Price of Fame

Wilfred Massey’s 1955 comedy Price of Fame was mainly intended for amateur performance, though it also had at least three professional productions in England’s script-hungry repertory theaters of the late 1950s, at Peterborough (1955), St Anne’s (1956) and Newcastle (1957).

The story concerns the domestic life of radio and television wit Laurence Montefioret (pronounced Montfort), who rejoices in the reputation of being ‘the rudest man in England’ and a misogynist to boot. We get an early example of that wit, or rudeness, in action when, moving into a country cottage, he is told by Mrs Possett the cook-housekeeper that she can’t come in on Monday and Friday evenings, because that’s when she ‘sits’ – only then and on no other occasions. She means babysitting, but Laurence takes it more literally and remarks, ‘You must either have very sturdy feet or an unusually tender posterior.’

And a play that more or less begins with a reference to a tender posterior ends with another character having her posterior made tender – a theme that Massey evidently enjoyed, and had already written into several other plays. The one to watch in Price of Fame is Tessa Montefioret (still pronounced Montfort), Laurence’s niece and the reason he has moved to the country. She is a ‘cheerful and likeable’ girl, written as a 16-year-old but intended for an actress in her 20s who would be better able to handle the part’s complexities. She has just left school in Switzerland – she hopes for ever – and is coming to live as her uncle’s ward because she can no longer live with her widowed mother, who is about to remarry. There wouldn’t be room for her in Laurence’s London flat, so he has had to take a larger house, bringing with him his long-term secretary, 28-year-old Frances Jeffries.

This is a relationship that is not going to be without its problems. Laurence asks Frances to speak to Tessa after she goes for a bath in a state that he considers to be indecent. Tessa retorts that she was wearing ‘Full regulation underwear! And if anybody can show me anything more indecently decent than my school vest and knickers, I don’t want to see them!’ So Laurence is not only rude but a prude.

But even so, in the course of the play Tessa dresses progressively more and more casually: she starts out in school uniform, changes into jeans and is last seen wearing a pair of brightly colored shorts. The character reason for this is that she grows more and more confident as the story goes on. The plot reason for it is that, on her first day in the house, she works out that Laurence isn’t her uncle at all – he is her father, something he is keen not to become public knowledge. So when Laurence orders that she should only ever wear dresses and skirts, his secret gives her a hold over him, and the offending jeans and shorts, sent to be burnt, are saved and remain part of her wardrobe.

Power doesn’t only make Tessa confident; in Massey’s word, it makes her ‘pert’. Three weeks later, she makes her radio debut in a program about Laurence, during which she makes some tactless remarks about the local community and an unfounded suggestion that she might be having a fling with a local artist, Michael Collyer. The despairing Laurence engages a psychiatrist to treat her with hypnosis, but it does no good and the shrink ends up treating Laurence instead. ‘I know a much quicker way than that!’ says Frances ominously. We’ll let The Stage put it more explicitly, in its review of the 1957 Newcastle Rep production, which featured Pamela Pitchford as Frances and Bridget Webb as the terrible Tessa: ‘Not until his secret is revealed, and he decides to forsake the entertainment world, does she get the spanking so richly deserved.’

As Tessa becomes more outrageous, Laurence’s fortunes decline. Frances quits as his secretary and is considering going off on a boating trip with Michael – a jaunt in which Tessa schemes to supplant her by telling Michael she has already gone. Meanwhile Laurence admits to Frances that his biography is not quite accurate: he doesn’t have a dead brother Orlando, Tessa’s father – he is Orlando Montefioret, but changed his identity when he got divorced, and subsequently became a media personality.

And so we learn the price of fame: to be trapped in your own public persona. Laurence isn’t really rude: one day he decided to be outrageous to spice up a boring broadcast, only to find this was so popular with listeners that he had to go on doing it. What’s more, he certainly doesn’t hate women: he craves female companionship and a happy domestic life, but cannot have them because he makes his living as a professional misogynist. The big turning-point near the end of the play is his decision to renounce that line of work and ask Frances to marry him. And that acknowledgement of the truth means the reign of Tessa is at an end…

Frances calls Tessa out of the bathroom, and she enters brushing her hair in readiness to go away with Michael, as she thinks. ‘Your little racket is over, my pet,’ Frances tells her, and explains that she knows everything and is about to become the second Mrs Montefioret. Tessa isn’t sure if she likes that idea, but asks if Frances has made any plans. ‘Only one, so far. I’m going to anticipate the marriage ceremony.’ But not, as Tessa supposes, with a weekend fling in Brighton.

FRANCES: I mean I’m going to anticipate my job as a stepmother by taking you across my knee – (taking the hairbrush from Tessa) and giving you something that’s been overdue for several weeks.

