I can’t show you a single picture of this week’s play, spanking or otherwise. As I mentioned last time, Till Further Orders was performed with astonishing frequency over thirty years, but no photographs have yet come to light. I can’t even show you the face of a pretty actress who got spanked, because the play seems never once to have received a professional production. The author, the prolific Wilfred Massey, specialized in writing and publishing plays for amateur groups, and while a few of them occasionally found their way into the hands of professional repertory companies, Till Further Orders wasn’t among them. After it was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain on December 20, 1937, it bypassed all the usual stages of a play’s life in the theater and went ‘straight to amdram’ for its Christmas premiere at St George’s Hall, Leicester.
The comedy deals with a romantic triangle with commercial artist Ronnie Phipps at its apex. His fiancée, Brenda Harvey, and her widowed mother are staying in his suburban house while their own is being redecorated. The trouble begins, as indeed does the play, when Mrs Harvey answers the telephone and it’s a girl, Carol Mayson. In reality, the young and pretty Carol is a friend of Ronnie’s sister and housemate, and she too wants to stay at the house to hide from her father, who thinks she’s run wild since her mother’s death and is trying to marry her off against her will so that she will not disrupt his campaign to be elected mayor.
It is established early on that Brenda, who is in her early 20s, has ‘a jealous nature’, which is successfully stoked by her mother. So it’s bad news for Ronnie when Carol turns up and starts unpacking. He throws her out, but fails to notice that she inadvertently dropped what the script coyly calls ‘an item of underwear’ on the floor. (‘A pair of folded silk stockings would do,’ it adds for the benefit of any prudes who might consider mounting a production.) When Brenda arrives to hear Carol’s car leaving, Ronnie lies that it was the plumber, but Brenda finds the apparently incriminating garment: ‘I suppose that plumber of yours wears frilly panties,’ she says. That’s torn it: he gets the panties thrown in his face. He has only just managed to smooth things over when Carol returns to the house. (‘What do you want?’ she is asked. ‘Pair of pants,’ comes the reply.) And that does it: Brenda walks out, and the play is set on course for a spanking!
Since Carol is described by a newspaper as (in clipped headline style) ‘Untamable Wildcat Daughter of Alderman’, this is a story that could go two different ways. Carol is called a ‘spoilt, bad-tempered, ill-mannered type’ by her eventual fiancé, Alan, and following a spat near the end of the play he asks, ‘Did nobody ever think of smacking you?’ Afterwards she admits that he is right: ‘That’s what I need – smacking. Good and hard. Three times a day, after meals.’
And that line of dialog means that we must pause in order to address a point of semantics. Recently I bemoaned the way people writing about the act of smacking a girl will often unhelpfully inflate it into spanking her, raising expectations and thereby setting the reader up for disappointment. Now, Wilfred Massey is another person who often collapses that useful distinction – except that he does it in the opposite direction. Which means that all this talk about how Carol needs to be smacked is actually about the much more enticing prospect of her being spanked.
According to one enthusiastic review that Massey quoted in advertisements for the play, ‘every leading lady will yearn to play Carol Mayson’. Maybe that’s because she doesn’t actually get spanked good and hard, though you can never be sure what will happen after the end of the play. No, events go the other way, and it’s Carol who is instrumental in that. When Ronnie is at his wit’s end over Brenda’s jealous tantrums, Carol advises him what to do: ‘Personally, I should try a hairbrush. A good, strong, hard one.’
The crunch comes early in the third act, when Ronnie fetches Brenda out in a fireman’s lift over his shoulder.
She is screaming and kicking wildly, beating at Ronnie’s back.
BRENDA: Ronnie Phipps – put me down!
RONNIE: Not till you listen to me!
Carol insists that Brenda must give them a chance to explain, but Brenda won’t listen. So…
CAROL: Look out!
BRENDA: Oh! Stop it! Don’t do that! Don’t! .. Oh! (etc., etc.)
Carol then stops and asks if she’s ready to hear out Ronnie’s story. She isn’t.
BRENDA: Oh!! (as Carol begins smacking her again) Stop it! Stop it!! Wait till I get down, that’s all!! OH!!! Ronald Phipps, you beast – make her stop!
CAROL (not stopping): Will you listen?
BRENDA: No! … OH!! OH!!
ALAN (running in by door right): Who’s being murdered?
BRENDA: Oh! All right – all right! Stop – I’ll listen!!
Carol stops, Ronnie puts Brenda down. She turns on Carol.
BRENDA: You’ll be sorry for that!!
She’d have said anything to stop the spanking, but now it’s over she goes back on her word. Carol tells Ronnie to lift her up again – but Brenda runs off, and the play moves on.
After several successful decades on the amateur circuit, the play’s vogue was on the wane in the mid-1960s, but it was still occasionally being performed ten years after that; the latest production I have a note of was in 1976 at Seaford Little Theatre. And yet, as I mentioned above, I have yet to encounter a photograph of the spanking scene. Maybe there’s one tucked away somewhere in the forgotten offline archives of one of those ‘amdram’ companies. Maybe one day it will be posted somewhere as a historical curio. We can only hope!