Articles: Anthem Of Disapproval (1958)

This article was first published in the January 2013 edition of the SJT Circular.

Forty-five years ago, the Library Theatre found itself embroiled in one of its strangest controversies due to one apparently innocuous decision.
In 1958, Stephen Joseph, inspired by certain venues in the West End, decided he would stop playing the National Anthem at every performance. In doing this, he believed the Library Theatre was the first regional venue to stop the practise.
The effect was instantaneous as on 23 January 1958, the letters page of the Scarborough Evening News raged.

“…we were so seething with rage at this insult that we tackled the director of the show, Mr Joseph. His lame excuses were: (1) he did not think the patrons wished it, (2) it was no good unless it was played by an orchestra, and (3) it would be played at the last performance of the season….”

Several more critical letters followed, but Stephen only commented at the end of the year when he told the newspaper: “I feel that those people who objected in the summer were a bit eccentric, or they were people who did not often visit theatre or just happened to be feeling cross.”
Presumably he believed the issue would go no further. Then, without warning on 28 January 1959, Maurice Plows - the treasurer of Scarborough Theatre Guild, which worked closely with the theatre - dramatically announced his resignation to the Evening News.

“I have been approached by a well-known figure in Scarborough who asked me if I could do something about it [the National Anthem]. I saw Mr Joseph who said that the National Anthem was not played at every performance in London. But it is different here. If there is sufficient local demand - and there is - for the National Anthem, then they should play it - or otherwise lose patrons…. If they [the patrons] are going to stay away because they think we are not playing the National Anthem, then we are going to lose money.”

Who approached him was never revealed nor evidence of the depth of feeling ever presented. Many people seemed to assume the National Anthem was a requirement, a view confirmed when the Yorkshire Evening Post contacted the Lord Chamberlain about the supposed outrage, only to be given short shrift.

“An official of the Lord Chamberlain’s office said today: 'There is no regulation on this. We are completely indifferent to it, and would never contemplate issuing any order or advice.'"

Sanity should have prevailed, but instead the Evening News letter pages became a battleground and The Stage ran the story in February. Mr Plows also began asserting the number of people not attending shows ran into “three figures”; quite an assertion given the company was on tour and not even in Scarborough!
This was as nothing compared to Scarborough’s Mayor, who had spotted a bandwagon to jump on and made an extraordinary claim to the Evening News.

“I have received many letters asking me if I could persuade them to play the National Anthem. It just seems ridiculous to me, considering that 75-90 per cent of the population of Scarborough want it.”

The newspaper wryly noted it had only received two letters in support of the National Anthem and the rest must be going to the Town Hall!
Finally the Library Theatre announced a referendum would be held in June and the National Anthem restored if the result were in favour. The bluff obviously called, the referendum result was never announced and the Anthem never restored.
However, the issue was not fully settled until the 1969 AGM, when Mr Plows resumed his cause.

“It was proposed Miss Clarke and seconded Mr Plows:- ‘That the National Anthem be played.’ On a vote being taken it was defeated three votes for and four against.”

Eleven years after Stephen Joseph’s decision, the National Anthem controversy was laid to rest. Although given many of the county’s theatres had followed suit, it was a battle that had long since been lost anyway.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce this article without the permission of the copyright holder.