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The enduring appeal of PG Wodehouse: If you think it’s just farcical butlers and upper-class twits, think again!
In 2015, BBC radio presenter Kirsty Lang interviewed director Rob Ashford and writer Jeremy Sams about their stage musical adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. It’s one of Wodehouse’s many transatlantic tales, and delves into the world of musical theatre. The central character is an American composer of musical show tunes, and he manages to navigate life efficiently enough without the assistance of a manservant.
KIRSTY: Now Jeremy, it’s a very engaging production, but the story’ is very much of its time. How confident were you that it would work for a 21st Century audience?
JEREMY: Well you say it’s of its time. What I love about it is, the things that attracted me and my co-writer Robbie Hudson, are absolutely how we feel now about America and England, and actually about theatre and high art, if you like. And the ideas that musicals, which I happen to love, can be thought of as beautiful deep stuff, and not just fluff. It’s a conversation I have weekly to be honest. And the idea that America and England – we need each other – they need our history and class, if you like…. We certainly need their energy and commitment. And again, those ideas don’t seem dated to me.
This thoughtful reply, the notion that Wodehouse might have something of relevance or deeper interest beyond the usual assessment that it’s all fluff and nonsense, is so out of sync with the established patter about Wodehouse, that the presenter perhaps felt obliged to add:
KIRSTY: And I suppose there are aspects of, you know, Downton Abbey and Upstairs and Downstairs that we always love to watch, aren’t there?
American director Rob Ashford agrees politely. Neither he nor Sams take up the invitation to expand on this suggestion.
Kirsty Lang asked a similar question (again with reference to Downton Abbey) of Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan, in a 2013 interview about their roles as Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the original stage production Perfect Nonsense.
These are just a few examples. And, like Kirsty’s guests, I too have been subjected to questioning since arriving in Britain from my native Australia several years ago. It seems many Britons (those who haven’t read much Wodehouse) seem to have difficulty understanding his appeal to a youngish, leftish-leaning, Australian female. I’m not an anglophile, I don’t care much for Downton Abbey, and I’m not at all interested (as Ben MacIntyre suggests in the Sunday Times) in ‘a golden, admiring fantasy of upper-class life’ (in ‘Code of the Woosters has saved the upper class’).
Wodehouse’s appeal to Americans has been attributed to Anglophilia, and some have gone so far as to suggest that Wodehouse’s popularity in India stems from nostalgia for the British Empire, a view deftly handled by Shashi Tharoor.
I confess I’m slightly bothered by all the questioning and analysis, for behind this lies an assumption that Wodehouse’s appeal requires explanation. And this leads me in turn to ask why. Or more specifically:
Why is P.G. Wodehouse not more popular in his own country?
The question is not a slur on British readers. Wodehouse has a strong, intelligent and enthusiastic following here. Indeed, I’m meeting a bunch of them later this week at a gathering of the PG Wodehouse Society. They’re witty, generous people, frothing with conviviality. There just aren’t enough of them. Why?
I suspect it’s because the nation’s relationship with Wodehouse is more complex. Wodehouse’s wartime blunder, now rightly regarded as an innocent misjudgement, did incredible damage to his reputation at the time, and mud sticks. There is also a misguided but popular notion that Wodehouse’s stuff is silly, outdated nonsense written by, for and about upper-class twits. This assessment is of course grossly unfair, but we colonials (as Wodehouse expert Norman Murphy affectionately called us) should also acknowledge that it’s much easier to laugh at the British ruling class from a distance — it’s not our pay and conditions they might be cutting in the morning.
Our British friends deserve better, and I feel it would be a great service to help them rediscover one of their own national treasures. So I offer these genuine answers, from Wodehouse readers, to their oft-asked question.
Why do people love P.G. Wodehouse?
I asked members of the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook group and received over 100 comments from readers in the USA, India, Norway, France, Austria, Hungary, Indonesia, Iceland, Britain and Ireland. None of them mentioned butlers, upper class twits, or Downton Abbey. Here’s a taste of what they had to say:
NIRMALA: The pure, poetic and passionate language mixed with innocent, genuine and it’s-going-to-be-ok-in-the-end-else-it-isn’t-the-end humour. Peace and happiness even amidst struggles.
