Today in London religious history, 1971: the Gay Liberation Front mash up reactionary christian Festival of Light

“Excuse me, Sister, we’ve heard some homosexuals and radicals are going to try and disrupt our meeting here tonight. Will you pray for them?”

The National Festival of Light was founded in 1971. The original founding impulse had come from two christian missionaries, Peter and Janet Hill, on their return to England after spreading the word of god to the benighted – whether the benighted wanted it or not.

After four years as evangelical Baptist missionaries in India, the Hills experienced a sense of culture shock when they discovered that sexually explicit content was more prevalent in the mass media than when they had left. Getting in touch with vocal figures in the media, the couple helped launch the National Festival of Light in May 1971, to oppose “pornography and moral pollution”.

Journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge, “clean-up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse, Labour cabinet member Lord Longford, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston soon became the faces of the Festival, which vowed to campaign against what they saw as the growing trends in the mass media for the explicit depiction of sexual and violent themes and for the restoration of conservative Christian morality in the UK. Pop star Cliff Richard and actress Dora Bryan were key supporters of the NFOL; many evangelical churches supported the movement, including the repulsive Salvation Army. The Festival quickly gained support among rightwingers, reactionaries and neo-fascist throwbacks of various stripes…  Signs of impending apocalypse many of the Festival supporters included the growth of sex outside marriage, the proliferation of sex in films, homosexuality, the Oz trial

The movement had two expressed aims: to protest against “sexploitation” in the media and the arts, and to offer the teaching of Christ as the key to ‘recovering moral stability in the nation’. Some supporters naturally emphasised the first, and others the second. Plans were made for major public events, including the lighting of beacons on hilltops throughout the United Kingdom, and culminating in a massed march to a public rally in Trafalgar Square and an open-air concert of Christian music in Hyde Park.

The administrative task of enlisting the support of Christian churches and denominations throughout the UK was a colossal one, as indeed was the necessity for public relations with the press and the general public. The committee and many local volunteers were occupied with this throughout the first half of 1971.

From the start, its overtly Christian proselytising attracted the critical attention of the counter-culture, which saw the message of moral reform as code for sexual repression, censorship and a return to the puritanical social values of previous eras. Homosexuality and women’s liberation, the one having been decriminalised (for men over 21) only 4 years before, and the latter in its early days challenging centuries of patriarchal domination, were both viewed dimly by many of the Festival’s supporters. These movements were not slow to rise to challenge the evangelicals’ attempt to return Britain to the dark ages…

It was the Gay Liberation Front who took the initiative in opposing it. They sent an undercover volunteer to infiltrate its headquarters and report back on its plans.

The Festival was scheduled to launch officially with a huge prestigious rally on September 9th 1971 in Westminster Central Hall; the organisers saw this as their chance to get publicity for the campaign in the media. The GLF, women’s liberation movement and other underground groups set their sights on disrupting this rally and making it a disaster. As a result, the day became what the Festival themselves admitted was a total laughing stock…

‘The Festival of Light was put to us in the middle of the summer and we were told it was this group of League of Empire Loyalists and all sorts of strange people and anti-gay. All the information was got for us by people from the Monty Python team and it was funded by Graham Chapman and others via Denis Lemon. Janet went to work in the Festival office and she got tickets and things so that more could be forged.’ (Michael James)

The GLF had been founded the previous October, and was then at its most active and creative. It was holding meetings of 400-500 every week, bursting with energy and pushing at the boundaries in almost every direction it could explode.

‘We would spend whole weekends talking about ways of furthering gay liberation and countering our opponents. John Chesterman had the kind of mind that could work out plans like kidnapping a statue or subverting a book. The festival action was much more than just Street Theatre people. They were there from other hippie groups and from the underground press.’ (Stuart Feather)

‘ ‘Networking’ as a word didn’t really exist then but its what we did over the Festival of Light. We started to put word out through the underground press. I persuaded Janet to volunteer for the Festival, in their main office, so we had access to all the literature and even the mailing list. Ae sent out fake mailings on it. For the big final rally, we sent out false parking plans for the coaches, which gave people real hassle.’ (John Chesterman)

The action to disrupt the September 9th rally became known as Operation Rupert. A number of groups were organised, each acting independently, who would kick off inside the rally in turn…

‘John Chesterman… asked us in advance to think of ideas for something to do, but not to tell anyone what our idea was. We met in the office, identified who our groups were and he gave us a number each. I was number seven and I knew who number six was. He said that once number six was finished, you won’t know what they’re doing, but you then take off from there in your own time.’ (Michael James)

