Review: Never Mind the Ballocks on BBC Radio 4

Words: Ian C Douglas
Sunday 31 December 2023
reading time: min, words

Michael Eaton's drama shines the spotlight on the famous Nottingham face-off between punks and the establishment...

Eaton Edit2

Radio Four’s Turning Point is a series of plays delving into critical events that changed history. And as we know, Nottingham has had more than its fair share of those. But perhaps none epitomize modern Britain more than Nottingham’s obscenity trial against a certain punk rock album. Can you guess which one…?

Never Mind the Ballocks (BBC spelling, not mine) dramatizes Nottingham’s prosecution of Virgin Records under the 1889 Obscene Advertisements Act for displaying the (now) legendary Sex Pistols cover.

Yes, you heard right. In 1977, our city’s finest arrested the owner of Nottingham’s Virgin Records for refusing to remove said album from the shop window on King Street. Apparently our local beaks and hacks and coppers thought they were onto a sure win. As history and this play tells us, they were to be rudely awakened.

NMTB Cover

In fact, the shop owner was acting on strict orders from Richard Branson down in London. Branson then drafted in John Mortimer QC as defence counsel. The same John Mortimer who wrote Rumpole of the Bailey.

Imagine the scene! As well as Mortimer holding court (literally) Richard Branson and John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) were in the public gallery.

It is easy to see why one of Nottingham’s finest writers, Michael Eaton of Shoot to Kill, Signs and Wonders and Shipman fame, was inspired to put pen to paper and give us this hour-long slice of an infamous East Midlands scandal. His script teases out all the subtext here. What or who was really on trial here? Was it ‘bollocks,’ a word dating back to Pre-Norman Britain? Could it have been the Sex Pistols that the Establishment really wanted to shoot down? Or maybe even free speech and artistic expression were facing legal oppression?

Thanks to Mortimer’s brilliant defence the judges, almost spitting with fury, were forced to give a ‘not guilty’ verdict. But imagine if the authorities had won, what next? Ban the Sex Pistols band? Criminalize punk? Censor anyone or anything that didn’t toe the party line, that protested, that stood up to be counted, that simply wanted to be themselves? No doubt, Mary Whitehouse was watching for the court outcome and licking her lips in anticipation.

So, there were some big beasts locking horns, here in the Queen of the Midlands. The listener cannot help but wonder what became of the ordinary folk caught up in the machinations of court and commerce. The record store owner, the policewoman who complained, the university lecturer who hated punk rock but stood up for the law and linguistics.   

An hour of entertainment that keeps the listener glued to the radio set

Eaton crafts an hour of entertainment that keeps the listener glued to the radio set. The dialogue, one of his many strengths, zaps along at a nifty pace. There are some amusing uses of sound effects too, not least cassette tapes on fast forward, or the notorious Pistols album playing in the background.

Jon Culshaw’s voice talents are on hand to play Johnny Rotten, Richard Branson and Malcom McLaren, while Alistair McGowan is spot on as John Mortimer QC. Even Michael Eaton has a brief cameo, Hitchcock-like.

Definitely one to look out for or catch it here.

Never Mind the Ballocks played on Turning Points, Radio Four on Saturday 30 December 2023

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