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‘How’s the show going?’
‘It’s a riot. They think it will run two years in London. As far as I can make it out you don’t call it a success in London unless you can take your grandchildren to see the thousandth night.’
A Damsel in Distress (1919)
To celebrate the recent anniversay of the first Blandings novel, I visited the charming town of Chichester to see a new stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. This story first appeared as a serial in the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ in 1919, and was published in book form later the same year. During Wodehouse’s lifetime it was adapted as a silent film, a stage-play (by Wodehouse and Ian Hay), and as a 1937 musical starring Fred Astaire with music from George and Ira Gershwin.
Wodehouse’s own career in the theatre spanned some thirty years. He wrote several plays and was a theatre critic for Vanity Fair. His main contribution, however, was as a Broadway lyricist working in collaboration with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton. The theatre world features frequently and is affectionately portrayed in his stories, including A Damsel in Distress.
Wodehouse belonged to the stage as well as the page, so when I learned that a new stage musical of A Damsel in Distress was being performed at the Chichester Festival Theatre, I wasted no time in dashing off to Sussex to catch the final performance on June 27th. And boy am I glad I did!
The show has finished it’s run in Chichester, but you can still watch the rehearsal trailer. The story of my visit to Chichester and a glowing review of the show follows below.
My visit to Chichester
The first treat on my visit to Chichester occurred on route. The journey by train from my home in Somerset to Chichester requires roughly three hours, and about a dozen changes, but redeems itself by passing through Wodehouse’s former home town of Emsworth. As N.T.P Murphy confirms in The P G Wodehouse Miscellany (2015), Emsworth is the ‘real’ location of Belpher village, where A Damsel in Distress is set. For anyone who has visited this former oyster fishing town (as I did in 2013) Wodehouse’s depiction of Belpher is clearly the same place.
For years Belpher oysters had been the mainstay of gay supper parties at the Savoy, the Carlton and Romano’s. Dukes doted on them; chorus girls wept if they were not on the bill of fare. And then, in an evil hour, somebody discovered that what made the Belpher oyster so particularly plump and succulent was the fact that it breakfasted, lunched and dined almost entirely on the local sewage. There is but a thin line ever between popular homage and and execration. We see it in the case of politicians, generals and prize-fighters; and oysters are no exception to the rule. There was a typhoid scare — quite a passing and unjustified scare, but strong enough to do its deadly work; and almost overnight Belpher passed from a place of flourishing industry to the sleepy by-the-world-forgotten spot which it was when George Bevan discovered it. The shallow water is still there; the mud is still there; even the oyster-beds are still there; but not the oysters nor the little world of activity which had sprung up around them.
A Damsel in Distress
Its proximity to Emsworth makes nearby Chichester a fitting place to stage this musical revival of A Damsel in Distress. It is also close to Goodwood Racecourse, where many Wodehouse characters (notably Bingo Little) have lost a bundle.
Chichester itself is an attractive, prosperous looking town, with an attractive, prosperous looking populace and an air of genteel distinction. As someone who is neither attractive nor prosperous, I never felt more of a blot on the landscape as I did waddling down Chichester’s main street. Even the town’s elderly inhabitants — women old enough to have earned the right to elasticated waists and comfortable shoes — could be seen teetering precariously under half-a-ton of jewellery, on heels that would give me vertigo. The good ladies of Chichester do not let themselves go – they cling on.
Inspecting myself critically in shop-windows, I felt increasingly like a worm who has gotten above itself and crawled into Princess Charlotte’s salade nicoise. So I popped into a local “outfitters to the gentry” in the faint hope that it’s never too late to start making an effort. I don’t know what I expected to find — some tasteful trousers or a tweed skirt. What I got was a shock. It seems the gentry and I are discrepant on matters of taste as well as oofiness. Whereas my inclination is to cover the baggage with cloth, the modern Lady seems to prefer the sort of costume that looks as if it’s been designed by the Gynecological Society to allow curbside examinations.
Leaving empty-handed, I proceeded to the Chichester Festival Theatre in a slightly nervous state (overtaking several septuagenarians in stilettos on the way), but my first sight of the theatre put me at ease. Of a stylish 1960s design and situated opposite an expansive lawn, it reminded me of the Adelaide Festival Theatre, where I saw my first performances as a child and was later married in the rotunda on the lawn. The day was warm (in Chichester, not Adelaide) and the doors had been thrown open, bringing a refreshing breeze indoors. It was the sort of day Wodehouse himself might have written about, and I quickly felt at home among the throng of theatre-goers, beaming in happy anticipation.
