You may laugh at the guardians of Festival morals of days gone by but they did a necessary if strange job, writes Aidan Smith
Some naked magicians invaded The Scotsman’s offices the other day. This happens from time to time, or rather it happens every year around this time when thousands of artistes from the Edinburgh Festival will do anything to flog tickets for their shows.
But we’ve seen it all in here and my female colleague who was inveigled into taking part in the impromptu performance was unimpressed. The troupe lacked conviction both in their conjuring flourishes and their nudity. “Is that all you’ve got?” might have been her response. But what would Moira Knox have said?
The flash(er)mobbing happened on the day we learned of Knox’s death. If you don’t know who she was then you don’t know your Festival. An A to Z of the world’s biggest arts extravaganza produced a few years ago wisely decided to give the Tory councillor the letter K all to herself, as befitting her status as the capital’s filth-hunter general.
If you were taking off your clothes in the name of art, Moira wanted to know about it. If you were taking the Lord’s name in vain she’d be on your case. If you were doing anything which she regarded as not in keeping with the most beautiful city in the world, also the most prim, also the most douce, then she’d raise it under the appropriate sub-committee’s any other business and do her utmost to ban you.
This was the essential drama of the Edinburgh Festival but where has it gone?
The world has changed and can no longer be shocked. Even Edinburgh’s changed. Does anyone still call it douce? Or refer to it as a duchess? I don’t think so. Does anyone still talk of the duchess “lifting up her petticoats” for the three weeks of the Festival? I haven’t spotted this cliche since I last used it myself, back when reporting on the good councillor’s tussles with avant-garde thespians and shameless exhibitionists was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.
Edinburgh is a swanky place now with a rattling tram and an astonishing number of boutique hotel rooms at its disposal. A mini-break crowd roams the city in search of laughs. Many who come to “do the Festival” think it’s a comedians’ convention and they have a great time. But have Edinburgh and the Festival swapped roles? The one that used to be considered sedate would like to think it’s had a sexy makeover. The one that used to be a whole lot more outre and shocking can often seem quite conventional.
Certainly when city and cultural clamjamphrie played the parts originally written for them then Edinburgh was the most tremendous fun at Festival-time. Here was the immovable object being met by an irresistible force wearing no clothes.
I cannot even claim that as a cub reporter, struggling over the shorthand outline for “libidinous” and hoping that Councillor Knox was not going to use any more tricky words to convey her moral outrage, that I saw the best of it.
For Knox was merely carrying on the good work of Councillor John D. Kidd, a giant of “Is nothing sacred?” bluster.
Kidd entered municipal politics in the mid-1960s on a Progressive ticket, quickly switching to Independent after accusing his party of acting like the Gestapo, and would have been a colourful character in the City Chambers even without his heroic work every August to try and ensure Edinburgh stayed properly buttoned up.
He railed against fat bus conductresses, the boys of the Royal High School for cleaning out his local baker’s shop of pies, and the university students he dubbed “reptiles and fascists”. Sporting a long, flowing wig to confront them, he said: “I am letting you see what freaks you are.” Then he checked the undergraduates for head lice.
Sex? Acceptable in its place, according to the councillor, but he disapproved of sex shops encroaching on his city, sex education in schools and the famous Family Planning poster of a pregnant man. Sex at the Festival? Ripping off another commercial of the time, one of Kidd’s political opponents described him as “Edinburgh’s biological detergent for deep-down cleanliness”.
Rigorous scrutiny of the Traverse Theatre and other diabolical venues was necessary every August, according to Kidd, to stop Edinburgh turning into a brothel. He witnessed the offending shows, often undercover, so the matrons of Davidson’s Mains – his constituency – didn’t have to. Diligent reporting gave them the bare bones, though: “A young girl naked from the waist up sits muttering sexual obscenities .... another near-naked girl crawls towards a man with a whip.” This was Mass in F, a Traverse production from ’68. Kidd was suitably appalled only to be taunted by the theatre’s chairman, Nicholas Fairbairn: “Don’t miss the next one. It’s got everything: fornication, incest, castration.”
From the Festival of ’69 the bold John D. compiled what the press called “a diary of sin and filth” which he presented to the home secretary, Jim Callaghan, to seek a swift re-tightening of censorship laws. They’d only just been loosened with the Lord Chamberlain gave up the right to close plays which compromised “good manners, decorum and the public peace”.
The dossier of dirt and decadence included the all-male kiss in Edward II which made Ian McKellen a star, a Dutch mime troupe who duelled with tin phalluses and a production of Sartre where Kidd was confronted by “a woman at the palace gates with naked breasts as big as old-fashioned car headlamps”.
“John Knox rides again,” went the headline on a report of his urgent protestations.
Kidd died in 1973 when a bench was sited in his memory in Princes Street, across the road from Jenners. In a photograph of the ceremony, Moira Knox is seated at the end, not yet a councillor or a moral guardian. Maybe the job she did, and Councillor Kidd did, has become obsolete. But some of us still need protecting from lousy illusionists in the scud.