In the years towards the end of and immediately after the Second World War, the British thought a lot about the future and how it could and should be different from the past. We’ve already seen early stirrings of it in a play of 1944, Tomorrow’s Eden, and it reached more serious fruition in July 1945 when, after Victory in Europe, a genuinely progressive government came to power. But some people had serious misgivings about what they perceived as a turn towards officialdom and bureaucracy, and one of them was the Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated writer John Coates (1912-63).
His response was Tomorrow’s Child, a satirical comedy set twenty years ahead in a future where everything is standardized: furniture, clothing, entertainment, even people. To underline the point, one of the characters is called Utility, who sounds as if she might be a forgotten Mitford sister; but the name actually alludes to the cheap and functional no-frills ‘utility’ goods manufactured by government order during the austerity of the war and its aftermath. The state controls its citizens’ every action, even their every thought. There are uniformed ‘Community Wardens’ to watch the neighborhood and enforce the rules, their black shirts another topical reference to the distinctive appearance of British fascists in the years before the war. And technology also plays its part: every home is fitted with a loudspeaker, through which instructions are issued, and these devices cannot be turned off. And if you think that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s worth adding that Tomorrow’s Child was written four years before George Orwell published Nineteen Eighty-Four (which was in 1949). Orwell was living in Islington at the time, so it’s not entirely inconceivable that he might even have seen the play during its four-week London run.
The story deals with the misfortunes of various individualists and eccentrics, the square pegs who don’t fit into the state-defined round holes. Among them is Allan Winter, a painter and an incorrigible romantic who is duly unimpressed by the unimaginative utilitarianism to which English culture now has been reduced. His strand of the plot concerns his relationship with a pretty bureaucrat, Elizabeth Solway, and his efforts to educate her in amatory matters. Here they are in that original London production, flanked by Utility on the left and, on the right, the silly-ass character of Peter Grimsby, played by Wallas Eaton (who was later known for playing the inept senator in the Frankie Howerd sitcom Up Pompeii).
The reviewer in The Stage put Allan’s story in a nutshell: he ‘breaks all the rules, wears down the resistance of a young civil servant who scarcely realises her ability to rebel, spanks her severely, and marries her’. But the crisis comes towards the end of Act II when she refuses to marry him. The quarrel happens semi-privately, in so far as privacy is possible in one of the chromium-and-plastic apartments issued to citizens by the benevolent state. Elizabeth’s friends and family aren’t far away, but that doesn’t deter Allan one bit…
ALLAN (grimly) All right, Elizabeth, if ever a woman asked for it you did.
ELIZABETH: What’s the matter?
(ALLAN whispers something to her)
ELIZABETH (horrified and trying to break away from him): Here and now! You must be mad.
ALLAN (grimly): It’ll be the first sensible thing I’ve done since I met you. And it’s going to hurt you more than it hurts me but it’s for your own good.
(There is a brief struggle and she breaks away from him. She quickly gets the other side of the armchair.)
ELIZABETH: Allan! Listen to me.
ALLAN: I’m afraid it’s too late now.
(He chases her round the armchair.)
ELIZABETH: Allan! My mother and father are on the balcony!
ALLAN: Go on, scream. I’d love to hear you do something so deliciously old-fashioned.
(He chases her round the armchair again, catching up with her in front of it.)
ELIZABETH: Allan! Let me go!
ALLAN: Not on your life.
(There is a brief struggle. She cannot get away but she slaps his face.)
ALLAN: All right, my girl. Now we’ll try something else.
(He sits on the couch, bends her over his knee and smacks her.)
ELIZABETH (furious): Allan! How dare you! Father! Father!
(Solway, Helen, Peter and Utility come running in from the balcony. Solway stops in the doorway when he sees what’s going on and folds his arms. Peter flutters about ineffectually in the background.)
PETER: Good heavens, corporal punishment!
(The curtain falls.)