Review of A Damsel in Distress
A Damsel in Distress did not disappoint. From the moment the chorus tapped out the opening number — Things Are Looking Up! — I knew I was in the presence of something special. I believe Rob Ashford, the show’s American director and choreographer is some sort of big-wig in the business — and by golly he oughta be! It’s difficult to imagine how this adaptation could have been more perfect.
This adaptation compares favourably to both the original novel and the Astaire musical. George Bevan (played by Richard Fleeshman) is an American composer overseeing the introduction his latest Broadway hit to the London stage. He falls in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton (Summer Strallen), whose family mistake him for the man she loves. They want her to marry Reggie Byng (Richard Dempsey), who in turn loves Alice Keggs (Melle Stewart), who is Lord Marshmoreton’s secretary and a niece of Keggs of the Butler. Meanwhile George’s friend in the chorus, Billy Dore (Sally Ann Triplett), mistakes Lord Marshmoreton (the wonderful Nicholas Farrell) for a gardener, and captures his heart.
The unpleasantness of class snobbery pervades the piece — as it does throughout Wodehouse’s work. I am always bewildered by the popular misconception of Wodehouse as a preserver of class distinction, when his plots repeatedly smash both class and trans-Atlantic cultural barriers. In A Damsel in Distress, class snobbery is embodied in character of Lady Caroline Byng, who is Maud’s Aunt and Reggie’s step-mother. She wants them to marry, and strongly objects to George Bevan — member of the lower-classes, an American, and presumably poor — as a suitor. In the original book Aunt Caroline is supported by Maud’s brother, the repulsive Lord Belpher. In this adaptation she is the lone representative of class snobbery, wonderfully played by Isla Blair who is everything a stage Aunt and comedy villain ought to be.
This musical doesn’t skimp on matters below stairs either. Lead by Keggs the butler (Desmond Barrit), french chef Pierre (David Roberts) and Dorcas the undercook (Chloe Hart), the staff at Belpher castle plot to undermine Lady Caroline and support the amiable Lord Marshmoreton’s efforts to assert himself as head of the family. Their big song and dance number in the kitchen — Stiff Upper Lip steals the show — I’ve never heard this song sound so good. My daughter and I sang it all the way back to the station, and are still humming the tune a week later.
The entire cast and orchestra were superb. Richard Fleeshman was the perfect leading man as George Bevan, with matinee idol looks and a voice that makes you want to close your eyes and drink through your ears. Sally Ann Triplett sparkled as Billie Dore, who is the more appealing heroine in Wodehouse’s original book also. Lady Maud is one of Wodehouse’s least endearing heroines. As the distant maiden in castle — the damsel in distress of the title — George mostly admires her from a distance, whereas we encounter her close-up. The shallowness of her character (especially in the final scenes of the book) is uncomfortably clear, although the reader is content to feel George’s pleasure when she agrees to marry him. Summer Strallen makes Maud as appealing as she can, and sings beautifully.
The one jarring moment for me came when Reggie Byng made his first appearance in a flurry of ‘What Ho’s, ‘I Say!’s and ‘Tootle Pip!’s — looking and sounding like the sort of blithering idiot Wodehouse is famous for. Indeed for millions of people, creating upper-class twits is all Wodehouse is famous for. It seems no modern adaptation of his work can do without one. I’m not suggesting Reggie ought to have entered solemnly, quoting Proust, but I find the overplayed English twit caricature rather tiresome. But I’m clearly in a minority, and Reggie’s appearance at Chichester was a notable hit with the audience. Eventually I too was won over by Richard Dempsey in the role. His rendition of ‘I’m a poached egg without a piece of toast’ would have melted the sternest critic’s heart.
That’s the power of great musical comedy, and Wodehouse. They can transport us momentarily from our woes, and even our prejudices, to a state of carefree joy — something the multi-million dollar popular psychology business is still working at. They may be dismissed as ‘light entertainment’ by an overprivileged few, who perhaps have fewer woes to escape than the rest of us, but if you’re an out-of-place worm in the nicoise of life, the benefits are well worth the price of admission.
I haven’t said nearly enough about the show — the impressive sets, the costumes, the wonderful quality of the music, dancing and choreography (Pierre and Dorcas were a treat). Nor the pleasure of seeing Nicholas Farrell, who I’ve long admired since he appeared in my favourite television show (Drop the Dead Donkey). I could say so much more, but if I’m to post this review in the same decade in which I saw the bally thing, I really must draw the line somewhere.
If A Damsel in Distress plays anywhere near you, be sure to catch it!
This summer I visited the Hampshire town of Emsworth, where P.G Wodehouse once lived. He first arrived at the invitation of Herbert Westbrook, who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Westbrook is described in Sophie Ratcliffe’s ‘P.G.Wodehouse, A Life in Letters’ as “handsome, charismatic, and permanently broke.” He is forever associated in my mind with the character Ukridge and, for some unfathomable reason, the novel I most associate with Emsworth is Love Among the Chickens (1906).
