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)

TV and radio

An Innocent Abroad – drama
shown on BBC4 March 25/26 2013

The preview in the Radio Times described the programme:

“PG Wodehouse's Second World War broadcasts from Germany, about the time he spent in an internment camp, led to a shameful stain on the character of one of the great comic novelists. Vilified as a traitor, he never returned to his beloved England. Nigel Williams has drawn on this episode to create a superb drama in which Wodehouse's foolish apolitical equivocation sees him used as a pawn of the Nazi propaganda machine to try to delay the Americans joining the war. Even Wodehouse fans certain of his innocence will feel unsettled seeing their hero naively doing the Nazis' bidding."

The Society has an extensive section on the Wartime Broadcasts on this website (here), although we may modify and update it depending upon the new information that the programme promises to reveal. Edward Cazalet, grandson of Wodehouse, says:

"The broadcast is, I believe, an absolutely fair commentary on Plum's conduct and it emphasises the tragedy for him that the essential content, at least, of the Cussen Report was not made available at the end of the war."

A Modern Take on Blandings

For those of you visiting this website after having seen the BBC's series of Blandings, we hope you enjoyed the return of the ‘Master’ to mainstream television. As well as the Blandings stories, and the ‘inimitable' Jeeves and Wooster novels which many of you will already have heard of, PGW created many other unforgettable characters – including Ukridge, Mr Mulliner and the Oldest Member – each with their own story series.

For more information about Blandings see Tony Ring’s article below. Then have a good look round the rest of this website, and email the Editor (address on home page) if you need any more information. And finally, go out and buy a Wodehouse book – he is one of the handful of British authors whose every book is still in print, so you have nearly a hundred to choose from!

The Evolution of the BBC1 TV Series

by Tony Ring

Tony was fortunate enough to be consulted on some aspects of the creative process for this series, and to have seen a preview of the series.

When 20/20 cricket arrived in the UK many years ago, traditional test cricket fans were aghast, and thought the world was coming to an end. What could they make of a game which had been shortened from five days to less than four hours, and was played best by players who could adapt their normal style to meet its very different objectives, with visual superlatives arriving every few minutes instead of every few hours, tactics of much less complexity and very little time for strategic adjustments? Its purpose, many said, was to give a new audience a sample of top class cricket – to create interest in a potentially fading form of the sport in the hope that over time a good percentage of the new spectators would learn to appreciate the merits of the longer form of the game.

And perhaps in view of Wodehouse’s own familiarity with the sport, this is an appropriate analogy with which to start this article. Because, to a significant degree, that is what a lot of cinema and TV adaptations now seek to do. They take a classic piece of literature, or related series of stories, and seek to interest a modern audience by concentrating on those aspects which can be absorbed quickly by today’s busy viewer, who will be only too willing to look elsewhere if not instantly satisfied.

From the viewpoint of P G Wodehouse’s Literary Trustees, this creates a dilemma, as they are well aware of the problems of maintaining interest at a high level in a deceased author who is, naturally, unable to produce a new book every two or three years or make a personal appearance. They are aware that not only does the younger generation spend less time than their elders used to in reading novels in view of the alternative forms of entertainment available, but also that the new novels which they do read concentrate on excitement, fantasy, sexual complications, science fiction and action. Few modern books for the under thirties are written purely with a view to having their linguistic style appreciated – so the younger reader will not choose to read Wodehouse without having some inkling of what it might offer.

It is generally accepted that to maintain or revive the popular awareness of a deceased author you need, periodically, either a blockbuster film or a popular TV series where the author’s name is given significant publicity. Jeeves & Wooster worked the magic for Wodehouse with the Granada TV series from 1990 to 1993, and many readers of Wodehouse now in their 30s or 40s became fans as a result. The continuing level of repeat showings means that the series can still act as a recruitment agent to introduce new readers to the joys of Wodehouse’s books, though naturally in much lower numbers. But properly to refresh the population of PGW fans, especially among the young, a new stimulus is sorely needed. The one-off Blandings film Heavy Weather in 1996 and the Julian Fellowes film Piccadilly Jim in 2003 both failed to hit the spot. The Trustees hope that the TV series Blandings announced this year as being produced by Mammoth Screen for the BBC will reverse the trend.

