The playwright Anthony Marriott dismayed critics and delighted theatre-goers with "No Sex Please, We're British," the farce in which pants were dropped and toilets flushed to the amusement of house after house. England's longest-running comedy, premiered in London's West End on 3 June 1971, shortly after the death of Marriott's co-author, Alistair Foot.
Originally billed as The Secret Sex Life of a Sub-branch Bank Manager, the show presented audiences with the misadventures of a buttoned-up newly-wed couple – a young bank employee and his wife – and the stream of pornographic material mistakenly and infelicitously mailed to their home.
Among critics, the show flopped, one calling it "as glumly witless as its title." But popular audiences — including busloads of American tourists — lapped up its physical comedy and innuendo and turned out for 6,761 performances before the show finally closed on 5 September 1987.
By the time it ended its run, an American tourist once told a reporter, "leaving London without seeing it would be like missing Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace." The title became a catchphrase, and at least one paper marked the end of the production with the headline "No Sex Please, We're Finished." The second-longest-running British comedy, Joseph Kesselring's Arsenic and Old Lace, ran for a relatively paltry 1,337 performances.
Marriott confessed that he didn't know why his show lasted so long or why, specifically, it appealed so strongly to the middle classes. True to its title, the play featured no erotica. "It's not even naughty," Marriott said. "It's suitable for anyone aged seven upwards." Audiences were left to imagine the smut that poured into the protagonists' flat above the bank branch, which was frequently visited by the young groom's colleague (the initial production featured Michael Crawford in the role.
"It appeals to the conventionally minded while permitting them to think of themselves as just a little unconventional," Benedict Nightingale wrote in The New York Times. "Perhaps that's a reason for its success with the great British public and, presumably, with the occasional American tourist too." The show appeared in more than 50 countries, including one noted tour in the US in 1973. By that time, its popularity had forced critics to acknowledge, however begrudgingly, that it had something going for it. "I would prefer to see Medea, Clive Barnes wrote in The New York Times. "But I imagine quite a few theatergoers in New York would not."
Anthony John Crosbie Marriott was born in London in 1931. His parents lived in India, where his father was stationed by the military, and he was brought up by grandparents. He studied in London at what is now the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He began as an actor and for a time was associated with the BBC Drama Repertory Company.
In addition to his collaboration with Alistair Foot, Marriott also worked with Bob Grant on such plays as Darling London and Home Is Where Your Clothes Are and with John Chapman on plays including Shut Your Eyes and Think of England. He also wrote for television and the cinema. No Sex Please was made into a 1973 film starring Ronnie Corbett.
The reception of No Sex Please in England and in the US illuminated, in some ways, the expectations of each country's theatre-goers. Referring to Americans, Nightingale observed that the play was a "reproach to those cross-Atlantic aficionados who persistently idealise the British theatre and bad-mouth Broadway. If London is the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court, it's also No Sex Please and When Did You Last See Your Trousers?"
Here, theatre-goers knew exactly what awaited them — and what did not await them, despite the titular reference to the carnal act. At the end of the show's run, the producer estimated that in 16 years and 6,761 performances, he had received only about a dozen complaints – all of them from patrons who had bought tickets expecting entertainment of another sort.
Anthony John Crosbie Marriott, writer: born London 17 January 1931; Heulwen Roberts (died 1999; two daughters, one son); died 17 April 2014.
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