Wodehouse lived for a time at Emsworth House School, run by Baldwin King-Hall and his sister Ella. The school is mentioned in Mike (1909) and provided the setting for The Little Nugget (1913). Sadly the building no longer exists. Wodehouse dedicated the Indiscretions of Archie (1921) to Baldwin King-Hall:
My Dear Buddy
We have been friends for eighteen years. A considerable
proportion of my books were written under your hospitable
roof. And I have never dedicated one to you. What will
be the verdict of Posterity on this? The fact is, I have
become rather superstitious about dedications. No sooner
do you label a book with the legend :
MY BEST FRIEND
Then X cuts you in Piccadilly, or you bring a lawsuit
against him. There is a fatality about it. However I can’t
imagine anyone quarrelling with you, and I am getting more
attractive all the time, so let’s take a chance.
Ella King Hall married Westbrook and there is some suggestion that he may have been Wodehouse’s rival for her affection. She later became Wodehouse’s literary agent in the UK.
Wodehouse moved from his lodgings at the school and rented a house nearby called ‘Threepwood’ (which he later bought). The blue plaque is faintly visible from the road. The name Threepwood should be familiar to fans of Wodehouse’s Blandings series, along with ‘Emsworth’ itself. Indeed the signs around town are almost a Blandings Who’s Who.
Wodehouse also had family in Emsworth, in the shape of his Uncle Walter and Aunt. They lived for a time in Havant Road and presumably ensured that young Plum lived up to familial expectations. This may well have extended to churchgoing. Which of Plum’s many ecclesiastical stories, I wonder, were inspired by his time on the pews here?
Wodehouse was a keen sportsman in his youth, and maintained an exercise regime throughout his life that included ‘Daily Dozen’ exercises and regular walking. So I particularly enjoyed strolling the coastal path (at the end of Beach Road) into town, knowing that Plum had ambled this way before me.
My tour of Emsworth was guided by notes graciously supplied by N.T.P Murphy, who mentions that George Bevan from A Damsel in Distress stays at the Crown Hotel. Although I was unable to get a decent photograph of its exterior, I spent several very pleasant hours at The Crown and look forward to returning there on future visits. A Damsel in Distress is set in the fictional fishing and oyster town of Belpher, which is clearly based on Emsworth.
And I certainly shall be returning – I want to visit the highly recommended Emsworth Museum, which was closed on the day of my visit. The town also celebrates its association with Wodehouse, hosting a P.G Wodehouse Festival that should attract Plumtopians for years to come.
More details about Wodehouse’s life and associations with Emsworth can be found in Christine Hewitt’s lovely article for the P G Wodehouse Society (UK) . There is also a Wodehouse page at Emsworth Online.
(c) All images are my own. Please send a request for permission to reproduce.
What Ho again, Plum lovers.
It has been an especially glorious summer, right out of the pages of Blandings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to whiz about the countryside, capturing the atmosphere of Wodehouse’s England. I’ve visited Plum’s Emsworth in Hampshire and explored Bertie Wooster’s London (in one of the last tours given by Wodehouse expert, Norman Murphy). I also visited towns where Wodehouse’s parents lived, Cheltenham and Bexhill-on-Sea. The latter is affectionately remembered by Goons Show fans as the home of The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler.
I’ll have more to share over the coming winter as I knuckle down to writing about these adventures, but I could not let this particular week flit by without mentioning two important milestones. First, Monday the 15th of October marked the 132nd anniversary of Plum’s birth. It was lovely to see the tributes flow in via the various Wodehouse fan pages and societies.
Happy Birthday, Plum!
Fittingly, Plum’s birthday week will close with a special event on the Wodehouse-lovers’ calendar: The U.S. Wodehouse Society’s Chicago convention. I am disappointed to be missing this event and the opportunity to meet some of the friends I’ve made through Wodehouse online. I understand the Chicago gang have gone to great effort and I’m sure the event will be a terrific success. Indeed, they are no doubt browsing and sluicing as I write.
The Wodehouse novel I most associate with Chicago is Piccadilly Jim (1917), in which the former actor Bingley Crocker reprises his role of Chicago Ed:
Jimmy did not speak for a moment.
“Did you ever play a kidnapper, Dad?” he asked at length.
“Sure. I was Chicago Ed in a crook play called ‘This Way out’. Why, surely you saw me in that? I got some good notices.”
“Of course. I knew I’d seen you play that sort of part some time. You came on during the dark scene and –”
“Switched on the lights and –”
“Covered the bunch with your gun while they were still blinking! You were great in that part, Dad.”
