The British musical Grab Me a Gondola had a brilliant flare of success in the late 1950s and then fell into darkest oblivion. It was, according to the Lord Chamberlain’s office which licensed the play for performance on October 16, 1956, ‘a mild little English musical comedy with a limp plot’. But for a few years, it was also a phenomenon.
Eleanor Fazan’s production premiered at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, on October 30, then moved to the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, on November 28, and from thence on Boxing Day to its West End namesake, the Lyric, Shaftesbury Avenue (pictured above), where it ran for two years and 673 performances. And every one of them included an onstage spanking.
But the show never achieved the longevity of Pippin, let alone the ubiquity of Kiss Me Kate. The librettists went on to do greater things. Julian More (1928-2010), already known for Salad Days, next wrote Irma La Douce and Expresso Bongo, while James Gilbert (born 1923) joined the BBC, produced The Frost Report and The Two Ronnies, and eventually rose to be Head of Comedy. For all its success, Grab Me a Gondola was never going to be the standout line on their CVs.
Their story was inspired by a publicity stunt at the Venice Film Festival in May 1955, when Diana Dors – reputedly the British equivalent of Marilyn Monroe – was photographed in a gondola whilst wearing what reporters were told was a mink bikini.
In the hands of More and Gilbert, Diana Dors was lightly transmogrified into Virginia Jones, a glamor girl actress who is trying to break into the legitimate theater. In one scene she appears in, surprise, surprise, a mink bikini:
So do the chorus girls, including, farthest away on the right, the young Una Stubbs:
In the first production, Virginia was played by Joan Heal, whom we have already encountered across Denis Quilley’s knee in A Girl Called Jo, where what was happening was not actually a spanking but sure did look like one. I mentioned that they both went on to star in a play with a real spanking scene — and this is it! Here’s another view of her playing Virginia Jones:
So you’ll no doubt be disappointed when I tell you that Grab Me a Gondola is not the story of a blonde actress who deserves, and gets, soundly spanked on her mink-padded bottom! No, the spanking goes instead to…
… Jane Wenham, who plays Quilley’s fiancée, and who in real life married Albert Finney during the run of the show.
Quilley plays reporter Tom Wilson, who has come to cover the Venice Film Festival for his Sunday newspaper, accompanied by his betrothed, Margaret Kyle. But there is a problem: a mix-up over bookings leaves them with no hotel room, until the ex-Gondolier Tino takes pity on them and allows them to stay at his dingy little pension. A similar problem has befallen Virginia Jones, and she too winds up in Tino’s dive. Tom goes off with her to Jimmy’s Bar – the play’s version of the more famous real-life Harry’s Bar – and he agrees to write a story that will help her ambition to give up cheesecake publicity pictures and land the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Stratford-upon-Avon:
CURVE GIRL GOES STRAIGHT
Annoyed to be left behind at the pension, Margaret seizes the opportunity to go out with a passing prince. It turns out that Prince Luigi is a serial philanderer, and moreover that Virginia’s manager is trying to ‘get her horizontal’ with him for publicity purposes. Margaret’s annoyance grows exponentially, and, to get her own back on both Tom and Luigi, she types out her own fake story about Virginia Jones and swaps it for the one Tom is filing. What the paper publishes carries the headline:
RUMORS OF ROYAL ROMANCE
And when it emerges that the story is completely fabricated, Tom is fired.
In the final scene of the play, the couple are aboard ship, about to sail for England, and taking their leave of Tino, when Tom discovers that Margaret was the author of the false story that cost him his job. His immediate reaction was scripted as ‘You bitch!’ – but they decided to lose the second word before opening night! And this is where the play starts moving in a direction that’s going to be uncomfortable for Margaret Kyle…
MARGARET: I can explain everything. It was a joke, Tom… A stupid idiotic joke.
TOM: You dirty rotten little… come here!
MARGARET: I can explain…
TOM: COME HERE!
TINO: Careful, Mr Wilson, I don’t see any lifebelts.
TOM: She won’t need lifebelts. Drowning is supposed to be a pleasant death, too good for her.
(He advances on Margaret.)
Just let me get my hands on you, you scheming…
(He makes a sudden dash at Margaret, and before she knows where she is she is over his knee.)
MARGARET: Help… help…. HELP!
Hearing the screams, various people appear on deck to see what is going on.
TOM: That’s for mistrusting your fiancé!
TOM: And that’s for monkeying around with my column!
TOM: And that’s for running after a dirty old Hapsburg!
TOM: And that’s for making me lose my job!
(A telegram boy comes running up the gangway carrying two telegrams.)
TOM: And that’s for…
TELEGRAM BOY: Paging Mr Tom Wilson! Mr Wilson!
TINO: Mr Wilson, stop. Telegram for you.
(Tom’s raised hand snatches the telegram angrily.)
He opens it, leaps to his feet, pitching Margaret onto the deck. She lies there sobbing while he reads the telegram. It offers him a new and better job! Then he picks her up and continues with his run of ‘That’s for…’ – only this time it’s kisses rather than slaps. It ends happily for Virginia, too: the supposed connection with royalty helps her career – so her manager was right all along!
Details of the play’s short afterlife are sketchy. When it closed in the West End in 1958, Joan Heal, just like Virginia Jones, went on to a Shakespearean role at the Bristol Old Vic: she played the lead in The Taming of the Shrew, and was tamed by Peter Wyngarde! Meanwhile Grab Me a Gondola itself went on the road with not one but two English touring offshoots, one of which featured the 29-year-old former Shakespeare Memorial Theatre actress Veronica Wells as Margaret. In Britain there was then a brief run of amateur revivals in the early to mid-1960s – the latest I’ve been able to trace was at Sheffield in 1965. Meanwhile the show opened in Johannesburg in 1958, and in Sydney the following year. In Australia, the role of Margaret was taken by Barbara Robinson:
Here she is with the production’s Tom, Bill French, just after he spanked her:
No luck for her, though: Bill French later married Sheila Bradley, the actress who played Virginia Jones!
No luck for us, either: there seem to be no known photographs of the spanking itself, in any production. But if one should turn up, you may be sure that I’ll update this article!