Quotations from P G Wodehouse are copyright of, and reprinted by permission of, the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate © 2019 The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)

Gray’s Inn, 25th October 2012

Photos by Ginni Beard

Biennial Dinner of the PG Wodehouse Society (UK)

“Everything in life that’s any fun, as somebody wisely observed,

is immoral, illegal or fattening.”

And what fun we had at the Biennial Dinner of the PG Wodehouse Society (UK). I observed no immoral nor I think illegal goings on at the event, but the fine food and delicious wines and port will have added a tad to what was already a goodly collection of well stretched waistbands.

The pre-dinner champagne was held upstairs in one of Gray’s Inn’s more impressive rooms, decorated with portraits of the Great and the Good – and some famous lawyers as well. Among them and sternly looking down on us was Lord Devlin, whose eyes seemed to follow me as if I’d just checked in a policeman’s helmet at the cloakroom. Over the bubbles I chatted with a lady who produced from her bag a copy of one of the Wodehouse oeuvre in Swedish – the Swedes, she assured me, like nothing better than a bit of Plum to help them through the long winter nights. And why not?

Easing my way down the stairs around a lady who “looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’,” (“She had more curves than a scenic railway”) I then took in a scene which suggested that it was not “… one of those parties where you cough twice before you speak and then decide not to say it after all”. Indeed everybody seemed to be animated enough to speak with gusto and so it was for the next three hours or so. There was initially a division between those who stayed standing behind their chairs and those who bravely took their seats before Grace – only, of course, to have to rise again when Oliver Wise burst into Latin, the gist of which was about the length of sermons, if not to the possibility of nefarious betting scams relating to them. Learned guests on my table tipped me the wink when the Grace was over – the clue, apparently, was the “Amen” at the end.

My table was the usual genial mix of Eggs and Beans though, sadly, no Crumpets of any sort. I was seated between an amiable lawyer and a nice English teacher, so I was able alternately to bemoan the decline in educational standards since I was a boy and to condemn the greed and mendaciousness of the legal profession – which made for a jolly evening. “Conversationally, I am like a clockwork toy. I have to be set going.” – but once going, as I fear my dining companions were soon to discover, there’s no stopping me. Clearly the Chatham House rules must apply to our chats, so some rib-tickling stories about the legal aspects of the privatisation of the Water Industry and about the weaknesses of the National Curriculum when it comes to literature, must await their airing for another day. Except to say that my new teacher friend felt that the absence of Wodehouse from “A Level” set texts is a scandal – and who among us would question that?

The food was scrumptious – not least the “Sauce Dugléré” on the plaice – this turns out of be one of Anatole’s secret recipes and involves white wine, cream and a velouté sauce and is a favourite at Brinkley Court. The French theme was also seen in the wine, fresh from a couple of Bordeaux châteaux – although we came home with the port, which was Churchill’s special reserve. The Loyal Toast was proposed by David Cazalet – the first appearance of a trio of Cazalets that evening. I must reveal that there was one puzzled face as David spoke. On Ellie King’s table there was a young and puzzled American who had flown all the way from Wisconsin to see David Cazalet under the impression that he (David) was one of the world’s great Elvis Presley impersonators. This may of course be true – but it would hardly have been right for David to give us a rendition of “Hound Dog” at a PG Wodehouse evening – and he didn’t. What he did do was introduce our speaker for the evening – the ever young and fragrant Simon Brett. Simon shares with Wodehouse (and with the present writer – but that’s another story) the distinction of having Dulwich College as one of his Alma Maters. Simon proposed the toast to PGW and to the Society.

Simon Brett reflected on the occasional humiliations of being a writer – not least when the turnout to hear you speak did not exactly fill the room. On one occasion on a book tour in Finland the only person present turned out to have been hired to play the piano in the interval. Simon was one of those who entered the world of employment with some reluctance at the age of 22 in the late 1960s and, despite his good Oxford degree, he could initially find nothing other than a temporary berth as Father Christmas in a department store in Sutton. Still, as he said, he was at least Master of his own Grotto at quite a tender age. Inevitably, as he had been a bit of a ‘thesp’ at Oxford, a career at the BBC beckoned. The rest is history – producing, writing and occasionally performing in a large number of great radio and TV shows over the years, often with his friend, the “demented” David Hatch. Simon mused on the close connection between tragedy and comedy and said how Wodehouse understood that, as many of his stories and situations would be tragic if they were not funny. He finished by treating us to a poem which was his toast:

Each fan of P.G.W. knows,

The “P” stands for Pellucid Prose.

It’s known to clergy and the laity

That G stands for Guffaws and Gaiety:

And even cynics must admit

The W stands for Wonderful Wit.

Read him and worldly cares won’t trouble you,

So raise a glass to P.G.W. –

And also, to avoid any impropriety,

Toast the P.G. Wodehouse Society!

Which we all did with gusto!

And so to the cabaret. As, of course, we know – “Musical comedy is the Irish stew of drama. Anything may be put into it, with the certainty that it will improve the general effect.” it was soon apparent that we were in for a treat. Tony Ring had masterfully created a classy and tuneful tribute to “… one of Wodehouse’s most charismatic girls” – the heavenly Roberta Wickham. In anticipation of this, and to make herself more comfortable, my lady friend from the stairs earlier organised herself by fitting into the room’s “biggest arm-chair as if it had been built round her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season”.

Now Bobbie Wickham is famously red-haired and is referred to by some of her detractors as a “Jezebel” and a “Young Hussy”. She was played, without the russet hair, but with plenty of fire nevertheless by Lara Cazalet. The songs were wonderfully performed – not least "If I Ever Lost You" (from The Golden Moth). "Think how sad the flowers would be," sang Bobbie/Lara, "if sunshine went away / Think how sad the bees would feel without a summer day." Bobbie’s mother Lady Wickham was played by Eliza Lumley, who revealed that she had once been a little more like her daughter with a lovely rendition of the rather raunchy “A Very Good Girl On Sunday” from Miss Springtime, in which “her virtue seemed to spring a leak on Saturday night”! Bobbie’s suitors, willing and unwilling, were performed by Hal Cazalet (Kipper Herring) and Jeremy Neville (Bertie Wooster) and Chris Makey gave us a Sir Joseph Moresby who we could well believe would say to the aphorism “Girls will be girls” – “Not when I’m sitting on the bench, they won’t”!

There was also to treasure a measured and entirely convincing portrayal of Jeeves from the Duke of Kent, who, one felt, if the dice had rolled slightly differently, could have been an outstanding Gentleman’s Gentleman. Which prompts the thought that you can “Say what you will, there is something fine about our old aristocracy. I'll bet Trotsky couldn't hit a moving secretary with an egg on a dark night.”

Finally, Hal Cazalet reprised beautifully for us the hit of the first PGW Biennial Dinner in 1998 – the timeless tearjerker “Sonny Boy”:

“When I'm old and grey dear

Promise you won't stray dear

For I love you so Sonny Boy.”

And after this there was time for a farewell from our Chairman Hilary Bruce, who expressed the hope that she wouldn’t “make a noise like an alarm” (she didn’t!) She welcomed our new Patron Terry Wogan and toasted “Absent Friends”. And then, old and grey or young and sprightly, we left confident that whatever mischief any of us had got up to that evening, none of us could be shot at sunrise as we couldn’t possibly be up that early after such a night!

Paddy Briggs

Sir Edward Cazalet with our new Patron, Sir Terry Wogan,

and guest speaker Simon Brett

The entertainers in full swing, with our Royal Patron,The Duke of Kent,

poised to take the mike

Paddy Briggs