“I want to be a lady in a flower shop instead of selling flowers on the Tottenham Court Road. But they won’t take me unless I can talk more genteel”, says Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Constance Spry, a floral decorator (‘florist’ is so déclassé) and household name in her day, wasn’t from the gutter, but the lower-middle-class background of this self-made domestic goddess was quite unlike those of the perfect young ladies her finishing schools turned out or the society matrons whose events she designed. Beneath the pillbox hat, handbag and pearls, ‘Mrs’ Spry’s history was a chequered one. She had two husbands but only married once and for three years had an on-off relationship with another woman – scandalous behaviour that would have destroyed her reputation if ever made public during her lifetime. Nowadays, it rather enhances it.
Inspired by Sue Shepherd’s 2010 biography, Anton Burge’s play takes place between 1932-6, when Spry was in her forties and left her job as the headmistress of a domestic science school for local girls in East London and was able to open her own floral business and training school. At this time, she met the Jewish lesbian painter Hannah ‘Gluck’ Gluckstein on a commission and a mutual attraction quickly blossomed. Arguably the Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West of flower arranging and painting, such feelings were a revelation to a woman who had always preferred the flowerbed to the marital bed.
The narrative is intercut with excerpts of lectures that Constance gave to schools and the Women’s Institute, in which she regularly advocated making the most of available materials (a precursor to Blue Peter). Although one of the aims of the play is to refute accusations of prissiness often levelled against Spry, Alan Strachan’s direction is full of fussiness. Each scene change is marked by walk-ons moving the furniture and the re-arranging the attractive floral arrangements (production florist: Stephen Wicks), which breaks up momentum.
The discussion of women balancing careers with a family life is dealt with in the most generalised terms and surely no one used the expression “having it all” in the 1930s (Burge is keen to reference as many people and events as possible, but his command of period language is very Downton Abbey). The exposition of biographical information that can be so clunky in plays of this kind is well handled here. When Constance breaks down and confides in her devoted friend and associate Rosemary about her past, it’s new information to the character as well as the audience.
As Constance, Penny Downie perfectly embodies the elegant, gracious headmistress-y persona combined with an all-consuming, often single-minded, enthusiasm for her work. Sheila Ruskin is sympathetically stalwart as the often overlooked Rosemary Hume (she and Constance later opened the London Cordon Bleu academy together – Spry might have been the star name but Hume was the cookery expert responsible for most of the recipes in the classic Constance Spry Cook Book and the creation of Coronation Chicken) and Carolyn Blackhouse a mercurial and arresting presence as Gluck.
Constance, born in 1886, was a “child of Victoria” who was too tied to Victorian values to join the younger Gluck’s bohemian world; her own defiance of the rules of society could only be sustained in secret. Her nominal marriage to the caddish Henry ‘Shav’ Spry (an understated Christopher Ravenscroft) had elements of a Victorian sensation novel and it seems remarkable that she managed to pull it off for so any years. This unashamedly old fashioned good-bad piece of entertainment is also a reminder of what pity it is that BBC4 has lost its drama budget – Constance Spry’s life of contrasts would have been ideal for their upmarket biographical dramas.