Many people have, without knowing it, heard part of Ivor Novello’s romantic musical Perchance to Dream (1945): the show’s stand-out song, ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring Again’, was released as a standalone early in the original run, and was later covered by singers from Bing Crosby to Frank Sinatra to Julie Andrews. The play itself was sniffily dismissed by the London Times as ‘probably good enough for those who like an evening of pleasant songs’, but it ran in the West End for two-and-a-half years and then enjoyed a long, sustained afterlife until at least 1990, followed by occasional revivals on both sides of the Atlantic during the second decade of the present century. But the relevant question here is whether the show was also good enough for those who like a spanking scene.
‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’, with its anticipation of a joyous homecoming and the renewal of romantic love, perfectly evokes the precise moment of its composition, a few months before the end of the Second World War; but Perchance to Dream as a whole plays out on a much larger historical canvas, from the Regency through to what was then ‘the present day’. It draws on a fashion of the period for serious plays about time and the working out of destiny (the most famous examples were written by J.B. Priestley, and are directly referenced in the final scene); but Novello deftly presses the genre into the service of a generation-crossing love story.
In the first act, set in 1818, the country house of Huntersmoon, ‘full of old masters and young mistresses’, is a center of disreputable Regency hijinks surrounding its owner, the rakish but impoverished Sir Graham Rodney. He customarily goes out riding late at night, defying the risk of attack by a notorious highwayman known only as ‘Frenchy’. In Sir Graham’s case, the danger is non-existent, for reasons that will emerge soon enough if you can’t guess, but a group of his uninvited guests are robbed of their jewels on the way to Huntersmoon, including a priceless family heirloom, a pearl necklace.
This unfortunate party of unwanted visitors is led by Sir Graham’s aunt, Lady Charlotte Fayre, who is always on at him to mend his ways and always offering to buy Huntersmoon from him for a handsome price. She is accompanied by her priggish son William, who will inherit the house if Sir Graham doesn’t get on with marrying and producing an heir, and whose own contribution to the family lineage is pending: he expects to become a father next Valentine’s Day. The final member of the group is William’s sister, Melinda Fayre, a week off her 21st birthday and still achingly innocent. Sir Graham wagers his friends that he will seduce her before the week is out.
There is a complication: Sir Graham and Melinda fall in love at first sight, and he makes her a promise that is seemingly as rash as his roué bet: he will see to it that she gets back the stolen necklace in time for her to wear it on her birthday. The night before that, a masked figure steals into the sleeping Melinda’s bedroom and puts the pearls under her pillow. It is ‘Frenchy’ the highwayman.
Or, to say the same thing differently, it is Sir Graham Rodney in his customary nocturnal guise, as Melinda realizes almost as soon as she is properly awake.
Afterwards, ‘Frenchy’ goes out and robs a royal mail coach, but is injured doing so, and the trail of his blood leads the Bow Street Runners directly to Huntersmoon. William smugly looks forward to seeing his cousin on the gallows. Melinda offers an alibi, which would also mean that Sir Graham won his seduction wager; but before dying of his wounds, the noble highwayman gallantly declines to accept the generous lie. His last words are about their doomed love:
‘Listen, Melinda, do not grieve for me. It wasn’t meant to be – we found each other too late. Some day perhaps, in another time, we shall find each other again. Look for me, my sweet – as I shall look for you – always – always.’
And that sets up the working out of the rest of the love story through future generations. The second act moves on to the year 1843, bringing straight-laced Victorian values to Huntersmoon, and with them a wonderful euphemism for a lady’s bottom, which we’ll come to in due course. Queen Victoria herself nearly came too, but the play proved overlong during rehearsals and the royal sequence had to be cut out.
We quickly learn that Melinda pined to death for love of Sir Graham, while his mistress bore him a posthumous, illegitimate daughter, Veronica, who comes to Huntersmoon in the hope of joining the choir run by the composer Valentine Fayre. He is the son born to William, as scheduled, on February 14, 1819, though he bears a remarkable resemblance to Sir Graham. (The parts are written to be doubled.) This has nothing to do with paternity, but may have a bearing on reincarnation…
Now Valentine is the lawful owner of Huntersmoon, and in line for royal patronage (hence the intended sequence with the Queen). Very soon he is Veronica’s husband. And then the action moves on to 1846, when someone else is about to enter his life: Sir Graham’s niece Melanie, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Melinda (because, again, the parts are to be doubled).
19-year-old Melanie has just been expelled from her convent school in Paris, and is established immediately as something of a coquette: almost the first thing she says onstage is that she has been showing her friends her ‘lovely French underwear’, which causes one of the friends to declare,
‘They’re shocking. I wouldn’t wear such things.’
(The mismatch of singular and plural there effortlessly implies which particular article of underwear is being talked about.) She then proceeds to describe some of her convent exploits (she was clearly the naughtiest girl) and does a sexy French dance which so outrages her elders and the vicar that Veronica has to restore decorum by singing ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’.
During the song, Valentine enters and his eyes meet Melanie’s. She had expected to be unimpressed by him (‘No Englishman is romantic’), but this is the play’s second moment of love at first sight. As she puts it herself in the next scene, three weeks later, ‘If only he’d seen me first.’