That’s the action as Coates intended it to be performed. But when the play was submitted for licensing in October 1945, it was deemed to be ‘most amusing’ with only one problematic sequence: as usual, the Lord Chamberlain’s reader objected to the spanking scene, and also to a subsequent dialog reference to it. ‘I think any suggestion of assault is quite unnecessary, and should be removed,’ he wrote. ‘The “struggle” should be allowed to suggest no more than an attempt to kiss her.’ On that basis, the censor opened negotiations with the producers, and the outcome was that Coates met with the officials on November 2 and agreed to a modified version of the scene, in which Allan chases Elizabeth offstage, leaving the door open, after which ‘there is the sound of someone being slapped’. A handwritten amendment to that effect was duly stapled into the Lord Chamberlain’s copy of the script, and the play was licensed the same day.
That meeting with Coates also resulted in the withdrawal of the censor’s objection to Allan’s later mention of the spanking, no doubt because what he says is imprecise and the action alluded to had been made correspondingly imprecise by being moved offstage. That’s lucky, because it’s a piquant reference that the reader had obviously misunderstood. ‘I might have got five years if I’d done what I meant to do,’ Allan says a few minutes into the third act. The reader somehow took this to mean that the ‘assault’ didn’t actually take place – except of course that Elizabeth does get spanked, even in the amended scene. The line implies, instead, that she was lucky to get only what she did get, and not something worse that could have landed him in serious trouble. And surely that can only mean that his intention had been to lift her skirt and spank her on her panties!
The play opened at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on December 3. The production broke for Christmas, then had a short tour in February before opening at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, on March 12. It ran there for 28 performances, which was a considerable success in those days, closing on April 6. Then after another break it embarked on an eleven-week tour of Britain from Llandudno to Huddersfield and from Edinburgh to Wimbledon. Throughout all that run, from December 1945 to July 1946, Allan was played by Nigel Patrick, but the role of Elizabeth was recast twice. In Cambridge, she was Ninka Dolega, who later married the veteran character actor Peter Copley. Here she is with Nigel Patrick in the Cambridge performances:
By the time of the pre-London tour, the character was being embodied by Sheila Sim, who had recently become Mrs Richard Attenborough:
She stayed with the production until it left London, whereupon Joan Seton took over for the second, longer tour:
And let’s be clear about one thing. The phrase in the amended stage direction, ‘the sound of someone being slapped’, just might refer to the impact of feminine hand on masculine face, which perhaps explains the censor’s belief that the ‘assault’ had been forestalled. But in the production there was absolutely no ambiguity about what was happening. The ‘slapping’ (a word then used as a polite synonym for ‘spanking’) was certainly being done to Elizabeth’s nether regions, and realistic squealing could be heard from offstage; one reviewer even described the sounds as the highlight of the play!
One little thing did change after the London run: the period setting, originally 1965, was put forward another ten years to 1975 – perhaps in the hope of extending the play’s longer-term life expectancy in repertory and amateur productions. In practice, it lasted for fifteen years.
Liverpool Playhouse picked it up in the fall of 1946, and it was released for amateur production the following year. There followed a modest but respectable run of productions, notably including one at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in November 1949, in which the great actor John Neville spanked Caroline Hooper, whom he then proceeded to marry the following month. 1957 saw an amateur production in Geneva and a television version in Australia, the latter with James Condon as Allan and, as Elizabeth, that year’s Miss New South Wales, Janette Craig:
It was broadcast live in Sydney on April 9, and filmed for a subsequent showing in Melbourne, so there’s a slim chance the footage might still be in existence. Who knows, the production might even have evaded the Lord Chamberlain’s edict and presented the spanking onscreen!
But Tomorrow’s Child was nearing the end of its lifespan. The last known production was at Dundee Rep in April 1961, just after the march of time crossed the halfway line between 1945, when the play was written, and 1975, when it was set. And by then, all those late Forties fears about state control and creeping bureaucracy seemed less pressing anyway. After all, nothing goes out of date quicker than the future!