It had not been planned, but it turned out to be one of my most memorable nights in the theatre.
I had a leading role in the rival of The Schoolboys that was touring some of the smaller towns in England and Wales. The play was a revival of a dreary play that had not seen the light of day in 75 years. The director said it was rediscovered classic; being as it was an exploration of English upper class life in the 1930s and showed how the degrading treatment of privileged boys by their public school masters turned them into communists. Hogwash!
But, as I had missed out on Pantomime this year (I usually was cast as a wicked step-father), the offer of ‘a tour’ was most welcomed, even though it was the middle of one of the worst winters in the nation’s history.
I played the ‘Housemaster’ (the character had no name which according to the director represented the anonymity of oppression).
As it was a play set in a school, a number of the characters were boys aged sixteen and seventeen. This is always a difficult age to cast, since directors prefer to work with adults (for reasons of employment law) and with actors with at least some experience. Many of the ‘boys’ in The Schoolboys were, not to be too unkind about it, a little too old for the part.
However, once the director dressed them up in their school uniforms and used creative make-up and lighting, they looked the part. The theatre is, after all, the art of illusion; and thankfully, in the theatre one does not have to be concerned with the close-up.
The lead boy was what we in the business call a ‘new-comer.’ He had not toured a production before and his only experience to date was in small walk-on parts. He was called Hugo Ponsonby-Smythe. Now, what kind of name is that? Obviously, his father was not a dockworker. He does not use the name professionally: he calls himself Hugo Smith, which, I suppose might serve to identify him as a member of any number of classes in the prevailing English social system. The name Hugo might put him among the emerging knowledge-creating class and the Smith making him appear to be an ‘everyman.’
Hugo was aged about twenty and with his fresh face and lithe body he could easily pass as a senior schoolboy, especially over the distance between the stage and audience.
There was a very tricky scene near the start of the final act that caused us many difficulties in rehearsal. It was a caning scene, where I as his housemaster had to deliver six-of-the-best with a rattan cane to Hugo’s character, across his bare bottom.
I would have thought it impossible to find a school cane today, corporal punishment had been abolished in schools a generation past. But, by the time we were ready for rehearsal a number of fine school canes had been acquired. The prop master was rather coy when we asked where he obtained them. He told us he found them on e-bay, but really we suspected they were from his own personal collection.
When the play was originally run the theatre censor would not allow the caning scene to be shown on stage. Instead, the boys talked about it to one another and the injured party, as it were, described being caned on the bare bottom and how this made him feel.
But, today we have modern theatre and nothing must be hidden from the audience.
So how would we do it? To begin with two wooden chairs were placed back-to-back so that the boy could kneel on the seat of one and bend his body over the two backs before gripping the seat of the other. If the chairs were positioned correctly it would be possible for the audience to only see the boy’s front and the reactions on his face and not his rear end.
A major problem was the bare bottom. Understandably, Hugo was unhappy since it meant that each night and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays he would have to bend over and show me his bare arse. I was not too excited by the prospect either. I am not in the least interested in boys’ arses. Which I think was more than might be said for some of the people round the production. The director had been buzzing around Hugo like a bee around jam ever since he met him
Hugo asked if would be possible to play the scene with his trousers up, but the director said this was the most pivotal scene in the whole play. This was the provocation that turned the boy irreversibly against his own social class (do not for heaven’s sake expect me to explain why).
There were issues of modesty to be considered. We could not have a member of cast exposing his genitals on stage and we supposed that audiences would not want to see a bare bottom either. At rehearsal we experimented with ways of getting his trousers and pants down while he was kneeling on the chair. We found that if I unbuckled his belt and buttons I could get the trousers and pants down over his thighs and expose enough buttock to then administer the cane to the housemaster’s satisfaction.
This, the director thought, was “marvellous,” apparently the taking down of the trousers by the housemaster was deeply symbolic of class oppression.
But, how would we deal with the actual caning? The whole point was that the boy was thrashed, not that he got a smack on the bot.
The director told us that in movies when they show someone being whipped, in a ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ or a slave picture, say, they stick padding on the back of the person being whipped and with a camera at the correct angle, the audience does not realise.
With the victim suitable protected, the whipmaster can flog as hard as he wants into the padding. Later the sound of the lash is edited on and makeup puts the whip marks into his back.
But, it is not so easy on stage, where everything is live. We experimented with padding which might have worked if Hugo were to be allowed to keep his trousers – wardrobe could make a pair of underpants from leather and he would not feel a thing. But, if he had to take it on the bare, where would the padding go?
I had to admire the props and wardrobe people who tried everything. One idea was that Hugo would have his trousers and pants taken down, but there would be some padding strapped to the bum as happened with the backs of whipped slaves.
But, for it to work, the padding would have to be under Hugo’s trousers for the whole scene and would be noticed by the audience, especially since many girls in the audience believed Hugo’s bottom was his prize asset.
So padding was not going to work. Eventually, we turned to sound effects. A recording of a cane whacking into a bare arse was made. (I do not know how it was done and the sound engineer was not about to say.)
The scene then went like this: Hugo bends over the two chairs, I take down his trousers and pants. Then I have some lines of dialogue (revealing myself to be an oppressor, the director says) and then I raise the cane and bring it down on his bare bottom. The timing has to be perfect so that my swishes into the bared flesh coincided exactly with the sound effect.
It took a lot of rehearsal and eventually we achieved it, although I still thought the audience knew I was not really cutting into Hugo’s bum, despite his grimaces and attempts to portray agony.
So, the play fully rehearsed, we took it on the road. We had toured for three weeks, when we arrived at a small town in the industrial North of England, where we were to play for three nights. That was where the trouble started.