‘John handed round a note: Festival of Blight – opening ceremony… Enter the hall in small groups. Ones or twos. Act unobtrusively. Dress conservatively. Act cool. Make no sign of protest until it is your turn. Do not speak to each other. Sit as close to the centre of your row as possible. Let the previous demonstration finish completely before you start yours. Let everyone settle down and the speeches start again. Part of the purpose is to slow down and delay proceedings. Stick to the agreed form of protest and/or slogans and do so clearly and loudly. Offer passive resistance only. Do not fight back. A general brawl will only confuse he media image. If there is any aggression, let them look like the villains in the press reports. Do not carry anything that could be construed as an offensive weapon. Do not carry dope or anything else illegal. You may be arrested so make arrangements… beforehand. Make no statements to the police until you have legal assistance. They can not force you to do so. Do not speak to the press or TV.

The Festival of Light demonstration was the most enjoyable one because it was perfectly orchestrated. All the libertarian left groups collaborated and nobody leaked it, which was amazing…’ (Tim Clark)

As a number of GLF members discovered a prodigious talent for forgery, there were more than enough tickets to the Festival for all who wanted to get involved in the disruption…

‘We all met at Cleopatra’s Needle beforehand. Underneath a suit I had a beige lace dre4ss with pearl buttons all the way down the front, long sleeves and a full circle lace skirt. I don’t know how I’d managed to crush it all up and get it into my trousers, but they weren’t looking for things like that. Peter Flannery and I chose this space right at the back of the Central Hall… It has this incredibly steep rake, so we sat against the back wall in the middle of the row. Gradually the hall filled up and we saw various people sitting around the hall in various spots.’ (Michael James)

Many of those who had infiltrated the hall were unaware of the scope of the plans, so tight had security been kept.

‘At Central Hall, I was with a group of people from the Youth Group who were in the balcony… it was left to everybody’s common sense and judgment about when to erupt and what to do. All we did have worked out was that different people were assigned different things… the group I was with was assigned to erupt and express same-sex affection at a relevant moment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘It had taken just over ten days to organise. Fifteen independently operating but coordinated groups. GLF, Womens Lib, IT, Oz, Frendz, and others. But mainly GLF. Phone calls; meetings; leaflets to be written, printed and distributed; costumes; banners; all the last minute panic, hustle and briefings. About 150 people from almost all the radical groups in London. That was probably the most important thing of all. NCCL came along as observers. Many individuals came on their own and stood on their own in that huge audience.’ (John Chesterman).

The Festival organisers had possibly got some wind of the likelihood that disruption could expected; but had no idea of what they would face:

‘To cope with any disruptive tactics or opposition within the hall a strong body of marshals was recruited. It could hardly have been visualised how necessary they were going to be… Stewards had noticed several members of the audience who, to say the least, looked unlikely to be supporters of the Festival. Among the characters regarded with suspicion were half a dozen young ‘nuns’. Stewards quickly spotted that some of the were young men in disguise. To minimise trouble a steward was stationed behind each ‘nun’ in the audience!’ (And Then There Was Light, John Capon – the official history of the Festival of Light)

‘Janet and I had the white mice and Mary Whitehouse recognised Janet. She said, ‘Don’t I know you?’ but she couldn’t quite make the connections, and when the disruption was at its height she turned and gave Janet a very hard look. People did see us release the mice and this woman started hitting me over the head in a frenzied manner with her handbag, yelling ‘Jesus loves you’ again and again.’ (Jane Winter)

‘I can remember a woman coming up to Tony Salvis, who was dressed as a bishop. She made some remark about how we were living in a very sinful world, none of us is without sin. Tony turned to her and said ‘Don’t worry sister, keep right on sinning.’ The woman just stood there frozen for several seconds with her mouth ajar and looked Tony up and down and just walked off in utter bewilderment.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘Where the hell were the others? Had they got past the heavies on the door? The faces more than fifteen feet away ran into a blur. Nuns. There should be nuns. One group, yes, two, three. Were they ours? They looked too genuine. Jesus, they were actually praying. Damn this sweat. The stewards at the end of the row were looking this way. The one with the glasses had been down on the Embankment when we were assembling. Cameras, microphones, choirs, people. Hundreds, thousands of them. All the galleries full and more coming in. Somewhere out there were the groups. They had to be. Waiting for the signal. Had they got the right positions? How many of the props had they got in? Stop trembling, it must be a dead giveaway. Smile. Suddenly, a couple of yards away, a small white mouse ran like slow clockwork across the aisle. They were there.’ (John Chesterman’s notes).

