Oh! Calcutta! - The Bare Facts

A brief cover-up by the cast of "Oh! Calcutta!"
A brief cover-up by the cast of "Oh! Calcutta!"

by Ray Setterfield

July 26, 1970 — There has never been anything quite like it, before or since. On this day, the “scandalous” revue “Oh! Calcutta!” opened in London. It ran for more than ten years, clocking up 3,918 performances.

Unsuspecting theatregoers might have assumed from the title that the revue was concerned with events based in the Indian city of Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in 2001). If so, they would soon have had their eyes opened.

Nothing at all to do with India, the show was a series of unrelated, but sex-dominated sketches featuring a totally nude cast, both male and female. The title came from a pun on the French “O quel cul t’as” meaning “what an ass you have”. The audience would have had ample opportunity to test out the claim as every feature of both male and female anatomy was put on display throughout the show.

The revue was staged at the Roundhouse, a circular building in north London constructed in 1847 to house a railway turntable and converted into a theatre in 1964. Anxious to establish whether or not “Oh! Calcutta!” was being performed on the right lines, officers from the Obscene Publications Squad joined the audience for one of the early performances.

They recommended a prosecution for obscenity. As a result, the Director of Public Prosecutions asked a team, including two retired headmistresses, to give their verdict. They decided that the show was not obscene. After that there was no looking back, so to speak, and the revue transferred to the heart of traditional theatreland in London’s West End, turning into a box office triumph.

“Oh! Calcutta” was first performed on Broadway in New York, a year before it opened in London. It became the fourth longest-running production ever on Broadway, after “Chicago,” “A Chorus Line” and “The Lion King.”

Some Hollywood stars had positive views on the question of nudity, though not specifically in relation to “Oh! Calcutta!”.

Sultry megastar Mae West, one of Hollywood’s enduring sex symbols: “My advice to those who think they have to take off their clothes to be a star is, once you're boned, what's left to create the illusion? Let ‘em wonder. I never believed in giving them too much of me.”

Actress Shelley Winters, who performed on stage and in films for more than 60 years: “I think on-stage nudity is disgusting, shameful and damaging to all things American. But if I were 22 with a great body, it would be artistic, tasteful, patriotic, and a progressive religious experience!”

Published: July 1, 2016

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