You don’t hear much about film censors nowadays. Yet forty years ago, when the term ‘video nasty’ seemed to be everywhere, so were the censors. There was moral outrage at films depicting violence or sexual images, with a very vocal minority telling us it was best we didn’t see them for fear they would turn us into depraved monsters. But if these films risked warping our fragile minds, what would they do to those who had to watch them to decide that?
Enter Charles (Jack Cooper), a member of the film censorship board and anti-hero of Moral Panic. Charles is everything you expect of those 1980s characters who deemed themselves fit to decide what we could or (more the case) couldn’t see. He oozes pompous smugness. With his manicured little moustache and buttoned-up cardigan, he epitomises everything wrong with those who deem themselves our moral guardians. Charles believes he is made of sterner stuff than us: his stiff upper lip and boarding school training means he won’t be affected by the horrors he has to witness whilst protecting the country from filth and depravity.
Initially, all is going well for him, especially when his boss announces he is leaving. Surely Charles is the ideal replacement? Imagine his horror then when Veronica appears to steal his thunder. She is everything Charles despises; not just a woman, but a liberal to boot. Worse, she oozes sexuality, and my God, she’s Italian! How could a European know what’s morally right for us Brits? Doesn’t she know we are morally superior?
Moral Panic takes us deep into Charles’ mind and his battle to maintain those all-important standards, protecting us lesser mortals. But it’s clear attitudes are slowly changing. Charles is very much the old-school unwavering moral police, whilst Veronica offers a new, fresher approach to life and censorship. When his wife casually suggests “someone should censor her” it feels as if the seed is sown as to where we are heading. Except that Stuart Warwick’s deft writing wrong-foots us completely, and we find ourselves at a very different screening.
Cooper delivers an incredible performance, worthy of Warwick’s marvellously thought-out script. As Charles, he really is a pompous know-it-all; so sure of himself that he is both thoroughly unlikeable and totally believable in the role of a film censor. He then somehow transforms himself completely to bring in supporting characters; his Veronica is disturbingly good, as we watch him turn on her sexual allure, running hands down his/ her body. Now those scenes should have been censored!
The sound design adds yet another fabulous layer. From the moment we enter Etcetera‘s black box we are greeted with the unmistakable sounds of a video nasty playing whilst Charles stares unblinking at the imaginary screen, jotting notes on a clipboard as stiff as his back. But it’s more than this that help set the scene. It’s the rain outside; it’s the background party and film noises; it’s those unmistakable 80s cinema sounds that all add up to create an authentic ambience as Charles’ disgust bubbles to the surface.
Moral Panic is an impressive, dark, comic delve into an era that seems long gone; one when those in control feared that we just couldn’t cope with seeing such horror on the screen. With a well-crafted script, brought to life by the more than capable Cooper, it’s a play that will leave you smiling at how surprisingly it all turns out. The only people who surely won’t like this are those pompous film censors who might see a little too much of themselves in Charles.
Written by: Stuart Warwick
Produced by: Blue Dog Theatre
Moral Panic plays at Etcetera Theatre until 6 August. Further information and bookings can be found here.