‘The choir was up on stage in plum velvet cloaks. The first thing that happened was the applause – we just went on applauding, loud and slow, which has a certain menace.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘Things started and there was clapping going on too long – I think that was John Chesterman – and so they asked him to leave.’ (Michael James)

‘I didn’t get slung out because I wasn’t disruptive. One of the things I thought was impressive about it was that when Trevor Huddleston spoke, nobody interrupted him because we did all respect him and we thought he’d made a mistake. Michael Brown and I wrote him a letter with our awareness group, asking him not to be part of it and he actually went and met with this group and eventually withdrew from the Festival of Light. And I think that’s partially because we didn’t just abuse him. Because we knew in a way that he was misguided. I remember various folk groups and then people coming and talking sodomy and unchristian marriage and abortion, those were the kind of people who got interrupted.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘We got everyone spaced around the hall and then I noticed that opposite the front row where I was sitting there was a row of plugs. I managed to pull out two but it wasn’t enough. I kept going back in after being thrown out. The trouble was pacing people; everybody wanted to do their bit straight away.’ (John Chesterman)

‘I remember all the mice being released. Two elderly women holding on to each other suddenly unfurled a banner from the balcony saying ‘Cliff for Queen’. It became total mayhem as he incidents started to pile up into each other. We deposited fake religious literature around which had religious covers, so they would be picked up and taken away to be read – only inside it was porn.’ (Tim Clark)

Danish evangelist Johannus Facius lectured the audience of the terrible fate of his home country after it had liberalised censorship laws – only to be nearly drowned out by the saboteurs in the crowd. The organisers tried to out-noise the protest with loud hymns…

‘What was most bewildering to the Festival goers was the range of tactics used and the layers of reality abused. People were blowing bubbles peacefully alongside displays of same-sex affection, suddenly disrupted by respectable-looking people erupting into obscenity or arguing with the speakers while mice scuttled around the hall. Talcum powder and pornography inside christian texts showered down from the balcony. Worst of all, you couldn’t even trust the church.

‘Tony Salvis was going round (as a vicar) going ‘Bless you, my son.’ He did look absolutely right for the part. All these Christians were coming up very worried about these dreadful homosexuals and then eventually he revealed himself in some way and it was ‘Oh no, not another one!’ Because he looked so respectable.’ (Nettie Pollard).

‘And then Malcolm Muggeridge came forward to speak. Because of his thorough recantation of his earlier liberal views he, like Cliff Richard, was a particular target for the demonstrators and he compounded their feelings almost immediately. ‘Malcolm Muggeridge was vile. He was the one who said he disliked homosexuals or something like that.’ (Nettie Pollard)

When Muggeridge made a statement about hating gays, that was when our youth group got up and started kissing. Lesbian couples and gay couples started kissing. We got jeered and abused by the Festival of Light people in the seats around us. Some of them tried to push and shove us out of the way but we just carried on kissing for about ten minutes.’ (Peter Tatchell)

‘When Malcom Muggeridge started to attack homosexuals, Simon (Benson) stood p a few rows in front of him and said, ‘If hat is so, you must really dislike someone who is both homosexual AND Jewish.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Malcolm Muggeridge was so badly heckled that the choir was brought back on to sing ‘How Sweet the name of Jesus Sounds’  – wheeling the choir on seems to have been the standard response to disruption – while attempts were made to restore order by the stewards.

‘Plainclothes men were practically carrying me down the corridor. ‘Think yourself bloody lucky. We want a word with you outside.’ Suddenly the corridor was blocked by a large bald-headed man wearing a bible. ‘You homosexuals are SCUM. You are nothing but BESTIAL FILTH’ He was breathing into my face, shaking with rage and hysteria. ‘Read this and find out what subversive MUCK you are.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘It was round this time that the nuns acted. I was just by them and I remember someone saying to them, ‘Pray for us, sisters’, and I couldn’t believe they honestly thought they were nuns. They were a mixture of men and women including Sue Gimore. As far as I remember, they started walking towards the front and then started running and whooping and about then the mice were released, I don’t know who did that. But they got right up the front and people were absolutely staggered, they couldn’t believe it. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to them that people would dress as nuns. They thought they were real nuns and they couldn’t cope – it was incomprehensible, these people had gone mad suddenly. It was the first time we had used nuns on a gay demonstration in Britain.’ (Nettie Pollard)

[Dressing as nuns however had been used previously by womens liberation groups to confuse the police on their demos…]

The GLF nuns had been part of a grander plan which had not come to fruition. According to John Chesterman, they were sitting around in the GLF office one day planning the action when Graham Chapman of Monty Python’s Flying Circus stuck his head round the door.