The Trustees have had to judge carefully how to differentiate between preserving the purity of the existing text (ie ‘test match quality’ Wodehouse) for their present readers, and encouraging this potentially much larger market of television viewers to sample what is on offer in the ‘20/20’ form of a TV series, in the hope that a significant proportion will proceed to sample the books themselves in due course.

They are pragmatic enough to appreciate that in today’s world, TV companies are subject to greater constraints than they were when the last Blandings short story series was transmitted by the BBC in 1967. Not only is production quality now immeasurably superior, but recent rapid developments in entertainment options for potential viewers mean that TV companies have to take greater account of their budgets and of their target audience’s expectations.

Mammoth quickly realised how cost-effective it would be to film in Northern Ireland, and both they and BBC Comedy Commissioning were enthusiastic at the prospect of setting the series in the beautiful unspoilt landscape of that country. Could they find a suitable location for Blandings Castle? Yes – and not only is Crom Castle a superb setting for the series, but the spirit with which the owners and their staff have supported the varied requests of the film crews has made for a very happy environment. Crom’s appearance is reminiscent of a Tudor style, even though the present castle was constructed around 1830, and should delight all but a small group of extreme purists.

Strive as they might, Mammoth were unable to find an appropriate Berkshire sow to take the role of The Empress of Blandings. It became clear that there were no Berkshires in either Northern or Southern Ireland which would have been suitable for the part – and in any event, importing a pig across the territorial border from the south would have given rise to additional, possibly insuperable, legal and logistical problems. Vaughan Byrne, a former President of the Berkshire Breeders Club, resident in Northern Ireland, was called in to assist, and although an available Berkshire sow was located in Blackpool, and negotiations for her use successfully completed, she was not especially large. Since a rare-breed pig was also required for Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, whose entry was destined to come second in the fat pigs class at the Agricultural Show, it was decided to salvage something from the wreck by letting him have the Berkshire, and casting a Middle White – a larger, and intrinsically more comic-looking pig – as the Empress. There really was no practical alternative. Pig fans generally should be encouraged by the fact that the experienced Vaughan Byrne cared for both pigs while they were on location, and ensured they were well looked after.

Reports suggest that the Middle White performed superbly – to the extent that the producer wondered whether Wodehouse had deliberately bowled a googly for future television crews when they came to film a 36-stone pig careering around the hall of a real stately home, not a studio mock-up!

Television comedy increasingly emphasises visual comedy, and this aspect of the series has rather overshadowed Wodehouse’s familiarly sublime use of words. Although the text of each short story invites the reader to imagine elements of visual humour, the lengthy narrative sections do not easily translate into film, as Wodehouse himself recognised. He said on one occasion when a Jeeves drama was proposed that Jeeves’s place is between the pages of a book, and he addressed in writing more than once matters very similar to those that Mammoth faced when planning this series.

Whilst he was the drama critic on Vanity Fair in the mid-1910s, Wodehouse wrote in relation to a stage adaptation of Pendennis:

The task of dramatising any great novelist is one from which anybody capable of earning an honest living in other fields of endeavour might well shrink. Whatever you do, you are bound to be wrong. If you boldly invent dramatic situations which are not in the book, the novelist’s worshippers pile on top of you like a college team smothering an attempt to buck the line – on the ground that you are committing sacrilege. If you stick to the book, you get a bad play.

Mammoth were facing precisely this problem, allowing for differences between a single stage play and six half-hour episodes on television. To build momentum in a comedy series, which is essential for its success, you require a number of cast members to be present every week, playing major roles. Look at the Blandings short stories in their original book form. Can we honestly say that Lord Emsworth, Lady Constance, Freddie Threepwood, Beach, The Empress of Blandings or anyone else had significant roles in each of six stories? Of course not. So, adapting the last line of Wodehouse’s quotation, if you stick too closely to the book in your adaptation, you will get a bad TV series.