TESSA (hotly): D’you think I’d let you.

FRANCES: I doubt very much whether you could stop me in my present mood.

(She pushes Tessa towards the bathroom.)

FRANCES: Go on – in there.

TESSA: I won’t go in there! And if you…

FRANCES (overlapping): And two more words out of you and I shall make it a condition of our marriage that your father sends you straight back to school in Switzerland.

TESSA: No! Frances, you wouldn’t do that.

FRANCES: Wouldn’t I? Just try me.

TESSA (plaintively): Oh!

Frances then says that, immediately after she has been spanked, Tessa has some apologies and some amends to make. And with that, she pushes Tessa into the bathroom and closes the door behind them.

And with that, we pause to acknowledge the disappointing fact that the spanking takes place offstage. This is a moment where Massey has to make a compromise between his instincts as a spanking enthusiast and his instincts as a playwright. It’s clear that the play must end with Tessa being spanked, and Massey’s track record in Happy Days and Till Further Orders shows that he had no objection to presenting it onstage. But the play must also end with Laurence contented and happy in his new life, and the spectacle of an onstage spanking scene would pull the audience’s focus away from that. Moving the spanking offstage allows Massey to cover both bases, and perhaps offers other opportunities too. We’ll come back to this when we’ve seen how things pan out.

The scene continues as Laurence comes onstage looking for his pipe. Having found it, and after some business, he’s about to leave…

(He is going towards the doorway when there is a loud whack off and a cry from Tessa. Laurence stops abruptly. More smacks.)

TESSA (off): Oh! Not so hard! Frances – please – not so hard!

(Laurence goes quickly towards the bathroom.)

LAURENCE: Frances! (He rattles the handle of the bathroom door.) Are you there – Frances!

FRANCES (off): Just a minute.

(Frances opens the bathroom door and stands in the doorway. Laurence, without getting too near the doorway, looks beyond. Tessa’s plaintive voice is heard and Laurence’s expression changes from alarm to hope.)

LAURENCE: Frances! Frances – does this mean that – that you …?

FRANCES: Yes, Laurence. (Holding up the hairbrush with its back foremost.) First steps in bringing up the family.

LAURENCE: Oh, my dear. (He kisses her.)

(Frances goes back into the bathroom, leaving the door wide open behind her. Laurence gives a sigh of relief and pleasure and sits down to read. Sounds of spanking and cries from Tessa come from off, but not too loud. Mrs Possett, attracted by the noise, enters.)

MRS POSSETT: Whatever is it?

LAURENCE: Just what I’ve always dreamed about – a normal, humdrum family household.

(Mrs Possett slowly crosses to the bathroom door and watches off.)

LAURENCE: Isn’t this cosy?

(He puts his pipe, without lighting it, into his mouth and reads contentedly. The noises from off become louder as –

THE CURTAIN FALLS.)

And that’s the play’s closing tableau, cleverly combining a good spanking for Tessa with quiet domesticity for Laurence.

There are two things to observe here. The first is that this is rather a long spanking, as stage spankings go. It’s broken off halfway through so that Frances can appear at the door and show Laurence what she’s doing, but even so there’s a full page of dialog and onstage business happening simultaneously. And it’s also rather a hard spanking, administered not by hand but hairbrush. All in all, it’s a lot to ask of an actress dressed in skimpy shorts, much as we might have enjoyed seeing it: doing it offstage at least means the sound effects can be made some other way, while the exact details are left to the mind’s eye.

And that’s important too. In a more reticent, repressed era, audiences were used to making inferences and imagining around what they didn’t see, and Massey gives them ample scope for interpretation. It’s striking just how much onstage business there is after Tessa is taken off and before we hear the first smack: Laurence has to come on in search of his pipe and find it; he then spots Frances’ scarf lying on the desk, picks it up, ‘looks at it for some moments in silence’, sighs and lays it tenderly down. All very romantic, but while all that is happening onstage, what’s going on behind the closed door?

Once Frances has got Tessa in there, things ought to happen quite quickly: across her knee with the naughty girl and WHACK! Unless of course there’s some further preparation to be done. In fact, are Tessa’s brightly colored shorts involved in the spanking in any way at all? Massey cannily doesn’t go into the slightest detail, but we have seen elsewhere that, in British theater of this period, an offstage spanking might imply one administered on the seat of the girl’s panties. But is Tessa even that lucky? Because Frances pointedly takes Tessa to the bathroom to be spanked, the one room in the house where people are routinely naked. Could it be, could it possibly be, that Price of Fame contains a real rarity – an authentic mainstream spanking on the bare bottom?

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