‘He was always the sort of person who wouldn’t come right into the room, he just hovered in and out. He said ‘D’you want any camels?’ and there was a sort of stunned silence and someone said ‘yes’. The after a few seconds pause, someone else said, probably joking, ‘And nuns.’ Camels and nuns’ he said, ‘Okay’. But there were all sort of regulations and licences, we were supposed to find camel handlers, for God’s sake. So in the end we just had the nuns.

I was dressed up as an American evangelist’s wife with some bloke from round here, it drew in all sorts of people. We had football rattles and we were supposed to run up and down the aisle shouting. It was co-ordinated really well and so it was triggered. You could have mice and then stink bombs and snow and the football rattles. Anyway, we got thrown out and I went ‘Oh my God this is terrible. They’ve just thrown me out and I’m an innocent woman going to the toilet!’ Then this husband and I ran down the middle shouting ‘Fuck for Jesus’ in front of Cliff Richard. Anyhow we got thrown out again. Meanwhile the nuns came out, and all the audience was going ‘yes sisters!’ and then they turned round and started doing the cancan and people realised they were men.’ (Julia L)

‘The nuns took off in a flying phalanx, down the aisles towards the platform. A banner unravelled with a personal invitation to Cliff Richard to take over the monarchy. On the platform he had the grace to blush.’ (John Chesterman)

‘In the midst of all the confusion, the nuns get up and begin dancing in front of the stage. The security guards wrestle with them. The crowd’s shocked, one of the nun’s robes comes off … hairy legs and big ugly boots … it’s Russ, of the Pink Fairies rock & roll band. They throw him out along with the rest of the bogus nuns and bring up the choir to sing and drown out the noise.’

‘A mouse, sailing through the air, landed on a lap full of hymn sheets. A section of the audience erupted. Peter (Bette Bourne), unstoppable, was loudly complaining of the atmosphere of violence, the disturbing vibrations and how could he concentrate on God? A woman turned around in front of him. ‘There you are’ he said, ‘I can see the violence in your eyes.’ ‘No, no, it’s the light of Jesus.’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I was eventually thrown out, I was shouting out ‘There is violence in this room, there is violence’ and me and John Church, who were two trained actors, gave it lots of voce.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘My cue was Bette Bourne because I knew Bette. Bette was sat across the other side of the hall in the front row dressed as Colonel Blimp, tweeds and things. The demo previous had been a ‘Cliff for Queen’ banner which had suddenly been unfolded over the front of the balustrade. They had been hustled out with a great noise and pushing and shoving and ranting and raving. Bette started in this wonderful county voice, going ‘There is violence going on here, these men are being beaten up, there’s no reason for physical violence.’ He shocked everyone because it was quite true and it freaked the stewards, who were kicking people, to have it brought to everyone’s attention.

They sussed that Bette was part and parcel o the demo and he was asked to leave, but during this time I’d transformed myself from the three-piece suit, slipped out of that, given it to Peter next to me, who’d put it into a carrier bag, plumped out this lovely coffee lace dress, put the shoes and a little bit of eye shadow and lipstick on and a wig. Nobody noticed – we were at the very back of the hall and people were standing up to sing every time there was a demonstration and I was sat down getting ready behind them. The people next to me didn’t notice, they were too busy looking to see what was happening around the rest of the room.

It was in the middle of Malcolm Muggeridge’s speech. He must have paused and I shot up in the back of this row and screamed out ‘I’ve been saved! I believe! I see the Lord!’ just doing this terrible cod impression of a Southern belle who’s suddenly seen the light. Being where we were, in the middle of a row with that steep rake, they had to be very gentle getting us out. We didn’t fight, Peter and I came quietly but we made sure they came to us first. So they had to get everybody out the first half of the row and shuffle in disruption and I had this wonderful huge steep staircase to the exit in full view of everybody in the hall. I came down very slowly with this beautiful dress wafting the lace all over people’s heads and continuing on in the same vein ‘I believe! I’ve seen the Lord! I’ve been saved! Glory hallelujah!’ all the way down these stairs.’ (Michael James)

‘I remember when Michael [James] said ‘I’ve been saved!’ people went ‘Hallelujah!’ thinking that somebody really had found Christ. I think these Christians were extremely naïve, because I don’t think any of us looked right. I mean, this extra-ordinary over made-up man dressed as a woman… and he was right at the back, up against the wall and stood on his seat or something. I didn’t actually know who it was at the time, then gradually he was revealed as a man.’ (Nettie Pollard)

