The Rupert Bear Controversy: Defence and Reactions to the Cartoon in the OZ Obscenity Trial

From 1967 until 1973 Oz was the irreverent ‘colour supplement’ of the London underground press. In June 1971 the editors (Jim Anderson, Felix Dennis and Richard Neville) went on trial at the Old Bailey for, among other things, conspiring to "corrupt the morals of young children and other young persons" by producing an "obscene article", sending said article through the mail, and publishing obscene articles for gain. Had they been on trial for obscenity alone, the maximum penalty would have been a fine of £100 or 6 months imprisonment. However, the use of an (archaic) conspiracy charge meant that there was no limit on the fine or sentence that could be imposed.

Jim Anderson, Richard Neville and Felix Dennis

The ‘article’ in question was ‘School Kids’ Oz (#28: May 1970), an issue that was put together, in great part, by adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18. As usual, the magazine was a surreal mix of graphics, cartoons, articles, reviews and adverts, but a great deal of space was devoted to writing by school pupils—on such things as pop music, sexual freedom and hypocrisy, drug use, corporal punishment, and examinations ("Examinations are a primitive method of recording a tiny, often irrelevant, section of the behaviour of an individual under bizarre conditions"). The overall tone, defence witnesses and prosecution agreed, was libertarian and anti-authoritarian.

A central piece of evidence at the trial was a montage/collage of two cartoon strips that appeared in this issue. This montage was put together by Vivian Berger, then a 15 year-old schoolboy. The strips used were parts of a Rupert Bear cartoon which had been superimposed on a strip by the American underground artist Robert Crumb. Rupert Bear had appeared in the pages of the Daily Express for years (he emerged in late November 1920 as a result of circulation battles between the major dailies) and offered an innocent, nostalgic and quintessentially ‘middle-English’ version of childhood. Crumb was one of the most prolific and notoriously ‘explicit’ of the underground artists (incidentally, established cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, often up to no good, had frequently appeared in the work of underground cartoonists) and the Crumb strip that Berger used was part of a long cartoon called ‘Eggs Ackley Among the Vulture Demonesses’, which had appeared in Big Ass Comics, June, 1969. Basically, Berger’s montage presents a sexually excited Rupert Bear violating the virginity of an (unconscious) female. Although the basic drawings and speech-bubbles are Crumb’s, Rupert’s head and scarf had been carefully superimposed on the original character, and the frame titles (there are six frames) and the characteristic narrative in rhyming couplets beneath had been retained from the Rupert strip.

Tony Palmer’s book The Trials of Oz transcribes a lot of the court proceedings verbatim, and Vivian Berger’s defence is worth citing at length:

 

Asked by Mr Mortimer [defence] why he had contributed the Rupert Bear cartoon, he [Berger] replied: "I think that, looking back on it, I subconsciously wanted to shock your generation: to portray us as a group of people who were different from you in moralistic attitudes. Also, it seemed to me just very funny, and like anything else that makes fun of sex". Mortimer asked: "You say you did it to shock an older generation? What relevance did Rupert have as a figure or symbol?" Berger replied: "Well, Rupert would probably be known to many generations as the innocent young character who figures in magic fairy tales. Whereas here, he’s just doing what every normal human being does." "Was it part of your intention," he suggested, "to show that there was a more down-to-earth side of childhood than some grown-up people are prepared to think?"

"Oh yes", Berger responded cheerfully. "This is the kind of drawing that goes around every classroom, every day, in every school." The Judge looked wounded. "Do you really mean that?" he asked… "Yes, I do mean it," Berger replied immediately. "Maybe I was portraying obscenity, but I don’t think I was being obscene myself."

Mr Leary [prosecution] then elucidated from Mr Berger that he lived with his mother and his two sisters, aged 10 and 12. Yes, he had often bought Oz magazine and yes he had usually left it around the house. His mother had known about his involvement in School Kids Issue and had actually encouraged the lad to contribute. No, she did not think that it had depraved or corrupted him… Mr Leary lurched to the meat of the matter, as he described it. "You were asked by Mr Mortimer," he nodded, "about your contribution to the magazine. Do you remember saying: ‘I thought it was portraying obscenity, but not being obscene myself’?"

"Yes, I do remember saying that," Berger replied, somewhat hesitantly. Quick as a flash Leary inquired: "And what did you mean by that?" Berger was not to be cajoled. "Well," he replied, "if the News covers a war or shows a picture of war, then, for me, they are portraying obscenity—the obscenity of war. But they are not themselves creating that obscenity, because it is the people who are fighting the war that are creating that obscenity. The obscenity is in the action, not in the reporting of it. For example, I consider that the act of corporal punishment is an obscenity. I do not consider that the act of reporting or writing about corporal punishment is obscene".

 

Feliks Topolski, an artist and a defence witness, pronounced that the juxtaposition of the two elements/cartoons produced "satirical art" in a magazine "which has a large proportion of material that is immensely interesting precisely because it is produced by school children." Marsha Rowe, co-founder of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, stated that the Rupert cartoon was "puerile, rebellious, and not pornographic". However, other witnesses felt that they couldn’t take the stand, as Nigel Fountain reports in Underground:

 

Rupert, the long-time children’s cartoon from the Daily Express, meant little to Rowe, who hadn’t been in England long enough to know who Rupert was. For her the airbrushed women on the cover, with their whips, made her uncomfortable, but for her in those days there were no words to explain just what it was she was concerned about. Another potential witness did know Rupert. Having talked to Louise Ferrier she indicated that she couldn’t take the stand. She felt bad about it; and they [the defendants] were, she thought, quite offended and hurt, but Rupert, she brooded, was one of her childhood heroes. ‘I think in many ways my character was partly shaped by Rupert Bear! My memories were being violated. The arrogant, male, aggressive style of drawing that appeared in the name of revolution worried me. It brought into symbolic shape areas of male antagonism to women that were completely covered up in the old socialist style of the movement. It awakened our antagonism to the way men had the arrogance to portray sexuality in their terms’.

Cover of School Kids OZ

While the defence of the cartoon and the magazine’s general aims were persuasive (Click Here for Defence Extracts) the broader issues which the cartoon raised (Click here for Issues and Texts)seemed symptomatic of a significant split within the underground press, a split which coincided with the demise of the 60s counter-culture as a whole. On August 5th 1971, after being refused bail and kept in prison for 7 days pending ‘medical, social and psychiatric reports’ and suffering enforced haircuts which the New Law Journal called a "monstrous violation of an individual’s personal integrity", the three editors were sentenced to a variety of fines, deportation (in the case of Anderson and Neville) and prison sentences ranging from 9 to 15 months (all sentences were quashed on appeal). In her ‘Oz Trial Post-Mortem’, unpublished until collected in The Madwoman’s Underclothes (1986), Germaine Greer accused the magazine of naïve untimeliness:

 

Before repressive tolerance became a tactic of the past, Oz could fool itself and its readers that, for some people at least, the alternative society already existed. Instead of developing a political analysis of the state we live in, instead of undertaking the patient and unsparing job of education which must precede even a pre-revolutionary situation, Oz behaved as though the revolution had already happened.

Germaine Greer & Viv Stanshall on the cover of OZ 19

Friends of Oz Publicity Poster

The (Expurgated) Rupert

Gerry & Mark