Colluding to Protect the State? The Case of the Arts Council, Special Branch and Theatre Workshop

Burt, Philippa. 2018. 'Colluding to Protect the State? The Case of the Arts Council, Special Branch and Theatre Workshop'. In: Theatricality, Performance and the State. Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom 7 - 8 June, 2018. [Conference or Workshop Item]

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Abstract or Description

Soon after it was awarded its Royal Charter in 1946, the Arts Council of Great Britain declared its commitment to support only work that was ‘done in the interest of the nation’. With the power to decide where the much-needed funding was distributed, the Council operated as a mechanism of the State, protecting its interests by supporting only those that toed the line and excluding any theatre or group that posed a threat. Nowhere was this more clear than in the case of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, which, as a regional working-class touring company led by an unapologetically outspoken woman, ran counter to the political and cultural hegemony. More dangerous still was the group’s open support of communism at a time when the Cold War was gathering pace and the British government sought to protect its borders from the ‘Red Peril’. Using recently declassified MI5 files, this paper details the State’s suspicions of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop and Special Branch’s systematic surveillance of them over a period of twenty years. Further, it argues that the Arts Council acted upon these suspicions and sanctioned the group for its counter-cultural behaviour, restricting funding so as to limit its success and influence and, in short, creating a ‘hostile environment’ in which they were forced to work. The Council thus provided the State with another more covert and insidious means of censoring theatre that was no less capable of administering fatal punishments, as Littlewood soon discovered for herself.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Theatre and Performance (TAP)


7 June 2018Completed

Event Location:

Queen Mary, University of London, United Kingdom

Date range:

7 - 8 June, 2018

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

21 Jun 2018 11:33

Last Modified:

21 Jun 2018 11:33


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