A spanking that happens onstage is always preferable to one that takes place off, but occasionally there are compensations, such as we encounter in Max Catto’s Gather No Moss, which was, to quote the Lord Chamberlain’s reader, ‘a silly, vulgar, farcical comedy, which is tedious beyond words to read’.
Originally entitled Ladies Like Them Bad, the play was licensed on October 10, 1944, after major revisions arising from more than six weeks of complicated discussion in the Lord Chamberlain’s office. None of this involved the spanking scene: Catto had prudently written it to be done offstage, which paid off, because, as we’ll see, the censor didn’t interfere with the ‘compensation’.
One reviewer described the play as ‘slick, sophisticated comedy skating gracefully on very thin ice’. It opened at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, on November 6 and toured England that wartime winter. The intention was to move into a West End theater in 1945, but those plans came to nothing, perhaps not helped by the fact that, in February, the censor received two letters of complaint from outraged theatergoers and had to promise that the production would be investigated. The play didn’t sink completely without trace after that: there were occasional revivals, including one in 1950 at the Gaiety Theatre on the Isle of Man. But it remains a rarity in the annals of theater…
In 1944, the play starred Sheila Brownrigg in the central role of Evelyn, whom the same reviewer called ‘a lovely, wilful blonde, very easy on the eye, who asks for all she gets’. The only picture I have of her is from nearly twenty years later:
Evelyn is a divorcee who is thinking of remarrying. The fiancé in the frame is Major Roderick Adams, played by Carl Bernard in 1944, but to his annoyance she is rather cautious about it, initially just because she had a bad experience with her first husband:
EVELYN: I thought I was onto a good thing in George. He turned out to be a perfect pig. Do you know he beat me?
RODERICK (irritably): I might find it occasionally necessary too.
What brings the occasion of this necessity into being is two conflicting interventions in the developing relationship. One comes from their friend Dr Garth Pendennis, who tells Evelyn that Roderick is a bottom-pincher who likes looking at dirty postcards and holds orgies in his flat. This leads the already suspicious Evelyn to treat him with a disdainful sarcasm that he understandably finds provocative. His response is to seize and shake her. ‘What you want,’ he says, ‘is a damn good slapping. You want a man to handle you. Like this!’ And he kisses her – ‘fiercely’, says the stage direction.
The second intervention comes from Pendennis’s valet and cook, who rejoices in the apposite name of Smythe-Wallop and gets offended when anyone shortens it to a mere Wallop. He advises Roderick that the best way to snare Evelyn’s affections will be to ‘let himself go’: the worse he behaves, and the more dissipated he becomes, the more satisfaction she will take in saving him.
So Evelyn is having doubts about Roderick because she believes he’s a roué, and Roderick believes that he will make her love him by being a roué. Obviously no good can come of these cross-purposes, but something else will, and it will be welcome to us if perhaps not to Evelyn.
She tells Roderick that, whenever his behavior reminds her of her ex-husband, she will say his name – and if she finds herself saying ‘George’ too often, she will have to reconsider her position. A number of ‘Georges’ follow, and Roderick attempts some rough wooing. Evelyn’s response is to run offstage into the kitchen. Roderick follows her, and, says the stage direction, ‘A few moments later she is heard screaming shrilly within.’
Smythe-Wallop makes a hasty entrance from the kitchen, and Pendennis and his wife Rosalie exchange comments:
PENDENNIS: In mercy’s name, what’s he doing to her?
ROSALIE: Probably belting her fanny.
Pendennis makes a move to intervene, but Rosalie stops him so that the spanking can be administered uninterrupted. And then Evelyn returns to the stage.
EVELYN (agitatedly): He beat me!
SMYTHE-WALLOP (offering chair): Dear, dear. Wouldn’t you care to sit down? (As she turns on him fierily.) Or would that be tactless?
And the scene ends with Evelyn about to say something, except that Roderick gets in first and says it for her: ‘George!’
It’s only in the next scene that we learn more about exactly what happened in the kitchen, when Rosalie discusses the incident with Smythe-Wallop, who, remember, was there when the spanking began:
ROSALIE: I suppose the whole thing rather shocked you?
SMYTHE-WALLOP: Ten of the best on the seat of the panties? It’s part of every woman’s education.
The censor at this time tended not to allow onstage M/F spanking scenes, even if the occasional one somehow got through, like Youth and Mrs Meredith. But because Evelyn was spanked offstage, she got something more than the usual theatrical spanking, something that certainly wouldn’t have got past the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil: she was spanked on her panties!
As you’d expect from his previous advice to Roderick, Smythe-Wallop is quite unfazed by it all. To repeat his words, ‘It’s part of every woman’s education.’
ROSALIE: Not mine.
SMYTHE-WALLOP: Well, there’s no telling, is there?
So Rosalie has changed her tune: she prevented her husband from stopping the spanking, but now she blames the valet for inciting it.
ROSALIE: You may as well know you’ve ruined Mr Adams’ romance.
SMYTHE-WALLOP: I wouldn’t say it’s ruined.
ROSALIE: Oh, wouldn’t you, Mr Clever-Wallop. I suppose you think a woman likes being turned over a man’s knee and …
But the conversation is cut short when her husband enters.
In 1944, Rosalie was played by Winifred Shotter, a West End star best known for playing the terrified, semi-clad heroine Rhoda Marley in the Ben Travers farce Rookery Nook. Here she is:
The irony is that Rosalie is just as much to blame for what happened, because it was she who told her husband about Roderick’s louche habits – a story which is, of course, completely untrue. She deserves… well, we’ll let Roderick say it: ‘I wish I’d spanked you instead of Evelyn.’ And we’ll let Dr Pendennis say it too: ‘I ought to have taken my slipper to her.’ and later still, when both Evelyn and Rosalie are getting a bit disagreeable, Roderick intervenes firmly: ‘Sit down, both of you, or I shall smack you hard.’ That’s telling them! Neither of them wants a walloping (or even a Smythe-Walloping), so they both sit down as instructed.
But one last thing has to be said about Sheila Brownrigg’s performance. The reviews make it clear that she managed to suggest something subtle about Evelyn that doesn’t really come across in the script: despite her bad memories of George, despite her raised skirt and exposed panties, despite everything, she secretly loved being spanked by Roderick!