“The prisoner at the bar: Penguin Books Limited…”
In 1960, the publisher Penguin Books found itself the defendant in an obscenity trial over the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s controversial novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The novel had been published before–but only privately in 1928. Under the 1959 Obscene Publication Law, Penguin Books would be allowed to distribute and sell the book if it could be shown the book held “literary merit.”
The Chatterley trial was a sensational landmark case. The BBC film The Chatterley Affair is a factual overview of the court case entwined with the fictional love affair that takes place between two jurors, Keith (Rafe Spall) and Helena (Louise Delamare). Keith is a married, working class invoice clerk who works for a wholesale grocer, and Helena is a young upper class woman who is the process of getting a divorce. As the trial begins, these two jurors are attracted to one another, and soon commence a passionate affair, which in many ways echoes the affair between Lady Chatterley and the gamekeeper Mellors.
The very best parts of the film concern the trial, and just as the element of class is a factor in the novel, it also appears as a factor in the obscenity trial. The chief prosecutor, Mervyn Griffith-Jones (Pips Torrens) approaches his subject with just the right amount of righteous anger, and the scenes in which he reads–dripping with disapproval–from the novel–are quite marvelous. Naturally, the prosecution concentrates on the “dirty bits” which are read in a disaffected monotone that effectually renders these passages absurd. As Griffith-Jones reads these passages and asks if the book has the power to “deprave and corrupt” many of the jurors–uncomfortable with the subject matter–squirm in their seats.
Several academic critics take the witness stand and present their arguments for the literary merit of the novel, and they pick apart the novel to analyze it in various ways. Even the Bishop of Woolwich appears at one point. It’s interesting to note that those who defend the book–jurors and witnesses alike–are inevitably the target of moral judgments, and of course, the author, long deceased, receives blows against his morality too. But as one juror sensibly states, the decision of whether or not Lady Chatterley’s Lover is obscene really comes down to whether or not other people should be allowed to read the book.
The affair between Keith and Helena doesn’t work quite as effectively as the rest of the film, or perhaps it’s just not as interesting as the trial. That said, for anyone interested in censorship, D.H. Lawrence, or just literature in general, this BBC film, directed by James Hawes is well done. Transcripts from the trial were used for authenticity, and the story is very nicely set against the backdrop of the shifting culture of the 60s. DVD extras include background information on the trial, a D.H. Lawrence biography, and cast filmographies.