Five Fascinating Facts about Kenneth Tynan

Fun facts about the life and work of the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan

1. He dodged his National Service – possibly by being too flamboyant. When Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980) was called up for National Service, he turned up with painted fingernails and wearing an over-the-top floppy hat, and ‘camped up’ his demeanour; he was promptly declared ‘medically unfit’ for service. He had long courted controversy, and even at his school debating society he put forward what were for the time ultra-progressive views in an effort to get a reaction, such as calling for the abolition of laws outlawing homosexuality and abortion. (He once gave a speech extolling the virtues of masturbation, perhaps inspired by Mark Twain’s lecture which took as its theme a similarly onanistically related subject. Later, he would unsuccessfully try to publish an anthology of masturbatory literature.) When he became a theatre critic in the early 1950s, Tynan reportedly had the slogan ‘Rouse tempers, goad and lacerate, raise whirlwinds‘ pinned to his desk. He championed John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (below right) as an important development in theatre in the 1950s, because it attacked bourgeois sensibilities and gave a voice to the alienated and dispossessed working-class youth of the post-war era.

2. Contrary to popular belief, he was not the first person to say ‘f*ck’ on British television. This factoid Look Back in Anger Osborne coveris often repeated, but it appears that Tynan was pipped to the post nine years earlier by Irish playwright Brendan Behan. On Panorama in June 1956, Behan had dropped the F-bomb but hardly anyone noticed, as Behan was – as was his wont – blind drunk.

3. Still, although Tynan may not have been the first, his use of the four-letter word in 1965 on the late-night show BBC-3 (over thirty years before the channel of that name would be launched) was the one that sparked the media firestorm. (Sadly the tapes of the programme have long since been wiped, so we can’t show you a clip.) Wittily, Private Eye observed that, owing to Tynan’s stutter, it was the first three-syllable four-letter word. Mary Whitehouse, self-proclaimed guardian of television’s moral standards, wrote a letter to the Queen, suggesting that Tynan have his ‘bottom spanked’ by way of reprimand. (Tynan, a lifelong devotee of sadomasochism, would doubtless have enjoyed such a punishment.)

4. Tynan organised the comedy revue Oh! Calcutta! The title of this 1969 show is a pun on the French ‘O quel cul t’as!’ (‘Oh, what an arse you have!’). The cast of the show were, scandalously, all naked. It featured short skits and musical numbers by such big names as John Lennon and Samuel Beckett, whose play ‘Breath‘, running at barely a minute in length, is perhaps the shortest play ever staged. (Unfortunately, ‘Breath’ only featured in the original run for a short time, and Beckett later denied Tynan permission to use it as part of the show.) Oh! Calcutta! was a big hit with audiences and remains one of the most successful stage productions of all time.

5. Kenneth Tynan co-authored the screenplay for Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Macbeth. This famous production of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy was filmed in 1971, with Jon Finch in the title role and a young Keith Chegwin as Fleance, Banquo’s son.

More theatrical trivia can be found in our brief history of tragedy and our facts about Shakespeare.

Image: Cover of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger by Gordon Joly; via Flickr (share-alike licence).

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