit in the intervening years.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Dirtying of the mind (3:02)
2. Neville's defence (4:38)
3. Interpreting cartoons (2:18)
4. 'How old is Rupert?' (2:39)
Callow, Simon (1949-)
Grant, Hugh (1960-)
Hawthorne, Sir Nigel (1929-2001)
Mortimer, Sir John (1923-2009)
Phillips, Leslie (1924-)
Planer, Nigel (1953-)
Legal Drama