“It was a good part,” said Mr Crocker modestly. “It had fat. I’d liked to have got a chance to play a kidnapper again. There’s a lot of pep to kidnappers.”
Piccadilly Jim (1917)
Bingley Crocker’s wish comes true. Here’s hoping yours do too.
A wonderful piece from the excellent critic, Emsworth, reblogged with his kind permission.
It would be a joy to read Wodehouse even if his stories didn’t have more ingenious poetic allusions than there are stars in the sky. On the latest of our many happy passes through The Code of the Woosters — perhaps the very best of the Jeeves and Wooster novels — we started taking inventory.
Wodehouse starts with a taste of Keats on the very first page, as Jeeves tells Bertie Wooster, “There is a fog, sir. If you will recollect, we are now in Autumn — season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” A few pages later, Sir Watkyn Bassett, a country magistrate who has it in for Bertie, assures Roderick Spode that time in prison won’t prevent a man from “rising on stepping-stones of his dead self to higher things.” That’s from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
Bertie Wooster doesn’t know as much poetry as his friends, so his allusions are…
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Emsworth, that worthy critic with an equally worthy name, suggests “P.G. Wodehouse had hung on too long when he wrote The Cat-Nappers“ – The Cat-Nappers being an alias for the work known to British readers as Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen. Emsworth provides some good evidence that this 1974 work of a nonagenarian is not Wodehouse at his finest. For those unacquainted with Emsworth’s excellent piece, I suggest reading it for yourself. When my considered response (however unqualified I am to make it) ran to half a page, I decided to post it here instead.
Wodehouse was a careful and proficient editor in the habit of re-working his stories thoroughly until he was satisfied with them. I wonder whether this book received a less scrupulous reworking than Wodehouse was accustomed to. Perhaps Wodehouse felt he was running out of time…
Emsworth’s comments on Wodehouse’s repeated use of abbreviations (telegram-speak being a forerunner of SMS) illustrates my point. Wodehouse used this sparingly to great comic effect in other novels, but the criticism of overuse here could be indicative of writer’s shorthand – perfectly acceptable in a draft manuscript. Similarly, the issues with repetition.
I have often wondered whether publishers their treat star authors differently when it comes to editing. J.K Rowling’s work might make an interesting study in this regard. The first Harry Potter novel is fine, tight writing, but the same cannot be said of the later instalments — there are all sorts of issues with them, which I feel would have benefited from a firm editorial hand.
Emsworth notes instances of rambling and dithering, which could also be attributed to editing. Most writers ramble and dither, and need to cut material from their first drafts, age notwithstanding. But Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen certainly isn’t a rambling final novel, in the way that Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate is.
Emsworth also believes that in Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen Wodehouse reveals his true political colours, citing the following example:
Being a Communist, Orlo Porter was probably on palsy-walsy terms with half the big shots at the Kremlin, and the more of the bourgeoisie he disembowelled, the better they would be pleased.
Bertie Wooster is hardly a mouthpiece for expressing the political views of his author. Bertie’s position on Communism, made clear in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923), is one of genial self-preservation. While Wodehouse made Comrade Bingo’s Heralds of the Red Dawn appear ridiculous, he was an egalitarian writer who created the equally ludicrous fascists (Roderick Spode), crooked Conservatives (Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe), loathsome Lords, and grotesque Captains of Industry.
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?The Code of the Woosters (1938)
Wodehouse’s consistent treatment of political activists – if it tells us anything at all – suggests that he found them all equally ridiculous, and ripe for picking as excellent sources of ‘material’
If I were find fault with Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen I would tend to agree with FretfulPorpentine’s response to Emsworth:
I wonder whether one of the problems with Aunts Aren’t Gentleman / The Catnappers is that its setting was more or less contemporary to when it was written, with its Sixties student demos and jokes about Billy Graham. Better, perhaps, had it been set in the classic (and, if it’s not a contradiction to say so) Wodehousian interwar era. The sixties bits really jar with me.
It’s not that the setting doesn’t work – it’s just different from what we’ve become accustomed to. We want more of the old stuff we know and love. But it shows us that Wodehouse was still striving to write something new. A younger Wodehouse might have popped this manuscript in his bottom drawer and reworked it again later, but at 93, one can be forgiven for not putting things off.
As is stands, Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen still offers much of the usual Wodehouse to enjoy and I am reluctant to damn it as the work of a man who had lost his touch. I would gladly ‘suffer’ another 20 books of this quality.
I would gladly have continued our conversation, but I knew he must be wanting to get back to his Spinoza. No doubt I had interrupted him just as Spinoza was on the point of solving the mystery of the headless body on the library floor.
Aunt’s Aren’t Gentlemen is currently available in paperback for around £7.54.