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Ian Carmichael: Wodehousean Reflections


by Tony Ring


Ian Carmichael, who died peacefully at home in the Esk Valley on the North York Moors, on 5th February 2010, had also been born in Yorkshire, in Hull on 16th June 1920. His particular relevance to our Society stems from his portrayal of Bertie Wooster in the BBC TV series The World of Wooster in the 1960s, but before looking at this connection in more detail, it is worth listing a few of his other major achievements.

His film, theatre and TV career spanned more than 50 years, with early appearances as somewhat serious characters, for example, in Betrayed (1954) and The Colditz Story (1955). He soon made his name in films such as Private’s Progress (1956), Brothers in Law (1957) and I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and simultaneously broadened his popularity by taking a number of parts in the West End theatre. His mid-60s TV role as Bertie Wooster was followed by his highly-acclaimed portrait of Dorothy L Sayers’s detective Lord Peter Wimsey in several series made between 1972 and 1975. His most recent substantial role was as Mr Middleditch in a number of series of ITV’s The Royal, and it is understood two episodes in which he appeared have still to be broadcast.

He was a lifelong cricket-lover, a member of the MCC, and in 1970 was Chairman of the Lord’s Taverners. He was appointed an OBE in 2003.

Ian Carmichael with his OBE, 22nd October 2003

Ian Carmichael’s portrayal of Bertie Wooster in the 20 episodes of The World of Wooster from 1965 to 1967 remains in the affectionate memory of many of our older members, although it is sad to report that no more than one (or possibly two) episodes remain extant. The remainder were purged many years ago in a comprehensive exercise by the BBC to save either space or costs, along with all the episodes of The World of Blandings (with Ralph Richardson), Ukridge (with Anton Rodgers) and early episodes of many other shows, including Doctor Who.

I recall that as a teenager I was delighted to see him playing alongside Dennis Price, selected for the part of Jeeves after a series of auditions during which, as Carmichael noted in his autobiography Will the Real Ian Carmichael  ...  (Macmillan, 1979):

‘...  the speech hesitation with which I eventually invested the character developed, a mannerism which also owed a certain amount to an officer with whom I served during the last few years of the war.’

Ian Carmichael was party to the decision to end the series once they had completed filming what they considered to be all the short stories capable of adaptation. They considered a trial script for the opening scenes of The Code of the Woosters, but decided against proceeding. He never met Wodehouse, but corresponded with him on several occasions, and wrote that Wodehouse’s replies:

‘. . .  made me feel, practically from the first one, that I had known him all my life.’

He added that Frank Muir, BBC Head of Comedy at the time, took the first two recorded episodes to show Wodehouse at home in Remsenberg, and he expressed approval. So it was a shock to Carmichael to see, some years later, an article by Philip Norman in the Sunday Times Colour Supplement in which he commented that Wodehouse had said in an interview that ‘he found the BBC’s Jeeves series rotten thanks to Ian Carmichael’s middle-aged burlesquing of Bertie and Dennis Price’s pasty face as Jeeves’. But Carmichael was gratified to receive an immediate letter from Wodehouse:  ‘Did you see that profile of me in the Sunday Times of July 20?  I have just got my copy, and was horrified to read that reference to you and the Bertie TV things. I can assure you that I never said anything remotely resembling what I am credited with there ...’

Shortly afterwards Wodehouse asked Carmichael to play Bertie in a new musical he and Guy Bolton had written with music by Wright and Forrest. He replied by saying he had always been too old for Bertie and didn’t want to press his luck.

In 1988, Ian Carmichael recorded a three-hour abridgement of Summer Lightning for the BBC Radio Collection, which published it on a double cassette, ISBN 0 563 225807.

When the Society was being formed in 1996, Ian Carmichael was naturally invited to be one of our Patrons. He accepted, but very politely made it clear that he was too settled in Yorkshire to play an active role in our meetings or make other personal appearances (although at English Heritage’s suggestion, he unveiled the blue plaque at Wodehouse’s former home, Threepwood, in Emsworth, in 1998). The young Society Committee was only too pleased to accept these conditions, and in fact only contacted him once, to ask him for his comments on the controversial question of Bertie’s monocle. His reply, together with that of a number of others who were asked, appeared in Wooster Sauce, No 5, March 1998:

‘...  opinions were obtained from a number of important and knowledgeable witnesses. Ian Carmichael, the TV Bertie of the 60s, did not remember exactly what drew him to use one, whether it was his own idea, that of the director Michael Mills, or whether it just felt right.  Whichever it was, wrote Ian, he agrees with Jonathan Cecil that it was an essential prop.’

It is only right that the last word about one of our much-loved Patrons should come from our President, Richard Briers, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph:

‘[Ian Carmichael was] a splendid straight man surrounded by eccentrics ... I think he played that best with Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas in I’m All Right, Jack. He was an excellent foil for others and particularly good at playing a sort of dim but very well-mannered English gentleman. He was never pushy, he sort of wandered through the film.’

Note: Some of the information in this article was obtained from the many obituaries of Ian Carmichael which appeared in the national press, including the Daily and Sunday Telegraph and The Times.