DAVID: It is escapist literature without creating some sort of weird alternative universe. Tolkien had to create a whole world; Wodehouse just tweaked an existing one. I’ve never known anyone I could begin to compare with Bilbo Baggins, but I knew a man who could compare with Galahad Threepwood.
MISKIL: Plum’s books are my happy place. They transport me into an idyllic world where everything is sunny and light hearted. On a bad day I read a story and I feel uplifted with every page.
NANCY: It’s a timeless world. A bubble. Things will always work out. Plum’s words weave a web of joy. Because really, who doesn’t like to laugh?
LATA: Heart breaks are bearable to those who have read PG Wodehouse.
FRANK: The sheer fun in the words that often have access to quite deep thoughts. ‘You can’t be a successful dictator and design women’s underwear. One or the other. Not both.’
SHOBHANA: Everybody loves a fairy tale, pieces of happy inconsequential everyday happenings that lead to the “happily ever after” ending where all the various deviations from the main story line have been successfully gathered up by a master story teller who fills our world with laughter, sunshine and the ability to even guffaw at ourselves.
ASHOK: Think of idle pursuits, of romantic escapades, of life lessons couched in delectable humour…
UMA: His eye for detail…the characters are presented in such a way that they materialise right in front of you. His ability to stay neutral in the story…not creating a bias which most authors fail at…
JOHN The way he uses words to conjure up descriptions of people, events and thoughts. And the dialogue interplay between characters. It had me laughing out loud when I first discovered it aged 13/14 in my Grandparents front room when it was too wet to go outside. 46 years later and the works have lost none of their lustre.
ABIR: Above all…the wonderful language and descriptions which make you break out into uncontrollable laughter…even in awkward places.
DEBORAH: I delight in his mastery of English grammar.
KERRY: He insults people from lords to the lowest (or should that be from politicians to the highest) and in such a gentle way that no one could take offence.
SHRAVASTI: The good clean humour, the word play, the references to the Classics (I read Marcus Aurelius because of Plum), and the terrific anti- depressant effect.
MARGARET: There’s an underlying kindness, or ethic, to Plums characters. He may have a sharp eye for human frailty and even evil, but he’s never less than charming… Wodehouse takes issues seriously, but doesn’t take himself so seriously that the issues become secondary.
DAN: Command of the language, not just a big vocabulary but every word the right word. Also always funny.
MILIND: His impeccable sense of the ridiculous, his felicity with language, his perfect sense of timing……and the gentleness of his sarcasm and satire. After all, Wodehouse did more than all the Leftist ideologues put together, to gently and humorously underline the foppishness and idiosyncratic foibles of the British aristocracy……without a trace of bitterness.
SUKANYA: I love the humour in even the most inane situation, accepting people with their foibles, there’s a silver lining in every dark cloud, …and the meta message of core values.
SUZANNE: I love Wodehouse’s writing because of his fabulous vocabulary and his unusual brand of humor. Bertie is especially funny because his humor is usually at his own expense. He puts everyone else ahead of himself, always trying to make people happy…
RANJANA: Plum is, actually, a way of life now, for some. One which believes in gentle humor, incandescent wit which glows but does not burn, core values delivered without sermons, and a magic world where despite insane events and impossibly convoluted plots, things always come right at the end. I would always trust someone who loves Plum. He is a way of life, a stamp of approval that you are, after all, a good egg.
RAJ: Because he makes you believe that all’s well with the world.
ARNAB: He makes one feel that life’s good after all
KAUSHIK: For me, he helps restores faith in humanity!
DRAISE: Wodehouse eases pain.
INDRANI: The faith that there will be Joy in the morning.
Perhaps what Wodehouse has to offer isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.
For the full (and idyllic troll-free) discussion, please join us in the Fans of PG Wodehouse Facebook Group.
For UK fans, PG Wodehouse Society Annual Pub Quiz is on July 12, 2017 at The Savoy Tup
The Code of the Woosters was one of Stefan Nilsson’s suggestions for including a book by P.G. Wodehouse in your 2016 Reading Challenge – as a 20th Century Classic. A classic it most certainly is, not just in the eyes of Wodehouse readers. The Code of the Woosters frequently pops up in literary lists of ‘books you must read’.
