Today (August 18) in London History – she said it would deprave and corrupt

The most remarkable Englishwoman of the 20th century, Frances Partridge didn’t set much store by Kenneth Tynan’s revolutionary all-nude show Oh! Calcutta! She said it would have been good if it had been “really pornographic.” This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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Story time. History time.

One housewife did say that she thought it would deprave and corrupt. But she added, “who gives a damn now anyway.”

And so Oh Calcutta came to London. 

It was the summer of 1970.

It opened at the Roundhouse on July 27th. The honeypot we’re heading for, though, is the performance on August 18th.

Heading there because at the Roundhouse that night to see Oh! Calcutta! was the then diarist and author Frances Partridge. And I’m going to put my cards on the table right now. If lives were meteors the meteor that was Frances Patridge’s life streaked across the firmament more brilliantly, more spectacularly than that of any other English woman in the twentieth century.  

So prepare yourself, you’re going to be meeting – going to get to know – Frances Partridge in just a few minutes. And you’re going to hear what she had to say about Oh! Calcutta! What are we, we’re now 236 podcasts into this daily, Today in London History podcast project.

They say that the average word count for a book – fiction or non-fiction – is 70,000 to 120,000 words. The word count for this podcast series is now probably about 240,000 words. So that’s two books turned out in 2/3 of a year. 

I’m not going to make any bones about this. This project has changed me in ways. I’ve learned some things. Both the immediate, in front of me things that get painted into each day’s picture but also some general, background stuff. One of those pieces of general background savvy that I’ve acquired is a taste for – and indeed a respect for – what people who lived the experiences I’m writing about said about what they were experiencing. Before, I was pretty much a secondary sources man. There’d be a historian – what he or she had to say about a historical event or period – standing between me and said historical event or period. So what I was getting, what I was drawing on was, in effect, refracted through the historian I was reading on any given subject. Well, that’s still of course going on. But I’m also now – much more than before – turning to people who were there, who experienced that given bit of history first hand. I’d say all of that was if anything reinforced by a very fine biography of Winston Churchill that I read last year. By Geoffrey Fletcher, it’s titled Churchill’s Shadow. He tells us right at the beginning that he’s gone back to Churchill’s contemporaries, drawn on their appraisal of that giant of 20th century British history. How they saw him, what they made of him. It’s a hugely eye-opening approach. It’s given us what we’d perhaps never had before – a warts and all portrait of Winston Churchill. Biographies that I had previously enormously respected now look like hagiographies.

So that’s some of the background music to this piece. Find out what people who experienced Oh Calcutta first hand made of it. 

See it with their eyes. 

That led me Frances Partridge’s diary entry. But also to what reviewers were saying. Oh and for anyone who doesn’t know, the flap about Oh Calcutta was that its USP was full-frontal all-in nudity. Or, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “Kenneth Tynan’s experiment in total nudity and ‘tasteful’ pornography.” And that was a first for the London stage. That’s why it opened at the Round House in Camden Town. It was – and is – a venue that was willing to take some risks. Traditional, conventional West End Theatre managements were nervous about this New York import, they were worried about the censor, they shied away from the whole project. The show did finally transfer to the West End – to the Royal Theatre. But what do you know, its owner was Paul Raymond, the English strip club owner and pornography publisher. He had an eye for the main bare-skinned T and A chance – he was more than happy to give the publicity pot a stir – he got up on his little dung heap and cock-a-doodle-do’d that Oh! Calcutta! would be the “biggest success the West End has had for years.”

That same Daily Telegraph article was headlined Nudity Forever. Talking about the price of Oh! Calcutta! tickets in New York – where the show first opened – the Telegraph said, “the show’s most notable contribution to theatrical history may be to make Mr Tynan and his partner Hillard Elkins into millionaires. The two appear to believe they have found in Calcutta a perpetual money-making machine. They evidently want to raise Oh! Calcutta! from the status of a dirty joke to that of an institution, to let it do for smut what the Radio City Music Hall has done over the years for wholesome corn.”

Whoa! Wonderful stuff, isn’t it. 

Or how about this? This is the start of the Times’ opening night review.

