The great writer’s gifts do not translate to the screen, so 'Blandings’ was bound to fail
Blandings, the BBC’s new PG Wodehouse adaptation, will not win many converts to one of the great comic writers of the 20th century. It makes for perfectly harmless family viewing, and Wodehouse enthusiasts will back it out of loyalty. But Wodehouse’s sublime story of Lord Emsworth, and his devotion to his prize pig, was reduced to a banal, knockabout tale of toffs acting stupidly, decorated with a series of jaunty Twenties props.
All the posh Jazz Age signifiers were there – the plinkety-plonk Charleston banging away in the background, the thin-fat font on the opening credits. Timothy Spall, a gifted comedian, played Lord Emsworth straight out of the Central Casting school of Silly Earls. He never stood a chance. TV and film versions of Wodehouse are always bound to fail: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, both extremely witty Wodehouse fans, also reduced Jeeves and Wooster to dull, mirthless caricature.
Wodehouse’s exceptional talent was as a supreme prose writer – his work must be read, not performed. He may have written successful musicals; his dialogue may be perfectly timed, his plot lines beautifully crafted, as a glance at his densely worked manuscripts shows. But his real comic power depends on him being read – for the variety of literary references; for the bathetic pay-off at the end of a high-flown piece of writing; for the originality of his similes. These things don’t work when they’re put in the mouth of an actor – they sound too elaborate and forced.
Take this line in The Inimitable Jeeves: “When Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps.” It incorporates several Wodehouse devices: the contrary thought of elderly aunts being the most terrifying of creatures; the Boris Johnson-esque tendency to drop in obscure Latinate words; the metaphor that becomes a simile.
All this takes skill, knowledge and wit which combine in the mind to produce the comic effect; on film, that line would fall flat. Without the brilliant prose, the BBC’s Blandings became just bland; a silly story about posh twits making a pig fat.
Part of the reason is Wodehouse’s references. However lightly delivered, they depend on at least a passing understanding of classics, English literature and the Bible; Wodehouse won a senior classical scholarship to Dulwich College in 1897. He never shows off how clever he is, but he does assume a certain level of knowledge in order for the reader to laugh at, say, Bertie Wooster in Right Ho, Jeeves: “I retired to an armchair and put my feet up, sipping the mixture with carefree enjoyment, rather like Caesar having one in his tent the day he overcame the Nervii.”
In order to get that, you don’t have to know who the Nervii were; but you do have to know who Caesar was. There has also been a coarsening shift in English humour over the last generation that has left Wodehouse marooned on an island with his ageing band of fans.
In the 1973 anthology, Homage to PG Wodehouse, Auberon Waugh called him “the most influential novelist of our age” and a master of “the Great English Joke”. By that, Waugh meant the teasing of all people who take themselves too seriously – whether it’s the Prime Minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury or your self-important next-door neighbour.
That teasing still goes on, of course. But modern comedy is either a race to the bottom – be as rude as you can be about the Queen – or it’s ultra-gentle, observational Michael McIntyre stuff.
The BBC has wrongly placed Wodehouse in the ultra-gentle category – thus the Sunday teatime slot. He doesn’t belong there. Wodehouse is caught between the two poles of the modern age – mischievous but not vulgar, inoffensive but not anodyne. His gifts cannot be captured by the screen, the ultimate medium of the modern age, either. That’s not to say he’s outdated. His genius has been obscured, not promoted, by television exposure. Read him; don’t watch him. He is still timelessly funny.