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)

by Graeme W I Davidson

Balloon Debate 2012

The latest meeting of the Society, held upstairs at The George, on The Strand, on 10 July 2012, saw the holding of a Balloon Debate as the evening’s main entertainment, the first such Debate to be held by the Society.

Having tootled down from Scotland, I had arrived minutes after the appointed time for the start of the evening’s proceedings, hot foot from King’s Cross, indeed hot pretty much all over if truth be told. What with being late and having run a large chunk of the Strand, I was breathless and lobster pink as I leant against the bar, regaining my composure.

I was getting myself outside a welcome and tinkling beaker or two of G&T to restore the Davidson tissues to their customary state of relaxed contentedness when, through the milling crowds, Elin Murphy ankled over and asked me to write a piece about the Debate for the Society’s website.

‘Delighted to do so!’ I wheezed and gurgled with an easy grin. Again the Society was calling on the journo skills of young Davidson. I had written a piece before at the Society’s request – a review of John Lithgow’s show ‘Stories by Hart’, a show which featured Wodehouse’s ‘Uncle Fred Flits By’. You’ll undoubtedly recall the piece. It took centre stage position in the December 2009 edition of Wooster Sauce, and it had clearly impressed the nibs at the Society. Two approaches for pieces in slightly over two years. Can scarcely imagine Wodehouse in his heyday was being approached by commissioning editors anything like that number of times.

Cutting to the chase, here’s the Report on the Debate.

Firstly, though, I ought perhaps to explain what a Balloon Debate actually is, as there might be a few of you wondering what that is, not having a scooby. So, for those sans a scooby, a Balloon Debate essentially entails, or at least it does when conducted by the Wodehouse Society, a number of bods aloft in an imaginary balloon finding themselves losing height, determining, somewhat defeatistly, that the only course of action is to heave the unworthy ones out to allow the balloon to regain height. Determination of those considered unworthy to retain their places in the basket of the balloon is achieved through:

(a) the bods each advancing their own argument as to why they are worthy of survival through remaining onboard rather than being turfed overboard;

(b) the same bods then, with the benefit of having heard the arguments as to why their fellow passengers ought not to be turfed overboard, basically badmouthing their fellow passengers to counter the arguments those fellow passengers had voiced to justify said fellow passengers remaining on board; and

(c) a show of hands by the audience, having had the benefit of the arguments and counter-arguments, as to who should remain on board.

The participants in the 10 July 2012 Debate (and the Wodehouse characters represented by them) were:

Eddie Grabham (Alaric, the Duke of Dunstable)

Oliver Wise (Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge)

Paddy Briggs (the Empress of Blandings)

Iain Khan-Gilchrist (Roderick Spode, the Earl of Sidcup)

Mark Taylor (Rupert Psmith)

Norman Murphy (George Pike, Lord Tilbury)

Lesley Tapson (Aunt Dahlia, Dahlia Travers nee Wooster).

The proceedings were ably chaired firstly by Society President, Hilary Bruce, standing in for the scheduled Chairman of the Debate, Paul Kent, who was stuck on a late-running train out of Surbiton or some such place. Half way through the proceedings, Paul arrived at The George and took the Chairman’s baton on from Hilary, and a splendid job he did.

All participants displayed commendable enthusiasm, and showed fine knowledge of the Wodehouse characters they represented, though somewhat less, if any, knowledge of the law of slander it has to be said. Several took the opportunity to use pertinent quotes from Wodehouse with a view to nobbling their rivals, winning over audience support and advancing their cause, all pretty shameless, purloining Sir Pelham’s lines for their own glory. Such a strategy of effecting victory in contest through nobbling rivals, and purloining something from a titled person in the process, would not look out of place in a Wodehouse plot. As such, the strategy was not only elegant and entertaining but also really rather appropriate in the circs, indeed what you might call a homage, if that’s the word I’m looking for.

In portraying their Wodehouse characters, the participants took the chance to indulge their evidently frustrated enthusiasm for amateur dramatics, deploying same in tandem with some solid advocacy skills. Oliver and Lesley made evident their professional background, both being barristers, in their display of advocacy skills. That’s not to say the others were not sparklingly effective and creative on the advocacy front, Paddy Briggs showing particular inventiveness as the Empress in oinking tactically and winningly at key points during the evening.