Before the tour set off, Hugo had been granted a role in a television drama series called North of the Line! that enjoyed much popularity among the viewing public when televised. He had recorded his part before we began to tread the boards in The Schoolboys. None of us among his fellow actors were aware of this until the episodes began to be televised. Suddenly, we had a ‘star’ in the company. It does not matter how good an actor is, if one is on television, then one is a ‘star’. So it was with Hugo.
In North of the Line! Hugo played a rogue who was disrespectful of his parents and of his schoolteachers and who had an eye for the girls, who were only too willing to accept it. Girls, and also young women, of a certain disposition, took to the character immediately and Hugo began to get noticed by the newspapers.
Our theatre management was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth and capitalised. Posters for The Schoolboys were re-done and Hugo’s name replaced mine above the title. A photograph of Hugo, sporting a nauseatingly cheeky grin, stared out under the words Star of North of the Line!
The result was a sold-out box office, but alas the theatre was full of adolescent girls. They were what I believe are these days called ‘chavs:’ they cheered and called out his TV name when Hugo first appeared on stage; that was how crass they were.
The sudden popularity of a junior member of the cast caused some anxiety back stage, where it is considered important to keep up traditions. Senior members of the cast are deferred to in all matters, by other cast members and by those working back stage. This deference extends even to the director himself, who would never consider calling me by my Christian name.
Hugo came from a different stock. He had no experience in the theatre worth the mention and had not learned the importance of tradition and ‘knowing your place.’ As a television ‘star’ he believed himself to be the most important person in the cast. But, we older hands believed he knew nothing and should be treated as the junior cast member that he assuredly was.
This inevitably led to arguments back stage. A colleague berated Hugo for his unprofessionalism and complained bitterly about the screaming girls in the audience. Perhaps, it was as well that at this point none of us knew about the girls who waited for Hugo at the stage door after a show, willing to offer him a performance of their own.
Hugo exhibited an arrogance that took my breath away. Quite calmly he told those within hearing distance that he considered himself to be the star of this show and that he was the one the audience were coming to see. “Not you,” he said, pointing at me, or the other “dreary dinosaurs” in the cast.
I was livid with anger but controlled myself. He was a guttersnipe, a whippersnapper and I would not rise to his bait. I was more of a star than this pretty boy would ever be. I have worked with the best: Larry, Dickie, Bertie, Johnny, and, of course, dear old Hammy.
It happened in the very next performance after the row with Hugo. I had not planned it. The final act was underway and the housemaster and Hugo were in the study. Hugo placed himself across the two chairs and I took down his trousers and underpants.
I collected the cane from the cupboard, swished it about a couple of times and then lined it up across Hugo’s bared cheeks. We had performed this scene many times before and I had perfected the timing of my cane strokes to coincide with the swishes in the sound effects.
I lined up the cane and saw Hugo’s buttocks, raised submissively to receive his punishment. I say ‘submissively’ but that night I saw defiance. He was pointing his cheeks at me as if to say, “Go on old man, do your worst, there’s nothing you can do to me. Your time has passed. I am the future.”
I hated him. The cane rose and instead of brushing it against his cheeks, I let fly with a real whopper. A thick red stripe appeared across both cheeks. As it bit home, Hugo let out a roar of agony. There was a collective intake of breath among the audience.
I hated him for his youth. Number two came down swiftly, and Hugo gripped onto the chair for dear life. The torture was searing through his bum and legs. He wanted to get up and shout “What the Hell’s going on?” but he was in the middle of a live performance.
By now he realised what was happening and he braced himself for what he knew would be four more searing, painful stingers.
I hated him for his good looks. Slash number three drew gasps from Hugo and from the audience, but Hugo was the only one in the theatre with tears streaming down his face.
I hated him for his fame. Number four sliced open a wound across the top of his buttocks and the shock and pain was so much his body bucked and he lifted the front legs of the front chair off the ground.
I hated him for the money he would earn. Slash number five replicated number four, but this time it whipped across the bottom of his globes, at the point where the buttocks meet the thighs.
I hated him because I hated myself. Number six went across the middle of both buttocks, accidently (honestly!) crossing two or three of the welts that were already standing up from Hugo’s flesh. He was choking for breath and in genuine distress.
I was sweating and breathing very hard. I must give up smoking cigars. I replaced the cane in the cupboard.
Only now did the enormity of my crime hit home. Yes, I had thrashed Hugo, and yes, it gave me tremendous pleasure to do so, but I am a professional actor and it is a sin to deviate from the script and place your fellow actors in jeopardy.
I walked upstage (this was not in the script) to give myself thinking time and turned to face Hugo. He was still breathing heavily, but he was gaining control of his sobbing.
“All right. That’s over, you may remove yourself,” I said. I was back on the script. I did not know how Hugo would react.
Clearly, still in agony, Hugo pulled up his trousers and pants, while still kneeling on the chair, as was required by the script. He stood and buttoned himself up. Then, he shook my hand and I dismissed him from my study and he exited stage left.
Hugo completed the play tormented by pain. His next scene was where he talked with this study mates about his caning ordeal and was required to wince a little as he sat down, but he was to remain seated. This time, he sat on the chair and jumped straight up in pain; the audience loved it, unaware that he was not acting.
Hugo finished the play word perfect. We all received curtain calls and standing ovations and Hugo was cheered. The cast members knew this was because he was a famous face ‘off the telly,’ and not because of his acting abilities.
I still think he is a poor actor, but after the caning ordeal I cannot say he is not a true professional.
Story inspired by the Housemaster play by Ian Hay
This story was first uploaded in October 2015.
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
Charles Hamilton the Second