‘He came down the steps in full drag with all these people cheering, they didn’t know whether to take it seriously. The meeting was totally disrupted, people were taking out the nuns and the elderly because they thought it was going to get violent, but it wasn’t violent at all, it was harmless apart from the stewards, but it was extremely powerful in term of disruption.’ (Bette Bourne)

‘As if all that was happening within the hall wasn’t enough, a small squad from the office collective, led by Martin Corbett, had managed to get into the basement below and interrupted part of the electricity, causing problems for people trying to film and adding to the air of general anarchy. ‘Mine was one of the last actions of the day. We just put on Ku Klux Klan drag and stood there demanding that perverts be burnt at the stake… we all got thrown out by stewards wearing crosses, who got quite a few thumps in to prove to us that they were the church militant, I suppose.’ (Stuart Feather)

John Capon, in his official history of the Festival of Light, claimed that after this the protest largely ended and the speakers were able to speak unhindered – however, most GLF memories suggest otherwise, and that small-scale protests and heckling continued.

‘Outside, a nearby pub was crowded with post-mortems and high spirits. Check leaflets for distribution. ‘Is someone outside to direct he groups in here? When does the audience come out? Hey, the BBC TV news cameras are out there.’ Tony being interviewed ‘Are you a Roman Catholic or Protestant?’ ‘I’m a priest of the liberation.’ Crowds sweeping out. Leaflets. ‘Read our side of the story.’ The leaflet with crosses on it is easiest to give away. They take them as a reflex action.

The bald-headed steward is there again. ‘Get out of here. You are ANIMALS. You are intruding on our privacy.’ ‘It’s a public meeting.’ ‘Only if you have tickets.’ I give him a handful. Eleven or twelve. He tears them in two and throws them on the floor.

‘Litter’ I remind him gently, and dodge.

(John Chesterman’s notes)

‘I don’t think anyone got arrested, which is fairly amazing. There was an attempt to arrest somebody outside for kissing a policeman, but it didn’t work. There was this enormous sea of lesbians and gay men suddenly around the policeman and I remember him looking around and thinking, I don’t think this is worth it, and he shuffled off. It was very, very funny indeed. You often saw police at a disadvantage because they didn’t know how to handle us. I remember there was a stall with Christian books and people from GLF started stealing them. I got one of Trevor Huddleston’s books that someone gave me and I said to Paul Theobald, ‘I don’t think we should be stealing these books’ and he said, ‘Of course we should.’ He believed it was tight but I’m not sure.

There was a definite decision to try and talk to people as they came out. It was a really nice atmosphere and I genuinely think that talking to some of those people did have an effect and they did think twice about whether or not they should be involved. Because they weren’t just being shouted at. Although we did such outrageous things we were real people prepared to talk with them. I went to the thing OutRage! disrupted in Brighton. The Christian Family thing about three years ago, and what happened there was that they rushed the stage and got thrown out and then as everybody was leaving they went through a cordon of angry lesbians and gay men shouting abuse at them. I just thought, what is the point of this? Because we’re neither preventing them from doing this nor are we making them think. All we’re doing is making them think we’re rabble.’ (Nettie Pollard)

The whole area of pavement outside the entrance is covered with arguing groups as a public discussion gets under way with the Children of God. Inside there is a confrontation with those of the organisers and speakers who are prepared to talk. The Jesus-freak, the beautiful one with the long blond hair and flowing beard, the one with the pale blue eyes, screams, ‘You people are an abomination!’ (John Chesterman’s notes)

Press coverage of the Festival launch dwelt heavily upon the disruption, and some papers took the mick out of the christians. The Daily Mirror reported ‘five bogus nuns… fending off hefty stewards’. The Guardian reported about 150 protestors, making special mention of the nuns, the Southern belle and Bette Bourne’s Colonel Blimp. The publicity was a serious blow to the Festival; it fatally undermined their attempt to be taken seriously, and opened the gates for other protestors to take a potshot at them elsewhere. As local Festival rallies took place around the country, opposition began to mount up. At Rochdale, a Festival rally was disrupted by the White Panthers. The central plank of the Festival was the lighting of a series of beacons across the UK to symbolise the urgent warning against sin and the cleansing moral fire. One of the beacons was mysteriously burnt down the night before its scheduled date… Others were prevented by objections to local authorities…

Just over two weeks later, the climactic event of the Festival was to take place on September 25th, with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a march to Hyde Park…

To be continued…

This was nicked from Lisa Power’s excellent ‘No Bath But Plenty of Bubbles: AN Oral History of the Gay Liberation Front’. A very fine book…

There’s a short video here of some of the ex-GLF disruptors talking about their part in the protest.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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