Its plot and characters are arguably Wodehouse’s best known. The story opens with Bertie sipping one of Jeeves’ famous hangover cures, the morning after a binge honouring Gussie Fink-Nottle. Bertie’s respite is curtailed by a visit to his Aunt Dahlia.
Little knowing, as I crossed that threshold, that in about two shakes of a duck’s tail I was to become involved in an imbroglio that would test the Wooster soul as it had seldom been tested before. I allude to the sinister affair of Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook.
Bertie is propelled to Totleigh Towers, lair of Sir Watkyn Bassett and his soupy daughter Madeline, where he must wade knee-deep in a stew of Aunts, amateur dictators, policemen’s helmets and silver cow-creamers –to say nothing of the dog Bartholomew.
Among Wodehouse enthusiasts, devotion to The Code of the Woosters borders on the cultish. Perfectly sensible people who previously had no earthly use for cow creamers, find themselves squealing with delight when they meet one. In serious cases, fans have been known to collect them, to display proudly on the mantelpiece abaft their statue of the Infant Samuel at Prayer. Once the enthusiast reaches this stage, it is advisable to join one of the excellent P.G. Wodehouse societies where similarly afflicted subjects gather in gangs and kid ourselves that such behaviour is normal. One devotee, Mr Ashok Bhatia, has gone a step further in trying to de-codify the Code of the Woosters .
The Code of the Woosters has been adapted multiple times for television and radio. Since 2013, it has been going about on the stage under a false name – as Perfect Nonsense – with great success. The continued popularity of this story almost 80 years after its original publication, and its inclusion by literary list-makers as exemplifying Wodehouse at his best, assures this novel’s place as a 20th Century Classic.
The Code of the Woosters is also where you’ll find some of Wodehouse’s most quoted lines:
He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
Quoting Wodehouse is all very well in moderation, but nothing compares to reading his words in situ. If you are looking for a book by P.G. Wodehouse to include in your 2016 Reading Challenge, it’s a great place to start.
How to enter my 2016 Mini Reading Challenge
Just read a book by P.G. Wodehouse in 2016 and post a comment to the original challenge page (link below), telling us:
• which P.G. Wodehouse book you read in 2016; and
• which reading challenge and category you included it under.
You don’t have to be actively participating in any other reading challenge to enter.
For details and to enter, visit:
The 2016 Mini Reading Challenge: include a book by P.G. Wodehouse.
The beautiful spring weather we’ve been enjoying in Somerset, reminded me that it is nearly always spring or summer in Wodehouse’s world. Yesterday was a day so fine, it could have been written to order by Wodehouse himself.
It was a glorious morning of blue and gold, of fleecy clouds and insects droning in the sunshine. What the weather-bulletin announcer of the British Broadcasting Corporation, who can turn a phrase as well as the next man, had called the ridge of high pressure extending over the greater part of the United Kingdom south of the Shetland Isles still functioned unabated. Rabbits frisked in the hedgerows. Cows mused is the meadows. Water voles sported along the river-banks. And moving a step higher in the animal kingdom, the paying guests at Sir Buckstone Abbott’s country seat, Walsingford Hall in the county of Berkshire, were all up and about, taking the air and enjoying themselves according to their various tastes and dispositions.
You can read more about the four seasons of Wodehouse here.
Added to the meteorological delights of yesterday, Robert Webb, who plays Bertie Wooster in the current tour of Perfect Nonsense, appeared on BBC Radio 4 to help commemorate the completion of Everyman’s 15 year project to make the complete works of PG Wodehouse available — for the first time. A great day for Wodehouse fans indeed!
In December, I had the delightful privilege of seeing Perfect Nonsense on tour at the Theatre Royal in Bath. For anyone not already aware, Perfect Nonsense is a stage adaptation (by David and Robert Goodale) of The Code of the Woosters. It’s been well received by West End audiences since opening in 2013, and is now touring the UK until mid-2015 (see the official site for details). If you’re planning to see the show and don’t want to read my review, look away now.
