Billed as an ‘unusual comedy’, Behind the Blinds is a play whose central idea depends on its set. The action takes place in four different flats in Rainbow Mansions, an apartment block represented by a permanent set with four distinct areas that are lit up or darkened as required. The effect was rather like a doll’s house with the front taken off:
In each apartment, a separate story takes place, representing a single hour in the lives of the tenants. The four cameos interlock to form a full-length, three-act play, but the stories are completely separate from one another: each group of characters never meets the other three groups, and the whole thing is bound together by scenes of sardonic commentary featuring the block’s cleaners in the hallway and staircase (the middle section of the set). According to the author, Vivian Tidmarsh (1896-1941), the idea was to illuminate ‘the great truth about flat life in London: that blinds and doors and walls conceal human dramas and comedies of which other tenants know nothing and care less’. The innovative set concept takes away the outside walls and window-blinds so that the audience can look directly into the lives of the people inside – hence the title, Behind the Blinds.
In case anyone is in doubt about the playwright’s gender, his full name was Eric Vivian Tidmarsh. His best known play was Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary?, which was produced in London in 1944 and then became an early Diana Dors movie in 1953, but he didn’t live to see its success: during the Second World War, he served as a London air raid warden and was killed during a bombing raid.
He originally wrote Behind the Blinds in 1932, but then produced a revised, updated version in 1938, in which the most substantial alteration was the replacement of one of the four stories with an entirely new one. And it is this story that claims our attention today.
The central characters of this section are Jack and Diana Harding, the husband and wife who occupy Flat 1, who have been married for three months and are known to the choric cleaners as a couple who never quarrel. Jack is a would-be dramatist, played by Frederick Bradshaw in the 1938 production:
24-year old Diana is described as ‘very pretty’, and cast to play her was Marjorie Lane:
(That’s the British stage actress Marjorie Lane, not the American singer and movie star of the same name.)
A couple who never quarrel must surely be of limited dramatic interest, but fortunately as their story begins, they are entering the first crisis of their marriage. When the lights come up on Flat 1, Diana is sobbing: she and Jack had a row yesterday after she told him the hero of his play talks like a ‘cissy’, after which he went out and didn’t come home for the night. ‘Who slapped who?’ asks Clare Bryson, her older sister, played in 1938 by José Huntley-Wright, but Diana insists that the closest matters got to violence was a push she gave him. Clare is of the opinion that her little sister needs ‘a good spanking. I’ve good mind to give it to you.’ And that signposts the way the story is heading.
Clare’s advice is that, when Jack eventually returns, Diana should make a fuss of him, make him really feel wanted at home. But Diana is stubborn as well as pretty: she won’t sacrifice her dignity, and insists that Jack must be the one who apologises first. Until Jack arrives, that is, and they rush into one another’s arms – whereupon Flat 1 goes into blackout and the audience gets to look in on some other lives in another apartment.
We return to Jack and Diana at the top of the second act, with the story picking up exactly where it left off. The couple’s loving reunion doesn’t last for long. Jack couldn’t bring himself to stay away from home any longer, he tells his wife, even though he had intended to be gone for a week, to teach her a lesson. Oh dear: not the most tactful thing to say. ‘Did I need a lesson, Jack?’ she asks – whereupon the argument starts up again, escalating into a screaming match.
DIANA: You are merely trying to be a cave-man husband.
JACK: What rot! If I were a cave-man I wouldn’t be arguing with you. I’d be smacking you with a club with knobs on.
DIANA: How dare you threaten me
JACK: Damn it! I wasn’t threatening. I said ‘If I were a cave-man’. I sometimes wish I were.
DIANA: There you are. You want to strike me.
JACK: No, but I will in a minute – and damned hard too.
DIANA: You’re a bully.
It is becoming apparent that this marriage operates on a cycle: ferocious argument, followed by loving reconciliation. Round they go again: Diana asks Jack where he slept last night, and he tells her it was at his aunt’s house. But Diana won’t believe it: she would rather believe, jealously, that he spent the night with his secretary. And that brings us to flashpoint:
JACK: I won’t argue with you. You’re a foolish, mean, empty-headed little hussy.
