Monday, 3 December 2007
15 - Vassall Case: That Was The Week That Was
Illustration by Willie Rushton
"But My Dear" by Peter Shaffer in "That Was The Week That Was", edited by David Frost and Ned Sherin, W.H. Allen, 1963
The scene is an office. A senior official is sitting at his desk,. a junior official is quaking nervously as he hands a letter he has just composed to his pompous and bullying senior.
SENIOR OFFICER: (Taking the letter) Give it here. (Reading) 'To Mr Jenkins.' Good. None of that' dear' nonsense. (Reading) 'Pursuant to your letter. . .' Pursuant?
JUNIOR OFFICER: It's the usual phrase, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: I don't like it. The word has an erotic penumbra. Take it out.
JUNIOR OFFICER: Yes, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: (Reading) 'I am hoping for the favour of an early reply.' Favour?
JUNIOR OFFICER: The Oxford Dictionary defines the verb favour as 'to look kindly upon'.
SENIOR OFFICER: (Pouncing) Exactly. I am amazed you can be so naive. Looking kindly upon anyone who earns less than you do is a deeply treacherous procedure.
JUNIOR OFFICER: I'm very sorry, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: You need some basic training in modern manners, can see that. If a man comes 300 miles to see you with papers, keep him waiting in the hall-or better still the drive, if you have one. If you offer him so much as a sandwich you will be suspected of improper relations; and a three-course lunch spells treason.
JUNIOR OFFICER: Yes, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER : You really are an innocent, aren't you?
JUNIOR OFFICER: I'm afraid I am, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: Well we must change all that. (Continuing to read) 'Hoping for the favour of an early reply. . . . Thanking you in anticipation.' Are you doing this on purpose?
JUNIOR OFFICER: What, sir?
SENIOR OFFICER: Thanking you in anticipation
JUNIOR OFFICER: Is that wrong, sir?
SENIOR OFFICER: Wrong? It's just about the most sexually provocative sentence I've ever read. It whinnies with suggestiveness.
JUNIOR OFFICER: I hadn't intended it like that, Sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: We're not concerned with your intentions, man-merely with the effect you create. And I can tell you that it's nauseating. You have the correspondence style of a lovesick au pair girl. In more honest days one would have said kitchen-maid..
JUNIOR OFFICER: But, sir -
SENIOR OFFICER: Don't interrupt, or I may lose control. Now understand this: in the Civil Service you will never thank anybody for anything, especially in anticipation. You will simply end your letter without innuendo of any kind. Now let's see what you've done. (Reading) 'Yours faithfully' I don't believe it.
JUNIOR OFFICER: That's normal, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: Normal? In the context of a man writing to a man it's nothing less than disgusting. It implies you can be UN-faithful!
JUNIOR OFFICER: I never thought of that, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: You think of very little, don't you? Even the word 'Yours' at the end of a letter is dangerous. It suggests a willingness for surrender.
JUNIOR OFFICER: Then what can I say, sir?
SENIOR OFFICER: What do the Pensions Department use?
They're about as unemotional as you can get, without actually being dead.
JUNIOR OFFICER: 'Your obedient servant', I think.
SENIOR OFFICER: Are you mad?
JUNIOR OFFICER: Sir?
SENIOR OFFICER: Your obedient servant. . . . That's just plain perverted.. People who want to be other people's obedient servants are the sort who answer those advertisements: Miss Lash, ex-Governess of striking appearance. To sign yourself an obedient servant is an ipso facto confession of sexual deviation. And that, as we all know, is an ipso facto confession of treason.
JUNIOR OFFICER: Oh, I say, sir!
SENIOR OFFICER: What do you say? (Looking at him narrowly) I believe you are one of those cranks who believe that there are loyal homosexuals! (Accusingly) I think you secretly believe that the way to stop homosexuals being blackmailed into subversive acts is to change the law so they can't be.
JUNIOR OFFICER: Well, it had crossed my mind, sir. Amend the law and the possibility of Vassalls is lessened.
SENIOR OFFICER: Sloppy, left-wing sentimentality! The only way to stop a homosexual being blackmailed is to stop him being a homosexual. And the only way you can do that is to lock him up in a building with five hundred other men. That way he can see how unattractive they really are. Now take this pornographic muck out of here and bring it back in an hour, clean enough to be read by a six-year-old girl, or John Gordon. And leave out everything at the end except your name:, a bare signature, brusque and masculine. What is your name, by the way?
JUNIOR OFFICER: Fairy, sir.
SENIOR OFFICER: I don't think somehow you are going to go very far in Her Majesty's Service. Good morning.