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September 21, 2013

Recently, when going through some of my old theatrical scripts and posters from my days with RATS (Rawalpindi Amateur Theatrical Society), an old and suppressed memory arose to confront me. It now occurred to me that this year sees the 33rd anniversary of my arrest – for infringement of Pakistan’s obscenity laws – by the fine, upstanding detectives of Islamabad CID.

In 1980, whilst performing the wider role of ‘diplomatic baggage’, that is, not a diplomat in my own right on that occasion but an appendage of my attaché husband,  I took on the additional role of Marion, the sassy young thing, the female lead in Terence Frisby’s play ‘There’s A Girl in my Soup’.  Written two decades earlier, in the sexually liberated ‘sixties, the comedy reflected the growing trend towards casual relationships and brief encounters, as promoted by celluloid characters such as ‘Georgie Girl’ and James Bond, a trend which was well established, if indeed not passé by the time of our 1980 production.

The opening scene saw my fellow actor and male lead (American diplomat Richard) in the role of ageing roué Robert Danvers, as played by Donald Sinden in the play’s debut production, plying the sophisticated Clare Dorlaton-Finch (played by Jan, another British diplomatic wife) and canoodling with her on the sofa, but being thwarted in his attempts to steer her to the bedroom.  

My own entrance, in a trendy white, Avengers-style, multi-zipped flying suit, run up to my own design by the local durzee, came later in Act I and soon had me sipping whiskey before being kissed several times by the predatory Danvers. The act ended with Danvers and Marion disappearing offset into the bedroom for what would remain unseen but promised to be, in the jargon of the day, a spot of nookie. The curtain fell, signalling the interval and the serving of beverages, and the cast now re-grouped backstage. When I say ‘stage’, the theatre was in fact the front garden of Richard’s house, a substantial suburban property with a huge marble raised terrace which served admirably as a stage, and French windows which led into the Islamabad house but which, for the purposes of the performance, pretended they looked out of a London flat.

Admission to the performance was by ticket only and the tickets had been sold only to the diplomatic community, so we cast members naturally felt at ease amongst friends. When we saw our Director/Producer, Max baby, coming backstage, we naturally assumed it was to congratulate his dahlings. However, his pale and panic-stricken countenance, and the two burly members of Islamabad’s finest who followed him, caused us to suspect something was amiss. His usual booming, directorial voice was now reduced to a querulous whisper, as he introduced Inspector F and Sergeant H of the Vice Squad and delivered the devastating news that Jan, Richard and I were under arrest for public obscenity.

Notwithstanding the concept of diplomatic immunity, which heads of missions are surprisingly loathe to invoke in any case, I experienced an instant vision of sordid tabloid headlines being read by my disapproving Irish Catholic mother back home (‘I told you nothing good would come of gallivanting to them heathen places!’) and I foresaw the end of a very promising career. Having recently accompanied our Consular Assistant on a visit to a poor British wretch in a local prison, I knew all too well the awful conditions under which I might be spending the next few years.

‘Do something Max,’ I hissed, ‘’cause you’ll be going down with us, you know!’

This thought seemed to inspire the equally diplomatic Max baby and he explained to the detectives that the audience was comprised entirely of foreign diplomats, many of them high ranking and well-connected, and that they had all paid for their tickets in expectation of seeing a full and entertaining performance. He pleaded with the detectives to allow the performance to continue and invited them meanwhile to partake of refreshments at one of our two bars (diplomatic functions in Islamic states usually provided a wines and spirits bar and also a separate non-alcoholic drinks bar).

The policemen having grudgingly acquiesced, it was with some trepidation that we actors returned to the stage to strut through the remaining two acts. So extreme was our apprehension that we must indeed have given the performances of a lifetime. The romantic aspects of the play were now somehow significantly subdued. In the final act, Marion has returned from a holiday in Paris with Danvers, and is no longer the streetwise oik of Act I, but is now transformed into an elegant sophisticate. As I swished onstage in glamorous amethyst silk, I heard a couple of ladies gasp in of admiration of the outfit which I had created myself from a Hollywood Vogue sewing pattern; the slender cigarette pants and the  wrap-over, tulip hemmed dress. All the time however, I was sizing up the back walls of the property and wondering whether I could scale them in my elegant outfit and make a run for it, or whether I would have time to change back into that flexible flying suit in order to make good my escape.

The curtain fell to rapturous applause and indeed we had several curtain calls. As Richard, Jan and I took our final bows, our sweaty hands clasped fast in shared foreboding, our attention was caught by some movement at the back of the garden/auditorium. Over by the exit, we glimpsed the aforesaid fine, upstanding detectives of Islamabad CID, no longer upstanding but semi-comatose through consumption of whiskey, being carried out horizontally by their driver, their constables and Max baby, back to their police vehicles. The feeling of relief was enormous as we joined the audience at the bar, where compliments and champagne began to flow. 

I am pleased to relate that we heard no more about our arrests, as the pencilled notes in the back of my Samuel French edition of the script recall. The incident was the talk of the diplomatic community for a week or two, until eclipsed by the arrest of another diplomat who was caught being served ‘diplomatic tea’ (Paul Masson Californian Chardonnay) from a teapot in a local Chinese restaurant. Undaunted, a mere six weeks later I was again treading the boards, with saucy French accent and figure-hugging uniform, in the role of the Air France stewardess in Boeing Boeing.  Those, as we old India hands always say, were the days.


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  1. Ena Manning. permalink

    A very entertaining story – you should ‘mould’ (if that is the right word) this incident into a spy thriller.

  2. Thank you, Ena. Do click on the ‘jpeg’ links to the right of the article to see some stills from our performance.

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