THE tabloid newspapers lapped it up, and even the relatively sober Glasgow Herald found space for this racy 1963 ‘Happening’ on its front page.

Our headlines on Monday, September 9, 1963 included ‘Labour’s plans for education’ and ‘Increase in tweed exports’ and also, fatefully … ‘Nude in Festival gallery’.

The final session of the Edinburgh Festival’s week-long International Drama Conference, staged at the McEwan Hall, had ended in controversy when 18-year-old Anna Kesselaar was wheeled across the stage on a trolley.

HeraldScotland: Arnold Wesker argues a point, watched by Joan LittlewoodArnold Wesker argues a point, watched by Joan Littlewood (Image: Newsquest)

Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, Duncan Weatherstone, could scarcely control his anger. It was, he declared, a very great pity – indeed, in a way it was a tragedy – that “three weeks of glorious festival should have been smeared by a piece of pointless vulgarity”.

Advised that the incident could technically be described as a “happening”, he responded that while it might have been explained away as a mishap, as a planned “happening” there could be no explanation or excuse.

HeraldScotland: Jim Haynes, photographed in 2011Jim Haynes, photographed in 2011 (Image: Gordon Terris)

Some tabloid newspapers expressed prudish displeasure, and Kesselaar quicky became dubbed “Lady MacChatterley”, a reference to the Chatterley trial of 1960 which had centred on D.H. Lawrence’s notorious novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Arts writer David Pollock, in his book The Edinburgh Festival: A Biography, records: “It’s difficult to overstate the frankly apocalyptic levels of prudishness unleashed by the words ‘naked from the waist up’ in 1963, especially when there were newspaper photographers present who were all too willing to take snaps of Kesselaar backstage and show them to the Lord Provost.

“… Elsewhere, a puritanical section of the Scottish public who considered moral guardianship their duty rose up to make complaints to the police”. Kesselaar and John Calder, the renowned publisher who was co-organiser of the drama conference, were subsequently charged.

The drama conference had been inspired by the outlandish success the previous year of an International Writers’ Conference, organised by Calder and Jim Haynes, another well-known figure around Edinburgh, who in 1959 had opened the popular Paperback Bookshop in the city.

HeraldScotland: Kenneth Tynan with Joan Plowright and Roland DuncanKenneth Tynan with Joan Plowright and Roland Duncan (Image: Newsquest)

A startling array of authors had taken part – Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark and Alexander Trocchi among them. A landmark success, it generated considerable publicity for the festival. The Festival Director, Lord Harewood, a cousin to the Queen, quickly gave his blessing for another event the following year. Calder immediately suggested a drama conference.

The conference chairman in September 1963 was Kenneth Tynan, the influential theatre critic and author. He had immediately made pointed remarks about the Foreign Office and the refusal of visas to conference delegates from East Germany. He was, noted the Glasgow Herald’s Christopher Small, noted, “clearly looking forward to a week of storm and stress”.

In the chair for the opening day was the celebrated novelist JB Priestley, wearing a bright new red tie, and looking burly and intrepid. Also in the McEwan Hall: writers and playwrights Wolf Mankowitz, Peter Shaffer, Arnold Wesker, Robert MacLellan and Lillian Hellman; actors Dame Judith Anderson and Dorothy Tutin, and Joan Littlewood, of the ground-breaking Theatre Workshop, who was taking part in a Chichester production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan at the Assembly Hall.

The Earl of Harewood, was there, as was David Frost, compere of the satirical TV show, That Was the Week That Was. Truly, a starry cast.

No wonder that Small could write: “Many a box-office manager may have looked wistfully enough at the crowds streaming in... ; many a director may have felt a pang of envy to see the international cast trooping onto the platform, some 90-strong, photographed, televised, attended by the technological pomp of polyglot translation machines and an agreeable murmur of expectation”.

Obituary - John Calder, ground-breaking publisher, co-founder of the Traverse and leading figure at the Edinburgh festival

The theme for the day was “Who makes today’s theatre”, though some of the matters under discussion were perhaps too specialised for public consumption – authors’ rights, state control of the theatre as a panacea for its problems.

HeraldScotland: John Calder with William BurroughsJohn Calder with William Burroughs (Image: John Minihan)

It was then that Sir Laurence Olivier – one of the greatest actors of the age, world-famous stage and film director, founder and first artistic director of the National Theatre – stepped up. He likened Edinburgh to a favourite auntie, elderly and sweet-scented, and he spoke of his pleasure at being present on her ample lap and in the shadow of her beautiful bosom.

On the second day the cast included Harold Pinter, Bernard Levin, Wolf Mankowitz (again), Wesker (again), and John Arden.

Someone asked Pinter, why were they all there? “We aren’t a collection of playwrights,” he responded, “but a number of specimens you’ve been invited to look at.” Why did they consent to be looked at? “Because,” he said, mockingly, “we all want to be film stars.”

HeraldScotland: Wolf Mankowitz and Dorothy Tutin in conversationWolf Mankowitz and Dorothy Tutin in conversation (Image: Newsquest)

Day three had a touch of glamour when the actor Carroll Baker told tales of Hollywood life. Others taking part included theatre director Peter Brook, broadcaster Ned Sherrin, barrister and dramatist John (“Rumpole”) Mortimer, and the French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Day four witnessed a debate about censorship, with the Lord Chamberlain, the “official licenser of plays and regulated restrictions on drama”, being baited by theatre producer George Devine. One writer suggested that British playwrights go on strike against censorship. Lillian Hellman reflected on her attempts to get a British performance licence for her play, The Children’s Hour.

Theatre legend Jim Haynes whose naked scandal rocked the Fringe honoured

Kesselaar’s infamous cameo on day five came in the middle of what Christopher Small described as “juvenile Dadaist escapades”. As Jim Haynes later reflected: “The word which was in the air at the time was ‘a happening’, and it was decided one would be staged during the conference … The press gallery was opposite [Kesselaar] and it became the thing they focused on.”

In December, Kesselaar, who was then living at an address in Portobello, and was represented in court by advocate Nicholas Fairbairn, was acquitted of having acted in a shameless and indecent manner. The burgh prosecutor said he would desert the charge against Calder of having been art and part of Kesselaar’s cameo.

The Glasgow Herald, in a leader the day after Kesselaar’s acquittal, alleged that the “dramatists and their hangers-on” had been far less entertaining than the writers had been in 1962. This was why Kesselaar had been introduced, the conference having shown contempt for its audience and deciding that it needed some amusement at the end.

In an interview with The Scotsman in 2012, Kesselaar, by now a grandmother of 68, spoke frankly about the escapade.

“I did it for art, and £4,” she said. “It was absolutely huge. The only thing that would have superseded 
it would be the outbreak of war. It was completely loony stuff”.

But there was a backlash: as The Scotsman recorded, she was denounced from the pulpit of St Giles Kirk, fired from her job with Basil Spence’s architecture firm, and described being chased by child protection crusaders trying to remove her infant son.

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“When you have a morality that dictates, you are in trouble,” Kesselaar added. “The morality of Edinburgh at that time was repression of everything: sexual repression, political repression, social repression.”

Concludes David Pollock in his Edinburgh Festival book: “The fiery debates of the Writers’ Conference and the boundary-challenging Happening of the Drama Conference were seismic events of their era, in the latter case front-page news across the world.

“The 1960s didn’t involve as many moral bets being off as those who build the decade’s legend might suggest, but for all the social change that did occur before 1970, these weeks in Edinburgh provided plenty of grease for the wheels”.