John Byrne fumes at Scotland’s theatre smoking ban
ONE of Scotland’s best-known artists and playwrights has condemned the country’s anti-smoking legislation, arguing that the ban in theatres amounts to censorship.
John Byrne, the creator of The Slab Boys and Tutti Frutti, has called on Alex Salmond to amend the current legislation after attending a recent production of Abigail’s Party at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh where the cast was forced to use electronic cigarettes to avoid breaching the smoking ban.
In a letter to the First Minister, Byrne said he was outraged by the move, which he said marred his enjoyment of the performance. “The audience was no longer watching a classic comedy but a farce,” he wrote.
He went on to say that the ban leaves Scotland looking like a “censorious backwater” and argued that a change in the legislation would show the country was “a grown-up nation where politicians enable artists to produce great work rather than handcuff and gag them”.
Byrne, 73, told Salmond: “We urge you to set in train a modification to the current ‘no smoking on stage’ policy in Scottish theatre – ie, if the action of a play so demands, then the actors portraying the characters may, at least, smoke herbal cigarettes in place of the totally unconvincing electronic ‘cigarettes’ now in use.”
His letter was co-signed by a number of high-profile supporters, including playwrights Alan Ayckbourn and Howard Brenton, novelist Andrew O’Hagan and filmmaker Mike Leigh.
Scotland has stricter anti-smoking laws governing theatrical performances than other parts of the UK. Actors are banned from using any kind of cigarettes in theatres and television studios.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, smoking on stage is allowed as long as it is for “artistic integrity”.
In a separate letter, sent to theatre directors and playwrights across Britain, Byrne wrote: “We are the laughing stock of these islands with our no-smoking policy on stage (or indeed on film, TV or video) in Scotland.
“Are we to remain ‘infantalised’ by this arrantly stupid and ridiculous ruling by politicians, the majority of whom have never set foot in a theatre?
“We suspend disbelief when we go to the theatre – that’s what makes it ‘real’ for us… real and rewarding and worthwhile. I’ve always presumed theatre audiences to be intelligent, grown up and aware – I, for one, have had enough interference in what is a serious and wonderful experience, that of writing and watching plays – from do-gooders and zealots – yes, AND philistines.”
Ministers insist the on-stage smoking ban is needed to help shed the habit of its “glamorous” image.
Byrne, who said he smoked six or seven “roll-up” cigarettes a day, told Scotland on Sunday: “The whole thing is tantamount to censorship.
“These people within the Scottish Government don’t care because they don’t understand theatre. They don’t understand that the pretence is real to give you that real experience.
“But people in the theatre sector in Scotland just seem to accept this without any protest at all when it came in. Everybody was just so compliant.”
Citing the example of how fake cigarettes ruined Abigail’s Party, Byrne said: “The smoking is crucial, the characters are smoking throughout the script, and it is utterly integral to the story, but it just didn’t work with electronic cigarettes. They had no effect at all.
“There was a palpable groan from the audience at Abigail’s Party when they realised what was happening.
“I had to get this off my chest before I went mad.”
In 2007, the comedian Mel Smith fell foul of Scotland’s new smoking ban when he threatened to defy the law while playing Winston Churchill during the Edinburgh Fringe. Council officials threatened to close down the Assembly Rooms venue unless he backed down.
Last night a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “The decision to take forward the smoking ban was made on public health grounds to protect the public from the health risks associated with exposure to second-hand smoke, and this includes herbal cigarettes.
“The ban applies equally to actors, performers and theatrical audiences as it does to other workers and members of the public.
“There is strong evidence to suggest that media representations of smoking contribute to the uptake of smoking among young people by creating the false impression that smoking is a glamorous activity.”
A spokesman for Edinburgh City Council, which licenses all temporary Fringe venues, said: “Our advice to people is to follow the law of the land.”
For art’s sake: Dear Alex Salmond
John Byrne’s letter
We, the undersigned, urge you to set in train a modiﬁcation to the current No Smoking On Stage policy in Scottish Theatre – ie, if the action of a play so demands, then the actors portraying the characters may, at least, smoke herbal cigarettes in place of the totally unconvincing electronic ‘cigarettes’ now in use. You cannot imagine how I personally felt having to sit through an otherwise splendid production of Mike Leigh’s 1977 play Abigail’s Party at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre recently when the cast of ﬁve, doing exactly what is written into the script, ‘lit up’ their obviously phoney ‘cigarettes’, only to surreptitiously jettison them a minute or so later and, all of a sudden, the audience was no longer watching a classic comedy but a farce.
Since the production had come from Bath, I suspect that the cast had not been forewarned what was in store for them when they sought to replicate the play as it had been conceived in the ﬁrst instance.
Of course, you know very well what will happen – Scottish playwrights will cut a character who is meant to be smoking rather than watch an actor struggle to make convincing the act of ‘smoking’ an electronic ‘cigarette’ that neither produces smoke nor gets any smaller as the play goes on, which, in my book, is tantamount to censorship. Do you want this country to be regarded as a censorious backwater? Or do you want an independent Scotland to be a grown-up nation where politicians enable artists to produce great work rather than handcuff and gag them?
We remain, yours sincerely,
John Byrne, artist & playwright; Howard Brenton, playwright; Sir Alan Ayckbourn, playwright & director; Andrew O’Hagan, novelist; Frank McGuinness, playwright; Mike Leigh, playwright & film maker