A Centenary of Piccadilly Jim

piccadillyjim montage

The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive, is one of the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents’ worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects confronted with it reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals that guard New York’s Public Library.

P.G. Wodehouse: Piccadilly Jim (1916)

 

So begins Piccadilly Jim, with some of my favourite Wodehouse opening lines. If you’ve never ventured beyond Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Blandings stories, Piccadilly Jim is an excellent place to start. It’s still in print and widely available from reputable bookshops and online sellers.

2018 marks 100 years since Piccadilly Jim’s UK publication, making this year a centenary of sorts for one of Wodehouse’s most loved novels. I say ‘of sorts’ because Piccadilly Jim was serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1916, and published in book form the following year in the US. A centennial celebration at Plumtopia is long overdue.

In a nutshell, Piccadilly Jim is the story of American rascal Jimmy Crocker. Having started out as a journalist in New York, he moves to London after his actor father marries into money. Jim’s excesses in London make good copy in the New York papers, who dub him ‘Piccadilly Jim’. The stories are an embarrassment to his new aunt-by-marriage, Nesta Ford Pett, who wants Jimmy to return to New York and work in her husband’s business. Jimmy has little interest in reforming his character, but a chance meeting with a beautiful American redhead called Ann Chester changes his mind.

To this relatively straightforward plot, we add the Wodehouse treatment. The aforementioned household in Riverside Drive also contains Mrs Pett’s odious son Ogden, a literary salon, an undercover detective and multiple imposters.

There was a strong literary virus in Mrs. Pett’s system. She not only wrote voluminously herself–the name Nesta Ford Pett is familiar to all lovers of sensational fiction–but aimed at maintaining a salon. Starting, in pursuance of this aim, with a single specimen,–her nephew, Willie Partridge, who was working on a new explosive which would eventually revolutionise war–she had gradually added to her collections, until now she gave shelter beneath her terra-cotta roof to no fewer than six young and unrecognised geniuses. Six brilliant youths, mostly novelists who had not yet started and poets who were about to begin, cluttered up Mr. Pett’s rooms on this fair June morning, while he, clutching his Sunday paper, wandered about, finding, like the dove in Genesis, no rest.

Ann Chester stands out as another sparkling Wodehouse heroine. She’s a reformed poet with enterprising ideas about kidnapping young Ogden (previously kidnapped in The Little Nugget) and sending him to a dog-hospital for fresh air and exercise. Like Wodehouse’s other infamous redhead Bobby Wickham, Ann has a fiery nature to match her hair colour.

“It’s your red hair!” said Mr. Pett at length, with the air of a man who has been solving a problem. “It’s your red hair that makes you like this, Ann. Your father has red hair, too.”

Ann laughed.

“It’s not my fault that I have red hair, uncle Peter. It’s my misfortune.”

Mr. Pett shook his head.

“Other people’s misfortune, too!” he said.

Of the wider cast, the intimidating Miss Trimble deserves mention as the International Detective Agency’s top operative, who joins the Pett household in the guise of a parlour-maid. Miss Trimble is a martial arts expert, a crack-shot with a revolver, and an outstanding creation from the first.

At this close range she more than fulfilled the promise of that distant view which Mrs. Pett had had of her from the window. Her face was not only shrewd and determined: it was menacing. She had thick eyebrows, from beneath which small, glittering eyes looked out like dangerous beasts in undergrowth: and the impressive effect of these was accentuated by the fact that, while the left eye looked straight out at its object, the right eye had a sort of roving commission and was now, while its colleague fixed Mrs. Pett with a gimlet stare, examining the ceiling.

Miss Trimble is also a socialist, whose assignment in the Pett household gives her an opportunity to sneer at vulgar excess up close.

She frowned disapprovingly at a Canaletto.

“You–ah–appear to dislike the rich,” said Mrs. Pett, as nearly in her grand manner as she could contrive.

Miss Trimble bowled over the grand manner as if it had been a small fowl and she an automobile. She rolled over it and squashed it flat.

Piccadilly Jim has been translated into multiple languages and adapted for film three times, in 1919, 1936, and 2005. The 1919 adaptation by Wodehouse’s friend Guy Bolton is reputedly the most faithful to the book.

The 2005 adaption received some poor reviews from Wodehouse fans, despite an all-star cast including Sam Rockwell as Jimmy Crocker, Frances O’Connor as Ann Chester, and Tom Wilkinson, Brenda Blethyn, Allison Janney, Austin Pendleton, Hugh Bonneville, Tom Hollander, Geoffrey Palmer and Pam Ferris. Too much of Wodehouse’s original material is wasted for this adaptation to be a fan favourite, and the filmmakers seem to have consciously decided to ignore any period authenticity in their choice of costumes, sets, and soundtrack —  Sia and Emilíana Torrini make brief musical cameos singing Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and ‘Tainted Love’ respectively. This doesn’t bother me so much as the plot changes that do nothing to improve the story.

