Scandal in Edinburgh

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By Kenneth Roy

We are approaching the 49th anniversary of the most momentous day in the history of the Edinburgh Festival, the pivotal event in the birth of the decade which came to be known as the swinging sixties.

We are also approaching the 49th anniversary of Kenneth Tynan’s arrival in Edinburgh with his young mistress Kathleen, who had recently got married – though to someone else.

By Kenneth Roy

We are approaching the 49th anniversary of the most momentous day in the history of the Edinburgh Festival, the pivotal event in the birth of the decade which came to be known as the swinging sixties.

We are also approaching the 49th anniversary of Kenneth Tynan’s arrival in Edinburgh with his young mistress Kathleen, who had recently got married – though to someone else. It was impossible for the great critic to register Kathleen at reception. Such things were not done in 1963, and certainly not in Edinburgh. But the George Hotel, where the important people at the festival were billeted (many still are), had an annexe through which Tynan smuggled Kathleen in and up the stairs to his room.

They went to bed but, before they made love, Tynan cut up an empty packet of Players’ cigarettes and wrote on it a list of the books that he wished his new mistress to read: the Communist Manifesto, ‘The Necessity of Art’ by Ernst Fischer, Letters of Marx and Engels, and ‘Studies of a Dying Culture’. Many years later, Kathleen had still not worked her way through the list. One could hardly blame the poor girl.

When Tynan was not in bed with Kathleen, he was helping to organise a drama conference at the McEwan Hall involving many distinguished personalities in the theatre world. On the last day of the conference, before a packed hall of 2,000 people, there was an elaborate ‘Happening’ in which Tynan colluded, though not with conspicuous enthusiasm.

Let Kathleen describe it:
Charles Marowitz asked the audience to come up with an official interpretation of ‘Waiting for Godot’; a planted heckler rebuked him. There followed organ music, and taped excerpts from the week’s discussions. Then a nude girl, on a BBC camera trolley, was wheeled across the balcony above the speakers’ platform. A woman with a baby dashed across the stage. A piper played, a curtain dropped behind the speakers’ platform to reveal rows of shelves of sculpted heads. Uproar ensued. – ‘The Life of Kenneth Tynan’ by Kathleen Tynan (1988)

Another Kenneth – Dewey from the west coast of America – who had choreographed the spectacle, explained that ‘we are trying to give back to you, the audience, the responsibility of theatre, performing with your own thoughts, building your own aesthetics’. Duncan Macrae, the craggy Scottish actor, shouted at Dewey from the floor: ‘I think, mister, you’re talking a lot of baloney’. Few paid much attention to this exchange. The audience was still stunned by the vision of a naked woman, in public, in Edinburgh.

The city was scandalised. The Lord Provost, Duncan Weatherstone, said it was ‘a great pity – indeed a tragedy – that the glorious festival should have been smeared by a piece of pointless vulgarity’. He wrote to the principal of Edinburgh University, Sir Edward Appleton, formally apologising on behalf of the city fathers – Edinburgh didn’t go in much for city mothers – ‘that such an exhibition occurred in academic buildings so kindly placed at our disposal’. Tynan said sheepishly that he hadn’t fancied the Happening much, ‘but we had condemned censorship earlier in the conference, so we could hardly censor this’. Magnus Magnusson asked in the Scotsman: ‘Was this theatre in any recognisable form? Or was it merely a mischievous prank to stimulate reaction – any reaction?’. As the debate raged in the press, the young woman at the centre of the scandal – I seem to remember her name was Anna – was arrested for indecency.

Tynan is long dead, Kathleen is long dead, and so is Duncan Weatherstone, the outraged civic leader, who some years later, by then a man of advancing years, fell in love with someone not much older than Anna. He was besotted by her and spent lavishly – so lavishly that the pair of them were heavily in debt. Rather than face the public humiliation of sequestration, a very terrible thing in Edinburgh, Weatherstone and his young wife gassed themselves. My old friend Magnusson is dead too, alas. Dewey disappeared back to the west coast and was never heard of again. That leaves Anna, the nude girl on the BBC camera trolley. I wonder what happened to her. I have no idea. Does anyone?

About a decade after these shocking events, I started reviewing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the Glasgow Herald. It was small enough for one critic to review everything worth noticing. By starting early in the morning and working more or less round the clock I managed to cover the whole lot single-handed. It seems scarcely credible now.

Nudity had become commonplace on the Fringe by the 1970s. Even quite well-known actresses disrobed without fear of being apprehended by the Edinburgh constabulary, and the only councillor who still made a fuss about it was Tony Lester, an endearing rent-a-quote Tory upon whom the Scottish Daily Express relied heavily. A social and sexual revolution had been successfully negotiated, and I like to think that it started that day in the McEwan Hall.

As for the George Hotel, I doubt that the annexe is much in use now – at least for its original purpose of smuggling girlfriends up the back stairs. It would indeed be an odd thing these days if a couple turned up at any of the main Edinburgh hotels during the festival and claimed to be married to each other. They might well wish to keep this to themselves for fear of appearing a shade dull.

You may be wondering why I am telling you about these 49th anniversaries. Could I not have waited until the 50th? My hope is that some enterprising people will start thinking about how to mark the half-century so that, this time next year, we can look forward to a documentary re-enactment of the final day of the 1963 drama conference, cutting perhaps to a scene in a room of the George Hotel in which Ken is introducing Kathleen to the Communist Manifesto, among a lot of other stuff.

Great days, huh? I’m not sure that beach volleyball really cuts it as the modern equivalent.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review