Valentine is busy composing a cantata for the choir’s royal command performance at Windsor Castle. He stays behind at Huntersmoon to work while Veronica goes to see her physician in London and Melanie attends an overnight house party. But she returns late that night, claiming to have been bored, and attempts to flirt with him, mocking his fidelity to his work and wife. Provoked beyond reason, he spanks her (we’ll come back to that in detail later) and admits,
‘I’ve wanted you and hated you and loved you and cursed you, and it all added up to one thing, I adore you. I knew from the very first second I saw you. I knew that everything up to that moment had been empty and meaningless. As I watched you I heard an echo from the past – a dying man’s whisper, “Look for me, my sweet, as I shall look for you, always.”’
But if they do anything about it, the scandal would finish his career. And when Veronica returns from London, it is with the news that her bouts of early morning sickness mean there is going to be an addition to the family. There is no way now that Valentine can honorably elope with Melanie, and they part, looking forward to their next meeting. ‘Oh, God, let it be soon,’ hopes Melanie.
She does not get her wish: with the royal performance omitted, the action moves straight on to present-day Huntersmoon, when we learn that she became the family scandal by drowning herself that very night. But the scene is little more than a coda establishing that Valentine’s grandson Bay Fayre has just brought his bride Melody back to Huntersmoon after their honeymoon. In the original production, the audience was helped out with the display of the family tree on a dropcloth. And, yes, the remarkable resemblances to previous generations continue, which means the actors have to do a nifty quick change for the final moment as we see the ghosts of Melinda and Sir Graham, finally at peace now that, in their new persons, they have found one another in time.
Perchance to Dream was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain on April 21, 1945, and opened at the London Hippodrome that same evening, with Valentine and Melanie (and their various alter-egos) played by Ivor Novello and Roma Beaumont, seen here together half a decade earlier in Novello’s The Dancing Years.
There are minor discrepancies between sources as to how long the production ran (the most authoritative, J.P. Wearing’s The London Stage, gives the figure as 1,018 performances) but whatever the exact number, it’s certain that this was the longest unbroken run that a Novello play ever had. The Hippodrome production closed on October 11, 1947; many sources wrongly give the same date in 1948, but they must all go back to a slip of somebody’s finger on the keyboard somewhere. (A play wouldn’t usually close on a Monday, and one that opened in April 1945 and closed in October 1948 would have notched up 400-odd more performances than any of the figures given.) And after that, the show went on a provincial tour until the end of the decade, with the Novello and Beaumont roles taken over by Geoffrey Toone and Hilary de Chaville. When the tour eventually ended in 1950, Hilary then went straight on to play a dancing teacher in Novello’s last musical, the aptly titled Gay’s the Word.
I have never seen Perchance to Dream, and when I first read the script many years ago, I wasn’t even sure that it was properly a spanking, as distinct from an abortive attempt that’s halted before the first slap lands on target. If we look at it in detail, you’ll hopefully see what I mean.
Actually there are two versions of the key moment: the original, as presented to the Lord Chamberlain for licensing, and a slightly amended one that wound up in the published script. In the typescript seen and approved by his lordship, Valentine responds to Melanie’s needling wth:
‘If you don’t shut up I’ll put you across my knee and give you a good spanking.’
The published version is a little more sinuous in its expression:
VALENTINE: What you need, you ridiculous child, is for somebody to put you across his knee and give you a good spanking, and I’ve a good mind to do it.
MELANIE: But, darling, I’d adore it. Look, there’s your knee, and here’s my spanking place.
And there’s that lovely euphemism: unable to mention the body part directly, Melanie has to refer to her bottom as her ‘spanking place’. But even that is too much for Victorian Valentine:
VALENTINE: You’re shameless!
MELANIE: I know, and I don’t care. Go on, spank me. Pooh! You haven’t the strength!
VALENTINE (crossing to her): I haven’t the strength…
MELANIE (retreating): You wouldn’t dare – don’t you come near me.
(Valentine crosses quickly to Melanie, and after a struggle holds her by the wrist.)
VALENTINE: You’ll see whether I’ve got the strength or not. Ridiculous child – setting us all by the ears –
(He drags her to the settee, sits and puts her over his knee)
– thinking of nothing but yourself.
(Melanie screams, laughs and then bursts into tears.)
Ever since you came here you have been utterly selfish and ruthless.
(He suddenly realises that Melanie is crying, turns her over and savagely kisses her.)
As I said, what that read like to me was a ‘near miss’ spanking attempt that doesn’t get as far as any actual spanking. But shortly afterwards I had the good fortune to discuss the play with someone who saw the original production in the late 1940s, and so was able to put me right: Valentine certainly did spank Melanie, he told me, tricky though the operation was through a heavy Victorian dress. (Evidently that shocking French underwear didn’t get an onstage airing!) Novello had simply left his stage directions just ambiguous enough to avoid ringing any alarm bells in the Lord Chamberlain’s office – and the case of Tomorrow’s Child later in 1945 shows how prudent that was.
But while that meant Roma Beaumont, and then Hilary de Chaville, did get spanked in the 1940s, it raises the question of what happened in the play’s subsequent stage life: it’s always possible that later producers were as misled as I initially was, and that later Melanies got away with it!