John Whiting was a repertory actor in York when he wrote A Penny for a Song in 1951. His gentle farce is set in Dorset in 1804, with the English coast threatened by invasion from France. The aristocratic family at the centre of the plot, the Bellboys, are an eccentric bunch. Sir Timothy is obsessed with the possibility of French attacks. He decides to dress as Napoleon, go to meet the French in his hot air balloon and order them to retreat, using his French phrase book. The local defence volunteers mistake him for the real thing. His younger brother, Lamprett, is devoted only to his fire engine, which he lovingly tends in the hope of a major fire erupting.
The young Peter Brook directed the premiere production which opened in Wimbledon in February 1951, transferring a month later to the Haymarket Theatre. He brought on board as designer the artist and inventor Rowland Emett, best known at the time for his cartoons in Punch magazine and later for designing the car for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Emett's colourful, distinctive sets, of which this is a good example, drew spontaneous applause from audiences.