Along with sticks of rock, whelk stalls and end-of-the-pier shows, the saucy postcard is a peculiarly British holiday tradition. Common to most of them is either a fat lady in a hat, or a somewhat pneumatic younger lady in a skimpy bra, showing more than a hint of stocking top. There is also usually a man or youth in the latter stages of lust-induced thrombosis who can be relied upon to be making a suggestive comment of the ‘Cor blimey, missus!’ variety.
Although the name of Donald McGill is most commonly associated with this particular artistic genre, in fact the most prolific producer of risqué postcards is a Yorkshire-based publisher with a colourful history of more than 100 years in an industry that it largely invented.
Successive generations of happy British holidaymakers were, and indeed still are, regaled by Bamforth & Co’s familiar stereotypes of henpecked husbands, naughty newlyweds, menacing matrons and randy milkmen. In an average summer season in the Fifties, the company could expect to sell more than 10 million postcards in Blackpool alone.
But the seemingly harmless story of the saucy postcard masks an extraordinary catalogue of censorship in post-war Britain. As Saucy Postcards: The Bamforth Collection notes, a succession of prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 saw local magistrates throughout the country ordering the destruction of hundreds of thousands of cards. Between 1952 and 1961, illustrations by Bamforth’s artists were the subject of 159 prosecutions, mostly for jokes that now seem utterly innocuous.
In today’s era of freely accessible pornographic images allowed to circulate on the internet without any form of editorial control or censorship, it seems inconceivable to reflect that a joke about a driver of an open-top sports car speculating to his passenger about the strength of the wind (and her reply: ‘I didn’t think you’d notice in this noisy machine’) was banned by Isle of Wight magistrates as ‘obscene material’ in 1953.
Fortunately, the following comic gem has survived:
WPC (arresting a drunk): ‘Anything you say will be taken down…’
Drunk: (interrupting) ‘KNICKERS!’
Saucy Postcards: The Bamforth Collection by Marcus Hearn (Constable, £12.99)
For more on the book and Bamforth's history visit bamforthpostcards.co.uk