Britannia of Billingsgate

‘An alarming picture of the dangers of sudden wealth’ was how the London Times reviewer described Britannia of Billingsgate, a comedy by Christine Jope-Slade and Sewell Stokes that opened at St Martin’s Theatre in November 1931 and remained popular, in many different versions, for three decades. Sudden wealth puts some young women in a particular kind of danger, but it is as well to bear in mind from the start that dangers aren’t always realized…

The play begins with advance news that some film producers are about to pay a call on the Billingsgate home of a working-class family. Maria Bolton, a charlady who sometimes helps out in the studio canteen, assumes they are going to ask her pretty daughter Pansy to be in a movie, and is all set to say no… but when they arrive, it’s Mrs Bolton herself they want, to star in a sentimental melodrama called No Mother To Guide Her, in return for a handsome salary she just can’t refuse.

This is unwelcome news for Pansy, who is described as having ‘a certain brittle, loose-lipped prettiness’, and is an avid reader of movie magazines. She has set her heart on a career up on the silver screen and is offended to learn that the gig has gone instead to her ‘old and fat’ mother. Her unimpressed brother remarks that she needs ‘some ticking-off’, though others might have something else in mind: ‘Let me lay my hands on you once, my girl,’ says her father, ‘speaking to your mother like that!’ And the scene gets progressively closer to the laying on of hands, with Pansy eventually swearing at her brother, when the argument is broken by the arrival of a celebrated starlet who will be playing Mrs Bolton’s screen daughter. So no nemesis yet for her real daughter Pansy.

Mrs Bolton’s film star earnings are not good for her family. The husband and son go off the rails, but it’s Pansy who is most affected: she ‘behaves dreadfully’, according to the Times reviewer. To be more precise, she quits her menial job, spends lavishly on clothes, wanders around the house in her pink panties and devotes her life to the gramophone at home all day and the dance hall all night. As far as her mother is concerned, it’s surreptitiously leaving the job that’s the last straw: when Pansy is ‘shopped’ by the family friend and local gossip Mrs Wigglesworth, there’s hell to pay.

‘You’ve gone too far this time, my girl. Go to your room, miss, and take down your clothes. When Mrs Wigglesworth’s gone I’m coming to give you such a warming as you ain’t never had. I’ll learn you. Tomorrow you go back to work.’

One phrase there needs thinking about: ‘take down your clothes’. A previous stage direction is very specific about what clothes Pansy is wearing at this point in the play: a jade-green frock, an enormous string of pale green pearls, beige kid shoes with very high-heels and a pair of beige silk stockings. So she’s wearing a dress, but she is told to take down her clothes – an order that can only refer to those pink panties. Pansy isn’t just going to be spanked: she’s going to be spanked on her bare bottom!

Contain your disappointment when I tell you that she isn’t spanked after all. She breaks free from her mother’s grip and smashes some plates. ‘You’re a bad girl, you are,’ says Mrs Wigglesworth. ‘Your father ought to take the strap to you.’ Mrs Bolton grabs her daughter by the wrists, but Pansy bites her, and leaves the house in a rage. ‘I ain’t going to be beaten by you, so don’t you think it,’ she says as she goes. And so, at the midpoint of the play, Maria Bolton finds herself in despair at what her new-found riches have done to her family.

The story sorts itself out in ways that regrettably don’t involve a spanking for Pansy. Mrs Bolton’s movie is a rip-roaring success, but she turns down the offer of a Hollywood contract, recognizing that the only way to put her family back on the straight and narrow is to see that they go back to work. She ends the play determined to begin sorting out her home tomorrow: ‘Things was getting in a pretty mess and no mistake.’

The London production starred Mary Jerrold as Maria Bolton and former child star Gabrielle Casartelli as Pansy. Here they are (center and right) with Eileen Collins-James as Mrs Wigglesworth:

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The play had a respectable run in London and then entered the repertory circuit. It would merit no more than a footnote in spanking history if its success hadn’t extended into a second medium in 1933, when Ralph Stokes and George Moresby-White adapted it into a movie, radically altering the story and extending certain aspects of it in ways that suit us.

Mrs Bolton is now named Bessie, not Maria, and she is no longer a char but the owner of an East London fish-and-chip shop. To make the role a more suitable star vehicle for music hall performer Violet Loraine, the character is now graced with a fine singing voice, which is accidentally recorded by a film company. She is promptly signed up to make movie musicals, and we reach the unchanged core of the story: her new affluence, and the rest of the family’s resultant bad habits.

Kay Hammond – later best known for her role as Elvira in both the stage and screen versions of Blithe Spirit – plays the daughter, now named Pearl and even more starstruck than when she was Pansy. To be more precise, she is obsessed with the movie actor Harold Hogarth

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She falls in with a wrong set, gets an introduction to Hogarth and learns something of his routine. On the premiere night of her mother’s picture, Piccadilly Playground, she feigns a headache so that she doesn’t have to go, then gets dressed up and sneaks out of the house.

