Ten Green Bottles

Wilfred Massey was not only a prolific playwright, including four comedies with spanking scenes, but also a prolific publisher of plays for the amateur market. Among the other authors whose work he published was Rosemary West, who naturally had nothing at all to do with the serial killer of the same name. This non-lethal Rosemary was much less prolific than Massey, with only two-and-a-half plays to her name between 1956 and 1965. The half-play was the latest, Spring and the Oakleys, which she co-wrote with Massey himself, and which contains the following mention of an offstage spanking that didn’t quite happen:

‘I put her across my knee and if my wife hadn’t come in I’d have given her something she’d never have forgotten!’

But the main object of our attention is Rosemary West’s earlier farce, Ten Green Bottles (1958), about a pharmacist, Ernest Dokes, with an inclination to propose to completely unsuitable women. His bossy daughter Rowena is anxious to get him wed in a hurry, to the right sort of wife, because her employers are about to transfer her to a posting in South Wales and she wants to go secure in the knowledge that he won’t be left alone and vulnerable. The danger is acute, because right now he is making advances to the brassy, plebeian Cynthia Boyle, whom Rowena finds all the more unwelcome a prospective stepmother because she comes with a daughter of her own: Dolores.

The stage directions describe Dolores as a ‘Teenage Terror who looks as though she had escaped from St Trinian’s’ – the notorious girls’ school created by cartoonist Ronald Searle in 1946, whose fearsome pupils were the basis of seven film comedies between 1954 and 2009. It is further suggested that she may, if casting allows, be bigger than her mother. And that’s important, because the author’s production notes are very clear about the question of what kind of performer should play the teenage terror:

‘Dolores must, of course, be played by an adult actress as no child-player could invest this part with the sinister malevolence it must have. Dolores should have no redeeming feature whatsoever; it is not enough that she should be played merely as a mischievous, high-spirited girl. She must be a perfect horror.’

She is indeed a frightful brat, whose crimes include tormenting the cat, savagely biting Rowena’s would-be fiancé Tony Middleton and throwing green paint at Ernest’s niece Steve, who happens to be wearing tennis whites at the time. Early in the play, most of the other characters make dark suggestions about the reprisals they would like to take, only to be firmly cut off by Mrs Boyle. Also defending Dolores is Lady Fitch, the influential sister of Tony’s prospective employer and someone who’s very firm in her disapproval of corporal punishment. So it takes a while before anything gets said out loud and directly, and surprisingly the one who says it is Ernest’s timid, elderly, good-hearted assistant, Miss Mirabel Primrose, after Dolores seems to be escaping retribution again by calling for her mother:

CYNTHIA: What does Mum’s girlie want?
MISS MIRABEL: If you don’t know what Mum’s girlie wants, then you’re the only one in the whole town who doesn’t.
CYNTHIA: What did you…
MISS MIRABEL: What Mum’s girlie wants is someone with a strong right arm to turn her over and tan her bottom till she can’t sit on it!
CYNTHIA: Why, you – you–
MISS MIRABEL: And I give you solemn warning that if she plays any more of her little pranks on me – only one – that’s what she’ll get, so make no mistake about it!

This out-of-character behavior has happened because she has just been given a dose of the smelling salts she has been making up in green bottles (you guessed it, ten of them), using a series of recipes devised by her great-great-great aunt, who happened to be the local witch. The salts have also turned the tormented cat into a tiger, and that’s not the end of their strange powers…

Ernest has many quirks of personality, but his most story-significant peculiarity is that he will only ever propose marriage in writing, rather than in person. Hitherto Rowena has always managed to intercept the letters, but this time he bypasses the postbox and gives Mrs Boyle’s letter to Dolores instead. Before it goes into its envelope, Dolores mischievously contrives to swap the proposal letter for one written at the same time, a rude brush-off to a troublesome client. She then tucks the letter into the back of her school knickers, but before she can leave to deliver it, she is stopped by Rowena and friends, out to retrieve the missive and stop Ernest from making a terrible mistake. Tony, the only man in the posse, advances on Dolores, only to be is fazed when he realizes where the letter has been secreted.

MISS MIRABEL: Oh, go on, Tony! You hold her, we’ll get the letter.
TONY: Oh – right!
(Seizes Dolores)
DOLORES (yelling): Let me go – let me go!
STEVE: Turn her over, Tony.
(Tony, holding Dolores, sits on settee or chair and pulls her across his lap.)
DOLORES: I’ll tell my Mum! Leave me alone! You’re hurting me! (Etc ad lib, her feet kicking.)
ROWENA: I’ll hold her feet.
(Down on one knee she does so. Dolores, unable to kick, sinks her teeth in Tony’s wrist.)
TONY (yelling): Oh! She’s bitten me to the bone again! Right!!
(Lifts his hand high to wallop Dolores. Miss Mirabel, having heard a noise, has gone to French windows to look off.)
TONY: Just one.

Rowena tries to remind him that their main objective is retrieving the letter from the seat of the brat’s knickers, not administering a spanking to the same general area. But the noise that attracted Miss Mirabel’s attention was Lady Fitch arriving. She is horrified to see a spanking about to happen and unconvinced by Tony’s explanation that it’s ‘just harmless fun and games’. So Dolores escapes unspanked to deliver the letter, and Tony seems to have lost his chances of a job.

The misunderstandings pile up frenetically in the rest of the play, but are ultimately sorted out by cunning use of the ten different magical properties of the salts in the green bottles. The main things to register are that Tony does get the job after all, Ernest finally realizes that Miss Mirabel is the woman for him… and Dolores still doesn’t get spanked. Though on that last point there is a little something to report from the farce’s two-decade stage history.

Like Massey’s plays, Ten Green Bottles was primarily intended for amdram groups and, so far as I know, has never had a professional production. But I do know of 29 amateur productions over the years, starting in 1958 with the Greenbank Players of Renfrew from November 20 through 22, and continuing up to a production at Seaford Little Theatre in 1976. The only known picture is from the second earliest production, mounted by St George’s Players of Taunton on November 24 and 25, 1958, the week after the play was seen at Renfrew. It featured David Cooke as Tony and Maureen Hex as Dolores, though sadly you don’t have much chance of making out their features in the available print:

The less sad news, except possibly for Maureen Hex, is that the production didn’t play the scene as written: Miss Fitch arrived later than in the script, and it was Tony’s enthusiastic spanking of Dolores that prevented Rowena and Steve from retrieving the letter out of the knickers. And what’s more, a mere letter doesn’t have the same protective powers as the traditional book down the seat of the pants…

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