Mammoth chose to mitigate the continuity problem by giving each of the five characters mentioned a role to play in every story, although those of Beach and the Empress were in some cases minimal.

Secondly, it was decided not only that Freddie Threepwood should be regarded as a major character in each episode, but that he could be allowed much more freedom in his role if he did not have the constraint of being married. So with considerable regret it was decided not to use the story “The Custody of the Pumpkin” and to leave Freddie and Aggie Donaldson as perfect strangers.

Thirdly, it was realised that a weekly TV series had to be able to demonstrate originality in each episode, and that care would need to be taken to control those elements of plot repetition which Wodehouse was so good at disguising in print – especially when his stories were published sporadically over a period of years (for instance, the six Blandings stories in Blandings Castle and Elsewhere were published in Strand magazine during the seven-year period from December 1924 to August 1931).

Fourthly, it was decided that ideally there should be a villain of the piece, other than an ‘aunt’, in each episode. One of the classic villains is Baxter, and his villainy was derived (as indeed was Freddie Threepwood’s fecklessness) from his actions in the two novels (Something Fresh and Leave It To Psmith) which preceded the short stories. Since these novels do not form part of the adaptation agreement, it was felt that a new significant plot element was required in an early episode to enable the viewer to understand why Baxter would be the butt of so much badwill in one of the later episodes, “The Crime Wave at Blandings”.

Fifthly, both Mammoth and the BBC are aware that to be a success, the programme needs to be attractive to and supported by the younger generation – the teens through to the thirties. It was felt that this objective would be assisted by recruiting a number of star names and up-and-coming stars who are popular with that age-group to make appearances either as major characters (Timothy Spall, Jennifer Saunders, Jack Farthing) or as a ‘guest’ involved in just one or two episodes (Paloma Faith, David Walliams, David Bamber, Robert Bathurst). Plots then had to be scripted in such a way as to make participation attractive to these actors, and this sometimes necessitated the creation of wholly original characters.

For all these reasons, there are significant differences between the stories represented in the TV series and the host stories in book form, and that is why the series is being presented as ‘adapted from’ the stories of P G Wodehouse. It will be clear when watching the series that each episode owes much to the original story, but has been given an individual twist which is a clear statement that it is consciously different. To have attempted to make a series relying on virtually nothing but the original book for the dialogue and action would – as Wodehouse would have appreciated – have led to an unsuccessful TV series.

Some of you will make the perfectly understandable decision that you agree with those who argue that Wodehouse is too difficult to dramatise, and that it would have been better left unattempted. But while this attitude cannot be criticised as far as today’s Wodehouse audience is concerned, it does nothing to help address the question of where tomorrow’s fans will be found. Far better, perhaps, and certainly more helpful to the continued appreciation of Wodehouse’s writing in the long term, is to accept this series as a form of ‘20/20’ Wodehouse, designed to attract the unaware or the uncertain into reading the original stories, so that the interest generated in a percentage of viewers will be strong enough to form a significant part of the fan base in ten and twenty years’ time.

So my recommendation is to put any prejudices you may have on one side, judge the episodes as self-standing examples of modern family-orientated comedy entertainment, encourage others to do the same, and enjoy the adaptations for what they are rather than as what you would like them to be. To survive and succeed in modern forms of entertainment, changes to the original are required, whether the author is Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wodehouse is not exempt.

The cricket analogy would be valid even without Wodehouse’s interest in the game. 20/20 has won over many doubters by proving itself to be flexible enough to attract the desired new audience to its new ‘taster’ approach and is working hard to convert this into support for the greater subtleties of test cricket. We all know that P G Wodehouse’s literary work is great enough to retain the interest of a high proportion of those who try it, and the Trustees are right to allow the media certain liberties in providing the necessary opportunity through this TV series.