DIANA: You’re a horrible, cruel, spiteful brute of a wife-beater. And so take that!
(She slaps his face.)
JACK: My God! You’ve asked for it, and now you’re going to get it.
(He seizes Diana, puts her across his knee and spanks her while Diana howls at the top of her voice.)
And with that the play wanders off for some more action elsewhere in the presumably well soundproofed Rainbow Mansions.
When the curtain rises on the third act, all four flats are lit up simultaneously, showing the respective points where each story left off. Of course, we are going to be looking at Flat 1, where Diana is still ‘across her husband’s knee, kicking and howling as he spanks her’. After time for the audience to take in the overall tableau, the lights go down on Flats 2-4 and all eyes that aren’t already there turn to the ongoing action between Jack and his wife:
(Diana, howling and kicking, is sprawling across her husband’s knee as he spanks her.)
JACK: Take that and that and that.
(After each blow, which is not really very hard, Diana gives an indignant cry. This is purely a comedy scene. Jack has considerable difficulty in keeping his energetic wife across his knee. Business.)
(Enter Clare Bryson. She comes in carrying a tray. She stops in astonishment, sees what is happening and drops the tray. At that moment Diana scrambles off Jack’s lap. The husband stands up facing Clare. Diana kneels on the floor, rubbing the part of her which has been spanked.)
CLARE: Well! You two really do the quaintest things.
JACK (stubbornly): This is no fooling. I’ve just given her a damned good spanking. She’s been asking for it for weeks.
DIANA (tearfully, as she gets off the floor): He’s a brute beast. He’s beaten me unmercifully. I’ll go to the police court tomorrow and show the magistrate the marks.
CLARE: No, darling. You couldn’t, really! The marks are in the wrong place for that.
And so there’s more self-justification and more recrimination, which ends with Diana walking out, leaving Jack alone with his sister-in-law. Clare dispenses some more advice: what he should do now is tell her he’s sorry. Maybe, but:
JACK: I’m not sorry – not sorry I spanked her, I mean. (Hurriedly) Of course I don’t want her to leave me.
CLARE: You’ve hurt her dignity.
JACK: Oh, yes. I slapped it hard enough.
Diana returns with her suitcase: she has packed her things, she says, and now she’s leaving, never to return. But the cycle goes around again, with apologies and reconciliation. Finally, Diana’s suitcase flies open – and we see that it is empty.
When the revised script was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for licensing, it got a predictable reaction from the reader, H. C. Game. The new story, he wrote in his report of September 3, ‘amounts to little more than a running fight between a young married couple, who irritate as much as adore each other, and in this connection I must draw attention to the spanking scene’. He went on to explain why: ‘The late Lord Chamberlain frowned on spanking of the adult female by the adult male, and a similar scene was cut not so very long ago.’ (He was thinking of the case of Sexes and Sevens that June.) But a new Lord Chamberlain had just taken over, the Earl of Clarendon, and Game seized his opportunity to put his own point of view on the issue:
‘Personally I doubt whether such a piece of business would do any harm in the theatre or produce any other reaction than healthy laughter, except in an infinitesimal number of cases; but I seem to be in a minority. If this business is cut the continuation of the scene will also need alteration.’
In other words, because of the way the spanking is distributed through the play, they were looking at major surgery that would affect more than one scene. Higher authority decided on this occasion to be liberal: ‘Quite harmless, I think.’
It wasn’t the dawn of a new permissiveness about theatrical spanking scenes, as the authors of Tomorrow’s Eden and Tomorrow’s Child would discover in the following decade. But it did mean that Behind the Blinds, duly licensed on October 4, could go into production at the Winter Garden Theatre. It opened on October 10 and ran for three weeks, closing on October 29. Put another way, it ran for 24 performances including matinees.
But Frederick Bradshaw didn’t spank Marjorie Lane 24 times in that run: no, she got 48 spankings. Because of the way the play is organized, she was spanked in the second act, and then spanked again, at length, at the start of the third. So whereas the character only gets spanked once, the actress playing her had to endure it twice!