The Bedworthy sisters, part of an aristocratic line that stretches back to Tudor times and whose name is said to reflect Henry VIII’s sense of humor, are in financial difficulties. Their servants are currently without wages, Lady Lilian is forced to write a newspaper advice column and the family’s long-term hopes rest on the expectation that Lady Mary’s son, Tim Crabbe, will marry into money. Unfortunately Tim is not disposed to cooperate in this scheme, and facetiously proposes that instead they should take in paying guests. His mother takes that a lot more seriously than intended, and now a rich but vulgar family from Brisbane is coming to stay.
That’s the scenario for Ivor Novello’s social comedy Fresh Fields, which opened at London’s Criterion Theatre on January 5, 1933. The two most significant lodgers are Tom Larcomb and his sparky, china-destroying niece Una Pidgeon, played in 1933 by Fred Groves and Eileen Peel respectively. Here’s Eileen:
Each of them develops a particular antipathy for one member of the host family: Una for Tim and Tom for Lady Lilian, the unmarried sister and Tim’s aunt, originally played by Lilian Braithwaite. You can imagine where this is going, in the direction of financial solvency through advantageous marriage, twice over. But it’s the getting there that counts, and there are major bumps in the road arising from the fact that, in the Bedworthy family’s eyes, these Australians are woefully uncultured. They need, among other things, to be told that the English upper classes may spell a certain name Cholmondeley, but they pronounce it ‘Chumley’. Cue the inevitable joke about how to say the name Bottomley. And then cue, from Una, a comment about how the snobbish Lady Lilian needs ‘a good slap on her “Chumley”’.
In the next scene, the ‘Chumley’ in question comes in danger of rather more than a good slap when Lady Lilian is chatted up by Tom.
She slaps his face, and the rough Aussie’s response is, inevitably, ‘Do that again – and I’ll put you across my knee.’ Not quite how an English lady expects to be treated, is it? Perhaps that’s why she responds by slapping his face again. Unwise, Lady Lilian, very unwise. Tom chases her… catches her… Suddenly the lady realizes she has something to worry about. What’s a girl to do when faced with the imminent danger of being upturned and soundly spanked? Lady Lilian drops her reserve, kisses him, and gets herself a fiancé instead of a sore bottom.
Try not to be too disappointed. Like me, you may feel that a 59-year-old future Dame of the British Empire might not have been ideal spanking material anyway…
Like me, you may feel better off with Mary Sargent, seen on the left here in the 1936 Broadway production…
But the play will have to go further west than that before it fulfills its promise. In 1943, Fresh Fields was chosen for production by the community theater in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with some adaptations. For example, Tom (played by Herb Selissen) was now surnamed Marcomb rather than Larcomb, and the rough wooing scene went a little further than the script prescribed:
The three characters watching in this publicity still, incidentally, are (left to right) Una, Lady Mary and Tim.