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She is going to pay a call on Hogarth – at the time she knows he’s out walking his pet dog. But Mrs Wigglesworth (a splendid comic turn by Drusilla Wills), who has come to sit in with her and her injured brother (the young John Mills), spots her surreptitious exit, follows her and sees her entering Hogarth’s residence. So while Pearl is snooping around her heartthrob’s empty flat, Mrs W. goes to the movie premiere and tells Bessie – so that when the film ends, she’s not there to receive the audience’s appreciative applause…

… because she’s over at Hogarth’s apartment, where she is busy, as the Times reviewer put it, ‘slapping sense into the girl who has hurled herself at the head of a decorous film star’. And at this time the word slapping was sometimes used as a polite synonym for spanking.

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Alas, Bessie only pushes Pearl down onto a divan rather than formally taking the errant girl over her knee. But on the bright side, Pearl gets six slaps on her bottom, and rubs herself ruefully afterwards.

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And she’s still rubbing when she gets up, wailing that Harold Hogarth will never look her in the face again after seeing her get her bottom smacked.

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But Bessie’s not finished with her yet, she says – so it looks as if Pearl may be in for another dose when her mother gets her home!

And that wasn’t the final evolutionary form of Britannia of Billingsgate. Yet another version appeared when one of the original playwrights, Christine Jope-Slade, produced a tie-in novelization of the film that same year. Among the changes she made was the addition of a running gag about how much Pearl resembles Kay Hammond, along with much prose about what the characters are thinking and feeling. There is an especially interesting thought that crosses Hogarth’s mind when Pearl begins to throw herself at him, and complains about how she is always has to do as her mother says. He rather admires Mrs Bolton’s plebeian authenticity but finds Pearl an irritating, spoilt chit and thinks, ‘She wants spanking good and plenty.’

This version of Harold Hogarth is married but can’t reveal the fact for publicity reasons, and his actress wife is currently away filming in America. This means Pearl is onto a loser when she gets it into her head that ‘if a man compromises a girl, he’s got to marry her’. She attends her mother’s film premiere, and afterwards, by a ruse, gets hold of the key to Hogarth’s apartment in order to get herself well and truly compromised. On arrival she takes off all her clothes and puts on a black silk kimono she finds in the wardrobe – property, unbeknown to her, of Mrs Hogarth. He arrives, and sets about writing a passionate letter to his absent wife, completely unaware of Pearl waiting for him in the bedroom. It’s a long letter, and eventually she falls asleep – only to be awakened when her furious mother arrives to take her home.

Hogarth tells Pearl some home truths, at length, and advises her mother first to ‘knock a little sense into her’ and then send her to boarding school. But Mrs Bolton, whose characterization in the novel emphasizes her human kindness more than her qualities as a battleaxe, is the sympathetic adult rather than the disciplinarian of the play and film. And so the only version so far that overtly says, in so many words, that Pearl deserves a good spanking, is also the only version in which she doesn’t even come close to meeting that fate!

And even that wasn’t the end of the line. The play was produced five times by the BBC, thrice on radio in a version adapted by Cynthia Pughe (1945, with Gladys Young as Mrs Bolton; 1952, with Kathleen Harrison, perfect casting; 1960, with Gladys Henson) and twice on television (1953, with Vi Stevens; 1958, with Hermione Baddeley). Much less is known about these versions: the radio productions aren’t available, the first television production was performed live (twice) and never recorded, and the 1958 production has since been junked. A glance at the entirely Hogarth-free cast lists reveals that all five productions were based on the original stage play, not the film or novel, but reveal also that there was at least some adaptation surrounding the character of the daughter.

There is no information about who played the part in 1945, but in 1952 she was Patricia Hayes, an actress best remembered for her roles as a much older woman and already in her early 40s (which was more than twice the character’s age, but didn’t much matter on radio). The significant information is that the character wasn’t now named Pansy, or even Pearl, but Dolly.

It was back to Pansy for the 1953 television production, when the role was played by Lana Morris…

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… an actress we shall encounter again another time when we come to a play in which she was certainly spanked. But in 1958, when Maureen Beck took the part…

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… she had become Shirley. Finally Pansy reemerged on radio in 1960, as voiced by Sheila Grant.

And the point is this: if they were changing the character’s name, what other aspects of her part might they also have changed? The one consistent theme found in all the early versions is that she deserves to be spanked, even though it only actually happens in one of the three. It’s probably just wishful thinking, but maybe there’s just a scintilla of a chance that someone in the script department recognized the unsatisfactory lack of a dramatic payoff, and took steps to remedy it – by having the egregious Miss Bolton receive a different sort of remedy across her mother’s knee!

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