“A rare selection of London’s elegantly dressed went to see a rare selection of the elegantly undressed at the opening of Oh! Calcutta! last night. As one first nighter put it, ‘if I get bored with the show, I can always look at the audience.’ In a fast ten minutes there arrived a frilled lemon shirt, a black-and-blue patterned tuxedo, a red and blue striped evening tie and a feminine pair of white knickerbockers. As a concession to their hosts, visitors displayed a pronounced taste for the diaphanous and the decollete, and one woman wore a dress composed almost entirely of white streamers.” Inevitably, I suppose, the review was titled, Dressing Up for Oh! Calcutta!

But there’s Frances Patridge just up ahead. Before I introduce you, let me reiterate the point that the thing about London is its people. They’re what’s most interesting about the place.

We all like good stories. But as a guide I’m always for something in addition to good stories. I’m looking for good stories that are a great fit for a house or a street or a neighbourhood that I’m guiding. And with Frances Partridge I’ve achieved a hat trick. Doesn’t happen very often. But Frances has done it for me. I guide West Halkin Street in Belgravia, where she died. on the 5th of February 2004. She was 103 years old. She was reviewing for the Spectator until she was 99. She only gave it up because of failing eyesight. She did not give up travel, opera, country weekends, swimming, conversation and a stiff glass of whiskey every night. I’m telling you, Frances Patridge is an inspiration to us all.

I also guide Bedford Square. Frances Patridge was born in Bedford Square. Her father, an architect and keen sportsman, had reached the final of the first Wimbledon tennis tournament in 1877.  How cool is that?

And needless to say, I also guide Gordon Square on our Literary London Walk. 

Gordon Square, the epicentre of the Bloomsbury set.

Now the shorthand line on Virginia Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury set is they were a circle who lived in squares and loved in triangles. 

So we’ve got Frances – maiden name Marshall born in Bedford Square and turns out her architect and tennis-playing father was a friend of Virginia Woolf’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen and her mother, a suffragist, was acquainted with the Strachey family.  Lytton Strachey was of course a key figure in the Bloomsbury set. So Frances was born geographically as well as culturally connected to Bloomsbury. 

When she grew up she knew them all: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Duncan Grant, and Vanessa and Clive Bell. According to Clive Bell, Fanny, his nickname for Frances, she had the best legs in Bloomsbury. She also caught the eye of Reginald Sherring (Ralph) Partridge. Now here it gets deliciously – and ultimately tragically – complicated. Another young Bloomsbury woman, Dora Carrington, was in love with homosexual Lytton Strachey. Strachey was in love with heterosexual Ralph Partridge. Ralph Partridge was in love with Dora Carrington, who was, this bears repeating, in love with homosexual Lytton Strachey. What in the end came out in the wash was Dora and Ralph married and lived with Lytton Strachey. But there were, needless to say, problems with that marriage. 

And then sure enough Ralph Partridge, married to a woman who’s in love with a homosexual man, falls in love with Frances Marshall. Things proceed apace and in 1926 Frances and Ralph Partridge set up house together in Gordon Square. Their landlords were, wait for it, James Strachey and his wife Alix, pioneers of Freudianism in England. Frances never regretted taking up with Ralph Partridge. In her Memoirs, she wrote, ‘In my opinion, there is little more to be said for convention than there is for fashion.’ Well, I warned you, Frances’ life was a rich affair. 

Six years later Lytton Strachey dies of cancer and six weeks after that Dora Carrington commits suicide, blows her brains out. 

And in due course Frances and Ralph tie the knot.

Well, we’ve just scratched the surface of Frances Patridge’s life.

Our main concern here is what that delightful 70-year-old woman made of her night – August 18th, 1970 it was – at the Round House. In short, how did her fierce intelligence lay bare Oh Calcutta.

Here’s what she said:

And for a Today in London Recommendation. Well, given that there wasn’t a ghost an erection this one was pretty much about a very special female intelligence. Bearing that in mind, I think the right call here is to get you pointed in the direction of the Kiln Theatre in Kilburn. Opening there on September 9th – it’ll run through October 22nd – is Moira Buffini’s wonderful comedy Handbagged. 

It imagines what the world’s most powerful women – Margaret Thatcher and Her Majesty The Queen Elizabeth II – talked about behind closed palace doors.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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