So, when you have watched the series, go back and read the original stories, and consider how different your ideas might have been if you had had to overcome the conflicting problems which faced the Trustees, Mammoth and the BBC. You might be surprised at how difficult such a task is.

December 2012

Questions and Answers with Cast Members

Jack Farthing, who plays Freddie Threepwood in each episode

1 How did it feel to be invited to participate in an episode of a TV series adapted from the work of the finest comic writer of the twentieth century?

Terrifying and wonderful in equal measure, I think, as always with something as exciting as this. I’m far from a Wodehouse expert, but I was definitely a fan, and while of course the responsibility is always huge with material so brilliant, there was also the sense, I think, that we were in very safe hands.

2 What were your major concerns?

Well, apart from actually crashing my car, I think my biggest worry in the run up to starting filming was finding the right tone. Wodehouse’s comedy exists so perfectly on the page, and I just didn’t know how to even begin thinking about translating that into performance. It wasn’t until we were all there together, and I saw the work that everyone else was doing, that a communal tone just sort of took shape, and my place in the family and in the series became clearer.

3 What Wodehouse fiction did you read - if any - to help acclimatise yourself with the role of Freddie?

I read quite a bit. I wanted to get hold of everything in which Freddie appears just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Obviously the scripts have their own quality and their own story, but there’s so much gold to mine from the books that I couldn’t resist. So, Something Fresh, Psmith, all the Blandings short stories, etc, etc. I also dipped into a few of the Jeeves stories again, and spent a long and lovely afternoon with Sophie Ratcliffe’s A Life in Letters, which is wonderful.

4 Besides Freddie, did you generate an affection for any particular character?

There aren’t many that I didn’t generate an affection for. But if we’re talking other than family Blandings, I’d have to say Psmith.

5 Do you think the series maintains the spirit of Wodehouse, brought up to date?

Well, I don’t think it was a case of bringing him up to date, I don’t think he needs it. It was more about carrying the spirit of the books with us into a completely different medium. And in that respect I think Guy Andrews has triumphed. Adapting is never easy, especially with material as utterly seamless as Wodehouse, but I hope people will see that the buzz and the joy that characterises his writing is still very much at the heart of the series, and as alive and kicking as ever.

Emerald Fennell, who plays Monica Simmons in the final episode

1 As someone who is familiar with the works of Wodehouse, were you surprised at the extent to which the plot and script of the TV series has been changed from the original story?

Adapting any novel for the screen is always complicated. You inevitably have to change things as the forms are so different, so I am never surprised if things have been changed between book and script. I think the trick is to keep the essence of the book, whilst also drawing out its dramatic qualities even if that means deviating a little from the original plot. I think Guy has been brilliant at keeping the Wodehousean spirit and re-shaping it for a different format.

2 What aspects of the TV series do you think have best captured the spirit of Wodehouse?

I think the warmth and the joyfulness and the silliness of Wodehouse is there! And the strong vein of farce in the books has really been mined. So much of Wodehouse’s comedy relies on his narrative voice and Blandings has been very clever about converting that voice into dialogue.

3 Did you have any concern about playing a part in the Blandings series – as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were reported to have done before the Jeeves & Wooster series 20 years ago?

None at all. I am a huge Wodehouse fan, so I jumped at the chance to be in it. Especially to work beside geniuses like Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders. The script made me laugh just as much as the books do.

4 Do you think that the spirit of Wodehouse could be maintained during a further series of the programme?

Of course! The more PGW on telly the better!

The Inimitable Jeeves

You can find five classic PGW stories, read by such worthies as former Society President Richard Briers and Michael Hordern, on the BBC website. Click here to listen to “The Purity Of The Turf”, “The Great Sermon Handicap”, “Honoria Glossop”, “Pearls Mean Tears”, and “Jeeves Exerts The Old Cerebellum”. Bliss!