meaning and early instances of ‘as the bishop said to the actress’

The phrase as the actress said to the bishop, also, in the reverse form, as the bishop said to the actress, is used to mischievously imply a sexual innuendo or ambiguity in a preceding innocent remark.

I have found an early instance of as the bishop said to the actress in The Tatler (London) of Wednesday 10th September 1930, which published a review by James Agate of The Film Till Now: A Survey of the Cinema (Jonathan Cape – London, 1930), a book by Paul Rotha (1907-84), British documentary film-maker, film historian and critic:

The reader dipping carelessly [into Rotha’s book], might come across this: “Realizing the primary aim of the surrealist movement to be the expression of dreams and thought tangents of an imaginative person provoked by material surroundings and placed on paper or canvas, it is natural that the film lends itself to an expression which demands ‘imaginative velocity and moral nonchalance, unlimited risibility, and a sensitivity to the fantasy of the commonplace.’” “Bunk, darling,” as the bishop said to the actress.

I have found an early instance of a jocularly extended form of as the bishop said to the actress in the column Standing By . . . A Weekly Commentary on One Thing and Another, by ‘The Bystanders’, in The Bystander (London) of Wednesday 18th September 1935:

We’ve been following the exhibition tour of M. Mignet with his £70 Pou du Ciel with more than ordinary interest. Apart from establishing a turning-point in the history of flying, M. Mignet has given what amused foreigners call “la pudibonderie anglaise” a marvellous opportunity. The chaste Express, which has been running his show, simply couldn’t bring itself from the first to translate Pou du Ciel as “Sky-Louse.” It substituted “Flying Flea,” the flea being the more refined parasite as everybody in these islands knows (in spite of Dr. Johnson’s thundering dictum: “Sir, there is no settling the precedence between a flea and a louse!”1). We had hoped Auntie Times, who has fewer suburban niff-nafferies, would take a stand against this silliness; but no, Auntie also jibs at mentioning the more vulgar insectry. Nay, the other day she frigidly put French coarseness right by setting her correction cheek by jowl with the offensive words, thus: “a Pou du Ciel (‘Flying Flea’) light aeroplane.” Proh pudor!2 as the suffragan bishop said to the actress when she playfully bit all the buttons off his gaiters at the Fulham Palace garden-party.

1 Samuel Johnson (1709-84), English lexicographer, writer, critic, and conversationalist
2 The Latin exclamation proh pudor! means oh shame!

D. B. Wyndham Lewis used the phrase in the column Standing By . . . One Thing and Another, in The Bystander (London) of Wednesday 22nd February 1939:

Auntie Times was right the other day in saying that Naval grog has for two centuries been an insult to the Navy’s carrying capacity. It still is, in our degraded view, even though a few days ago the Admiralty ordered “two-water rum” to be substituted for the “three-water rum” first forced on our gruntulous seadogs by Admiral (“Old Grog”) Vernon in the eighteenth century and issued ever since. Watered rum is just a drink for girls, as everybody knows who prefers it neat, as connoisseurs and the Army do. Sailors nowadays are no more particularly brutal and licentious, perhaps, than soldiery—though Dr. Johnson boomed in 1778: “Sailors are happy as brutes are happy with a piece of fresh meat, with the grossest sensuality”—and if the Admiralty really thinks an issue of neat rum in 1939 would lead to lewd eighteenth-century behaviour and smash-O, somebody ought to remind their Lordships that the leaders of the last Naval mutiny didn’t daub their demands on an old pair of pants with a tar-brush, but typed them very neatly with a portable typewriter on fair white paper, with correct margins and punctuation, query, and exclamation marks, all shipshape and Bristol fashion. For Time (as the bishop said to the actress) marches on.

I have found a jocular variant of the phrase in the column You Can Laugh!, by Thomas Jay, in The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror (Bristol, England) of Monday 19th February 1940:

During the hearing of a case in a West Riding court a solicitor rebuked a witness for calling his bicycle a “bike.” “Luvvaduck,” as the bishop said when the actress threw a haddock at him, “what are things coming to?”

The British-Chinese author of adventure fiction Leslie Charteris (Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin – 1907-93) probably contributed to the popularity of the catchphrase; in particular, he made Simon Templar use it on five occasions in Enter the Saint (Hodder and Stoughton Limited – London, 1930):

‘And now let’s get down to business—as the bishop said to the actress,’ murmured Simon.
[…]
Templar obeyed. His wrists were bound, and the knots tightened by ungentle hands.
‘Are you still so optimistic, Saint?’ Hayn taunted him, testing the bonds.
‘More than ever,’ answered the Saint cheerfully. ‘This is my idea of a night out—as the bishop said to the actress.’
[…]
‘There are some friends of yours downstairs,’ said Hayn. ‘I should like to have you all together.’
‘I should be charmed to oblige you—as the actress said to the bishop,’ replied the Saint.
[…]
‘Whiskers, in his secret lair, will read of the leaf that’s been taken out of his book, will wonder who’s got on to his game, and will promptly arm himself to the teeth and set out to find and strafe us.’
‘And we help him by leaving a trail of clues leading straight into a trap.’
The Saint sighed.
‘You’re getting on—as the actress said to the bishop,’ he murmured. ‘This brain of yours is becoming absolutely phenomenal.’
[…]
‘He spilled a certain amount of beans. It ought to be enough to work on.’
‘Let’s see what you’ve got—as the actress said to the bishop,’ murmured Simon.

(Contrary to what is often said, the phrase does not appear in Leslie Charteris’s Meet the Tiger (Ward, Lock & Co. Limited – London, 1928).)

The phrase was punned upon in the following from Week-End Television in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire) of Saturday 23rd May 1987—Joanna Lumley (born 1946) is an English actress:

as the actress said to the bishop’ - Liverpool Echo (Lancashire) - 23 May 1987

AS THE actress said to the bishop . . . Joanna Lumley discusses her beliefs with the Rt. Rev. Richard Holloway, Bishop of Edinburgh in When I Get to Heaven (BBC 1, tomorrow).

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