The comedy It’s Never Too Late, by Felicity Douglas (1910-92), could be described as a cross between Shirley Valentine and Dear Octopus with added spanking. The story is all about Laura Hammond, a woman who is taken for granted by her self-centered family, but is secretly a successful novelist, and what happens when she gets a job as a screenwriter in Hollywood and leaves them behind to fend for themselves. But our main interest is in two members of that family: John, her stepson, and his ‘over-domesticated’ wife Anne, who will never go out because it would mean leaving her babies.
Anne’s maternal attentiveness irritates John, and in the second scene of the play it escalates into a flaming row. Laura has agreed to pay for them to have a holiday in Paris so that Anne can have a break, but Anne is ungrateful and thinks it’s all a plot to separate her from her adored offspring. John calls her a ‘hysterical, humorless little fool’, and Anne tells him he’d better go on holiday with one of his office secretaries instead. When he says he probably shall, he gets his face slapped hard. He dares her to do it again and she does, then for good measure throws a vase at him. And then, says the script:
John seizes her, picks her up, sits, puts her across his knee and spanks her. She screams and kicks. He deposits her on the sofa and strides to the door. She is sobbing violently.
Then Anne runs out, and Laura is the one left to sweep up the shattered vase.
And that’s it. The spanking isn’t a vital part of the story: it’s not the key event that brings the errant female to her senses, as in Fools Rush In, nor the administration of her just deserts after a play’s worth of misbehavior. It’s just a bit of the exposition that helps to illustrate what a difficult family Laura has to cope with, and why she decides to leave…
Unusually, the play began life in the provinces among the offerings of a local repertory company, the Civic Players at Chesterfield Civic Theatre, where it opened on September 22, 1952. The director was Chloe Gibson, whose main claim to fame was ‘discovering’ Dirk Bogarde; John was played by William Lucas, now best remembered as the father in The Adventures of Black Beauty, and Anne was Margaret Tyzack, who later played impatient battleaxes on television, including Claudius’ mother in I, Claudius:
In that photo she’s playing younger than by then she was, but here she is closer to how she looked back when she got spanked at Chesterfield:
The production was successful enough for Chloe Gibson to take the play down to London for a week’s tryout at the ‘Q’, a small independent theater in Kew that specialized in first runs of plays that were either too experimental for commercial production or needed testing out before they were pitched to the West End. The problem was that the original actors were all still under contract at Chesterfield, so when the new production opened on November 18, it was with a new cast. John was now played by Peter Martyn, who became a television game show host a few years later but then died young. And here’s a picture of the new Anne being spanked…
… but not in It’s Never Too Late. The new actress was an OTK veteran: Elizabeth Henson, who was spanked three years earlier in the film version of The Girl Who Couldn’t Quite, which we shall encounter again later in this series.
After the ‘Q’ production, there was an eighteen-month wait for It’s Never Too Late before it was picked up for the West End. This third version, directed by the former actress Joan Swinstead, opened on May 17, 1954, for a pre-London run at the Wimbledon Theatre, followed by a week in Brighton, before opening at the Westminster Theatre on June 3. Again there was a new cast: John was Gordon Whiting, and Anne was Jessica Dunning. Here they are together, long after the spanking scene, at the end of the play:
And for a better look at Jessica, here she is in the opening scene with the rest of the female cast, top right, sitting on the arm of the very sofa where she will soon be getting spanked:
This was the production that made the play, and a lot of that had to do with the casting of the great Celia Johnson, of Brief Encounter fame, to play Laura. (She’s the one standing center in the picture above.) The show ran for a month at the Westminster before transferring to the Strand Theatre on June 28, and continued there until November 20, followed by a 10-week post-London provincial tour in the spring of 1955. One performance was even televised from the theater by the BBC. It all adds up to a total run of 36 weeks, meaning that Jessica Dunning got a total of 216 spankings – plus matinees!
The play also had a long subsequent stage history. It was released for repertory production from the start of 1955, and proved immensely popular: there were 45 productions across the British Isles in that year alone. A 96-minute film version was made in 1956, with Richard Leech as John and Sarah Lawson as Anne…
… but since the original play was two hours long, 24 minutes’ worth of material had to be cut, which was good news for Sarah Lawson’s bottom and bad news for us!
The script became available for amateur production in January 1956. One of the earliest groups to stage it was the Civic Players of Cheltenham, opening at the Playhouse Theatre on March 31. I don’t know the names of the cast, but here they are at a key moment:
The play continued to appeal to amateur groups until at least the late 1970s; the latest production I have a note of was at Whitchurch in 1978. But there’s something of more direct interest to be seen eight years earlier and at the other end of England, in Gateshead, where the Progressive Players mounted their production. Here are Gordon Russell and Marie Small, perhaps being slightly less than progressive for the year 1970:
Back in 1956, the play also began to travel the world. Hans-Jurgen Ott adapted it into German, under the title Die Liebe Familie (The Beloved Family), and it was performed at the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin. It also went to Australia (Melbourne Little Theatre, April 1958), Sweden (Ostgota, September 1958, in a translation entitled Bättre sent än aldrig … meaning, you guessed it, It’s Never Too Late) and New Zealand (Howick Little Theatre, Auckland, 1966).
But it’s German-speaking central Europe that has really taken the play to its heart for more than half a century. A heavily adapted film version was made in Austria in 1957, and more faithful television versions in 1962, with Heinz-Dieter Knaup and Sonja Hörbing as John and Anne respectively, and 1976, with Klaus Krüger and Viktoria Brams. It has continued to be popular with amateur groups in Germany, latterly also under the title Et ist nie zu spät (which is another straight translation of the English original); there was a production in Hamburg as recently as October 2008. One may suspect that this is because Germans enjoy the play’s ultimate celebration of the values of ‘heimat’ and ‘familie’… but perhaps one may hope it’s also because they rather like stage spankings! And for more evidence of that, come back for next week’s entry in this series…