I can’t make up my mind about this adaptation. I’d love to know what you think of it?

And if you are yet to discover the joys of the original, I heartily recommend popping out and picking up a copy — it’s certainly one of my favourites.

Happy reading!

HP

References and further reading

The serialised version of Piccadilly Jim is available online from Madame Eulalie’s inimitable website, complete with the original illustrations by May Wilson Preston.

 

Advertisements

17 thoughts on “A Centenary of Piccadilly Jim

      1. Oh…perhaps Jeeves gets the credit for stating that redheads are not to be trusted. In his biographical account etched out by C Northcote Parkinson, this is traced back to Jeeves’ earlier days when, at a boarding facility for young ladies, he is tricked by a redhead!

  1. I had a day on set in Piccadilly, as we film buffs call it, for the latest remake of Piccadilly Jim, to report for Wooster Sauce. It was mildly entertaining but a bit boring – nothing much seemed to happen until they got around to actual filming, when to my irritation I was ejected with all the other hangers-on. When the film came out on DVD, I watched five minutes, and then bitterly called it a day. Not at all my cuppa – nor I feel, Plum’s. What a waste.

    1. Hi Murray.
      I tend to agree, but I can’t quite put my finger on the problem with this one… With that cast, and that story, it ought to be much better. I think it’s the departures from the original plot and dialogue that bother me. Sometimes this is necessary, but often the tinkering is misguided.

  2. I should perhaps have added that as a redhead (in youth – alas, no longer) I feel slighted by Plum’s apparent distaste for the species. We have enough trouble in Australia’s searing sun without being traduced by the Master!

    1. Ah well Murray, my family(including one of my children) is replete with redheads. It’s like the weather in Melbourne — just something you have to accept. If it’s any consolation, Bobbie Wickham is one of my favourite Wodehouse girls — wherever she goes you’re certain of a laugh as the hapless male souls in her immediate environs are prodded mercilessly with darning needles on the end of broomsticks. As for Piccadilly Jim, the problem for me is that it is far too wordy, as are many of the early PGW (serialised) novels before he settled into his stride in the late 20s. I imagine (because I haven’t seen them) that if you film the story the plot takes over and all the Plumisms dissolve in the hands of unclever writers, as happens in many of the film versions of PGW yarns.

      1. I do see your point, Noel, but I love the early novels. In later life, he had honed his skill to a precise art, and gave the public the settings and characters they demanded. In the early novels, before he had such a large, devoted readership to please, I think Wodehouse had more freedom to experiment, and could write to please his own tastes. In particular, his heroines during this period are among the best he created.

  3. Library Network Camden Man

    Read ‘Piccadilly Jim’ years ago, and recently read it three times in a row. I like Wodehouse’s expansiveness in the early works, but also read it to understand the plot fully.
    It seems modern in part, so I suspect publishers updated references.
    Wodehouse’s skill in writing for readers during a World War is prevalent here. He also writes without the danger of sounding dated, a skill lacking in many an author now forgotten because he or she mentioned the War instead of implying it.
    . I chuckle patronisingly about a very successful celebrity and purported Wodehouse lover who said Wodehouse never mentioned the War, but as you know, elsewhere from ‘Piccadilly Jim’, he did.
    That might make a good research challenge. When did he mention the War and also, if not going that far, imply it.

    1. An excellent search challenge. Thank you for posing it.

      The most famous example from the Wooster canon is the line from Jeeves about ‘some slight friction threatening in the Balkans’

  4. I have seen the 2005 film, but am unable to compare it to the book, as, alas! I have never been able to lay my hands on a copy. Possibly this has influenced my opinion of the film in a positive way, as I didn’t have the Real Thing to compare it to.
    Which is to say, I quite liked it, although it isn’t enormously Wodehousey. But it would take an exceedingly clever adapter to transfer such inimitable prose into a screenplay, because a screenplay just shows you all those things which Wodehouse so wittily tells you about. Dialogue is about all you are left with.

    1. Thanks Deborah.
      You’ve confirmed my suspicions that the film works better if you haven’t read the book. I didn’t hate it as much as some people did, but I did feel it was an opportunity missed.
      I’m sorry you haven’t been able to get a copy of the book. It was republished and should be available now, but I have never seen a bookseller keep it in stock. If you’re keen to read it, you probably can ask them to order a copy.
      My books are currently in storage, but I think I have multiple copies. So if you are still unable to find it, let me know and I will send you my spare copy when I am finally reunited with my books.

      1. I confess, most of my Wodehouse books are the results of either myself or another (knowing of my tastes) serendipitously happening upon them in a second-hand bookshop. Alas, the writer-in-a-garret book-budget doesn’t often stretch to buying new. But perhaps it is time I set out on a second-hand bookshop crawl, to delve into every cranny and see what lurks undiscovered on the shelves.

      2. That’s how I collected them too. Until I had about 8-9 left that were harder to track down. But I ended up with a lot if duplicates and will be very happy to post one to you when I have my books.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s