The Goodale brothers’ clever adaptation sticks closely to Wodehouse’s original story and delicious dialogue, ensuring a production that is pure Wodehouse. But Perfect Nonsense is not a mere staging of the book. The Goodales have added their own comic twist by having all the characters played by just three actors.
The play opens with Bertie Wooster reclining in a favourite armchair. He begins to tell us the sorry tale of his recent entanglement with Madeline Bassett, Gussie Fink-Nottle, old pop Bassett, Sir Roderick Spode and an eighteenth-century cow-creamer. Wodehouse fans in the audience will know where this is going. To assist in the retelling, Bertie enlists the help of Jeeves, and Seppings (Aunt Dahlia’s butler) to ‘play’ the other characters in his narrative.
This ingenious strategy adds something new for Wodehouse fans, without detracting from Wodehouse’s original work — it is also great fun. Jeeves and Seppings undergo an exhausting repertoire of inventive costume changes, in which lampshades become hats and curtains become dresses. The hard-working Seppings is, at one point, dressed as Aunt Dahlia inside a giant Spode suit. John Gordon Sinclair and Robert Goodale were utterly entertaining and memorable as Jeeves and Seppings (played by Matthew Macfadyen and Mark Hadfield in the original cast).
Bertie’s role is physically less demanding, with no elaborate costume or character changes to contend with, but requires a delicate balance of jovial stupidity. It’s not an exact science, but Wodehouse fans can be unforgiving when actors get it wrong. Stephen Mangan was well received in the original cast, and I thought Joel Sams did a sound job (as cover for James Lance) in Bath.
Inventive sets were a highlight of this production, with two revolving interiors that cunningly transformed from Bertie’s London flat into an antique shop in the Brompton Road, various locations around Totleigh Towers, and even accommodated a thrilling drive in Bertie’s two-seater. Set changes were comically incorporated into the theatrics: Jeeves twiddles a handle on the wall to change the painting over the fireplace, while Bertie jiggles paper flames at the end of two sticks. The dog Bartholomew also makes notable appearances. These small details added to the joy of the performance, without detracting from the complicated storyline or Wodehouse’s original dialogue.
No doubt a Wodehouse purist, for such creatures I regret to say exist, would find something in this adaptation to pick on. It is often argued that Wodehouse ought not be adapted at all – that it somehow sullies the perfection of his art. But while comic prose was certainly his forte, Wodehouse’s versatility as a writer included a long association with the theatre, predominantly as a lyricist, but also as a writer and critic. As an added bonus, a reminder of Wodehouse’s theatrical career is provided by Tony Ring in the Perfect Nonsense programme.
During his lifetime, P.G. Wodehouse demonstrated a willingness to experiment with different forms and genres, and to collaborate with others. Intelligent adaptations like Perfect Nonsense remind us of this wider legacy, and remain welcome by fans who simply cannot get enough of his stuff.
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Thanks to regular readers who contacted me during my recent absence from Plumtopia. Awfully decent of you! Results of the Wodehouse Survey are currently being collated into a paper for the 2015 convention and will be shared here in due course.
I recently came across this lovely review of the latest West End Wodehouse adaptation, ‘Perfect Nonsense’ – written by CATIEWRITES at One Stop Arts.
I’m hoping to get to the show soon too.
Repost: with One Stop Arts closing, I migrated this review here.
In Perfect Nonsense Matthew Macfadyen, Stephen Mangan and Mark Hadfield serve up – on a silver platter – an evening of dulcet-toned, dinner-jacketed fun. Robert and David Goodale provide a fresh and lively take on the much beloved Wodehouse characters Jeeves and Wooster. At the Duke of York’s Theatre.
Gentle reader, you may already realise how difficult a thing it must be to successfully adapt Wodehouse. Though a successful lyricist and playwright, his novels are largely narrative-driven, with dialogue taking a secondary role. This makes for a challenging translation into dramatic form. How impressive the feat, therefore, of not only doing this, but also assigning the full cavalcade of characters from The Code of the Woosters to a cast of just three.
The Goodale brothers have made strengths of these two potential Scylla and Charybdises by presenting us with…
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