The Clive Exton version of Jeeves and Wooster, originally aired between 1990 and 1993 on ITV, has entered into adaptation heaven. Starring the unmatchable combination of Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Wooster, the show remains a staple for the type of people who claim to ‘not really watch TV, actually’, and to prefer books (preferably pre-1950) instead.
Both the possessor of an iconic introduction piece of music and the ideal accompaniment to gin, Jeeves and Wooster is in many ways simply old school humour – farcical escapes from marrying beefy girls and mix-ups involving dogs – yet, maybe because of its dated feel, it tricks the viewer into thinking it is slapstick for the educated; comedy for the initiated.
Blandings, the current BBC adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s other great series of comic adventures, Life at Blandings, makes none of these concessions to elevated elegance. For devotees of Jeeves and Wooster it may not, both at first and throughout, seem a match on either that adaptation or Wodehouse’s original. Pigs and a Pink Pussy punctuate the proceedings; costumes are often historically inaccurate and falling over furniture or into piles of horse poo count as top jokes.
However, in many ways – and not in spite of – Blandings actually makes a very good shot at representing some of the most peculiar qualities of Wodehouse’s writing style and attitudes.
In 1945, George Orwell wrote an article ‘In Defense of P. G. Wodehouse’, defending the writer against charges of traitorous behavior and Fascism bought about by Wodehouse recording a selection of wartime broadcasts for the Germans, whilst under internment. Whilst this behavior was not entirely desirable or particularly well thought-out, Orwell decreed that Wodehouse was guilty of nothing more serious than ‘stupidity’ and certainly not ideological sympathies with Fascism.
This type of a-political and lighthearted stupidity, Orwell claimed, was quite in line with much of Wodehouse’s writing and his overall attitude towards Britain. It is these same qualities that can be easily identified in the current Blandings episodes.
Although associated with the roaring 20s, Wodehouse wrote much of his fiction before 1918. Wodehouse’s ‘out-of-dateness’ is, according to Orwell, an important point as it explains both why Fascist sympathies cannot be detected in his books (his politics, or lack of, were conceived far before Fascism really existed in Europe) and also why his texts contain embarrassing anachronisms, such as young men wearing spats a good decade after men, well, stopped sporting spats.
Take a good look at Blandings and it, as with Jeeves and Wooster, is actually harder to date than you would expect. A sweeping glance and the dropped hemlines and pre-dinner decanters of sherry immediately shout Twenties. Yet, the recent costume of Pandora looked – albeit pretty – like an Oasis version of Twenties attire, not the carefully sourced vintage of the Downton cast. The blatant CGI effects when Freddie crashes his car in each episode and the inclusion of actors well known for being famous within the last few decades, such as Jennifer Saunders and David Walliams, in roles that do not attempt to disguise them, muddles that historic setting further.
This shows that historical accuracy and therefore comment on any time period and its associated political situation is immaterial to the general humour and narrative. The show is governed by Wodehouse’s ‘ruling passion’, which is ‘to get a laugh’ as Orwell stated. It does not make critical comment on gender relations or sexual behavior – ‘nowhere in any of his books is there anything in the nature of a sex joke.’
Above all though, Blandings repeatedly commits Wodehouse’s ‘real sin’ and that is ‘to present the English upper classes as much nicer people than they are.’ Lord Emsworth himself, played by Timothy Spall, is by far the best example of this. An endearing pig-obsessive who prefers the company of a sow to Society, he repeatedly gets away with what would otherwise be considered pretty gross behavior. He loudly insults people also present at the dinner table, lumps together most females in to the categories of either carping sister or eligible niece, points out guests’ indigestion noises and talks a lot about manure. All of which is done with such charming, bumbling, lovable hilarity, he becomes like all the other beautifully desirable posh twits, such as Rupert Everett’s Algernon in The Importance of Being Ernest.
Blandings is unlikely to enter into Classic TV recommendations lists in the same way that Wodehouse’s wartime broadcasts never made it into the history books alongside those of John Avery and Lord Haw-Haw. In many ways, though, it encapsulates the very spirit of Wodehouse in one short airing of stupidity.