Fools Rush In was a successful stage comedy written in 1946 by a playwright with a confusing name: Kenneth Horne. That’s Kenneth Horne (1900-75), the dramatist, and not the better remembered Kenneth Horne (1907-69), avuncular star of the BBC radio comedy Round the Horne.
The story concerns the domestic upheavals that occur when a bride, Pam, has second thoughts on the day of her wedding. A review of the first production in the theatrical profession’s newspaper, The Stage, put it succinctly: ‘No great gift of prophecy is needed to forecast that the justly exasperated bridegroom will eventually give his hesitant bride a good spanking and resolve her hesitation by carrying her off by force.’
And, indeed, it is clearly signalled throughout the third act that Pam is headed for a spanking. First, another character pretends to seduce her father, for the best of motives, but without success: as she later reports, ‘He told me to go and get spanked.’ The bridegroom, Joe, is told to be masterful with Pam, and her prospective step-father, Paul, tells him that she ‘wants a damn good hiding … and not where knock any teeth out either.’ And indeed, she herself tells Joe, ‘What I really need, you know, is a firm hand.’
The firm hand goes into action at the end of the play when Joe proposes to elope with her. She is preoccupied with making tea for her parents and tells him to come back in the morning. And so, as the script has it:
She is bending over the tray. Her behind, with slacks stretched tightly over it, is presented invitingly towards Joe. Joe’s eyes fix on it in a fascinated way.
JOE (darkly): You said yourself you needed a firm hand. (He draws up his right sleeve slightly.)
At this, she runs off stage.
JOE: I don’t know about you, Mr Dickson, but I think there’s only one thing that’ll do that girl any good!
PAUL: She’s too big for me to give it to her, Joe.
Joe hesitates momentarily, then, turning up his cuff, follows firmly after Pam.
Her mother, Angela, doesn’t understand this last bit of by-play and twice asks what’s happening before we hear some interesting ‘noises off’:
PAM (off): Joe! What are you doing?
Angela and Paul sit up listening. Angela a little startled, Paul with a certain dread.
Two loud slapping noises are heard off.
PAM: Ow! Stop it! Ow!
ANGELA: Oh, bless them, they’ve made it up. They’re fooling.
Four more slaps are heard off. Paul flinches visibly at each yelp from Pam.
PAM: Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!
ANGELA (indulgently): Aren’t they naughty.
Thereupon Joe leaves, and Pam runs after him: a happy ending!
So it’s an offstage spanking, heard but not seen. That may be disappointing, but you have to remember that the British theater at this time was subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain, whose powers would not be abolished until 1968. Spanking scenes sometimes caused trouble with the censor: of course there was no consistency at all about how censorship was applied (or not), but it is a fact that just over six months before Fools Rush In was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain (on May 17, 1946), another comedy had been forced to change its spanking scene from onstage to off. It seems that Kenneth Horne was taking no chances, so he wrote his scene with the spanking ‘off’ to begin with. We may speculate whether the offstage spanking noises were produced by the easiest and most obvious method, or were somehow simulated!
The first production was directed by Richard Bird, who knew a few things about spanking: he’d given one to Valerie White in the movie The Halfway House two years earlier:
Fools Rush In opened at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, on June 10, 1946, and toured England and Wales for ten weeks before opening at the Fortune Theatre in London on September 2. But by then there had been a key change to the cast. Joe was played by Derek Farr until just after Christmas, but Pam, played in the provinces by Dulcie Gray…
… had become Glynis Johns for the London run.
‘The young woman’s behaviour may be maddening,’ wrote the Stage reviewer, ‘and her spanking more than deserved, but Miss Johns makes the perverse girl an intensely likeable figure.’ Glynis had worked with Richard Bird before: she too was in The Halfway House, playing the innkeeper’s daughter. But it was all change at the end of the year, when Nigel Patrick and Brenda Bruce took over the roles of Joe and Pam.
In all, the production ran for 237 performances at the Fortune before closing on 29 March 1947, after which there was another provincial tour, this time for twelve weeks up to the end of September.
That wasn’t the end of Fools Rush In. The life cycle of a popular British play in the 1950s entered a new phase after the original production left the West End. The play would then be released for professional performance in local repertory theaters, and it would become available for amateur production maybe a year after that. While Nigel Patrick and Brenda Bruce were touring with Fools Rush In, another professional production opened at Buxton in August 1947. (Leslie Phillips was a member of the cast, but I don’t know whether he played Joe.) A film version was released in 1949, with 19-year-old Sally Ann Howes as the reluctant bride…
… but I’ve never seen it, so I don’t know whether the spanking scene was left in or cut. (My money’s on the latter.)
But we can be reasonably confident that the spanking stayed in the play during the next phase of its life, in provincial repertory: by law, a script had to be played as licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, and, while companies might have gotten away with making cuts, they couldn’t put in anything new or make significant changes to the story. And the spanking is a key incident: as the reviewer of a 1948 repertory production put it, ‘She does decide, but only after a spanking in act three – had it come earlier, there would have been no play’. (Nottingham Evening Post) In other words, it can’t be excised without putting something else in its place to patch over the cut – and any such interpolation, even a single line of new dialog, might incur the wrath of the Lord Chamberlain.
The actress who got (or supposedly got) that spanking at Nottingham Little Theatre was Peggy Grey. Like many other actresses who played Pam in these productions, she sadly went on to obscurity. But among those who achieved some little renown were:
23-year-old Mary Yeomans (at Reading in 1950), subsequently known for her television roles as Nancy Hamilton, the psychiatrist’s secretary, in The Human Jungle and Adam Adamant’s faithless love Louise;
17-year-old Rosemarie Dunham (at Croydon in 1952), later best known as the landlady in the Michael Caine gangster movie Get Carter;
and 19-year-old Margo McMenemy (at Oxford in 1957), later to change her stage name first to Margo Maine and then Margo McLennan. As Margo McMenemy she was best known as a teenage skating star of spectacular ice shows, and she later became one of the original stars of Prisoner: Cell Block H, and the first woman in the world to be permitted to perform gay marriages.
The final phase of the play’s life, on the amateur stage, lasted until at least the early 1990s, but there’s only one really interesting thing to say about it. In September 1971, the Guild Players of Deal in Kent mounted a production with Martin Brody as Joe and pretty young Tessa Ashton as the wilful Pam.
But this was 1971, remember, and the Lord Chamberlain no longer ruled the stage. The legal requirement to play the licensed book had gone. A production could now change the stage business without fear of prosecution, and the Guild Players decided to do exactly that with Fools Rush In … and brought the spanking scene onstage!
Applause for Tessa Ashton, the only actress known to have been seen getting spanked in Fools Rush In!
But it’s only au revoir to Tessa, not goodbye. We’ll be meeting her again…