Norman, in assuming the mantle of Lord Tilbury, the media magnate, for whom communication is naturally vitally important, put his heart and soul into his performance as Tilbury, to the extent even of slowing his normal breakneck speed of speech to a very measured and readily followed pace.

For my money it was hard to gauge who ought to win or who was going to win. Some argued a strong case for being allowed to stay on board. Others argued strong cases why rivals ought not to be allowed to remain on board. Some seemingly hoped to appeal to a rebel instinct in the crowd and win the crowd over to an anti-hero candidate. How else can one explain Norman expecting the audience to vote for Lord (’Stinker’) Tilbury or Iain expecting the audience to vote for Roderick Spodious?

Some managed to win clear audience approval for characters for whom any right thinking person would have been hard pressed beforehand to justify any expression of sympathy and support, even in a popularity contest up against competition consisting only of Herod, Pol Pot and Uncle Joe Stalin. And others, portraying favourites from the Master’s work such as the forceful Aunt Dahlia, the incorrigible Ukridge and the heroic, elegant and eloquent Psmith (an early childhood favourite of mine), knew that, even if all they did was turn up (though they all of course did so much more), such is our affection for those characters that the chances are that we should vote for the character on the basis that he or she invokes such happy memories in us, and it would be too traumatic to vote in a way that smacks of disloyalty to a favourite.

Some rannygazoo was also on display, with some participants blatantly offering bribes (meals cooked by Anatole and the like) in exchange for votes, though it was hard to decide whether to mark the guilty participants down for such activity or to mark them up for entering into the spirit of things in a way wholly consistent with life in a Wodehousean world. As I say, tricky to spot who was likely to win.

The one thing that I could be pretty sure of is that a couple of the participants could be safely scratched from a list of probable front runners. These were the two whom only the less nimble-minded members of the Jukes and Kallikak families might assess as characters worthy of remaining in a balloon where (a) space is at a premium, and (b) the criterion for ideal passenger tonnage is the lesser the better.

The two characters to whom I refer are the Empress and the Duke of Dunstable.

I couldn’t see either of them nodding en passant to the stewards at the entrance to the winner’s enclosure. In any thumbnail sketch of both, words which would most certainly not be used in respect of either are lissom, ethereal, and gossamer-esque, except if prefaced by the word ‘not’ or some similar device of negation. The Duke is a pompous windbag and was built on a very generous scale at a time when Dukes were being built in dimensions where there was no skimping, none whatsoever. Alaric, a Duke who’s voluminous, fills the roominous, Alaric, an utter rotter. As for the Empress, a daily intake of some 57,800 calories does not make for a porker light as thistledown and dainty in scale, but rather a Berkshire that resembles a tethered barrage balloon, and one not light on her trotters. Neither sensibly would be characters a betting man would wager his hard earned scratch on when it comes to winning a Balloon debate regardless of who the fellow rivals for space in the balloon might be. Both would also take some very considerable shifting that would tax Hercules to turf them out of a balloon.

As such, it came as a bit of a surprise therefore to me when victory in the debate was awarded, following an audience vote, run in delightfully chaotic fashion, to the Empress and the Duke, as joint winners. ‘Strewth, lumme, strike a light,’ I thought. ‘Beyond belief.’ But, then again, I also thought ‘Very entertaining bit of fun.’

All in all it was a satisfying bit of froth and very pleasing. Those involved are to be thanked for their application, and of course congratulated for their success in entertaining. Congratulations also to Paddy and Eddie for their victory, which saw them awarded with a copy of Sophie Ratcliffe’s sterling ‘P G Wodehouse: A Life in Letters’ and Tony Ring’s splendid new book about Wodehouse in the legitimate theatre, ‘Second Row, Grand Circle’. And well done to the Committee for again ensuring that an evening spent at a Society event is one that is thoroughly well spent and leaves a contented grin on the face.

The contenders eye each other up nervously as the balloon
loses height

The joint winners indulge in a novel form of arm wrestling

to see who buys the first celebratory drink