Friday, 29 March 2013

Wodehouse in Exile - TV review

Wodehouse in Exile, a BBC Four tv show, offered a fascinating insight into the events surrounding P.G. Wodehouse's notorious radio broadcasts during the Second World War. The script by Nigel Williams was sympathetic to Wodehouse, and Tim Pigott-Smith gave a charming portrayal of the great humorous writer, but there were enough nuances in the screenplay and performance for this to seem a fair and balanced account of a controversial story.

As a young boy, I fell in love with the Wodehouse books, and read a great many of them in a short space of time. This was not long after I'd discovered Agatha Christie, and I soon learned that Christie and Wodehouse were fans of each other. Dorothy L. Sayers and Anthony Berkeley were other crime writers who were very keen on Wodehouse, and I know that he was invited to a Detection Club dinner in the early 30s, though it's not entirely clear whether he actually showed up.

My father was one of the many people of his generation who felt that Wodehouse betrayed Britain. I can understand that, when one is facing the possibility of death during a war, feelings run very high and it's not too easy to be entirely judicious in one's assessment of those who seem to be having it easy. And that was the impression many people had of Wodehouse. There may be some truth in it, as he was a naive and perhaps self-indulgent man. But I don't believe he was a traitor.

The death of Wodehouse's daughter is one of the pivotal moments in the screenplay. One interesting snippet is that she was the author of a very good crime short story, "Inquest", under the mysterious pseudonym of Loel Yeo. It's well worth a look. Wodehouse too wrote a number of stories that verge on crime fiction,testament to his lifelong interest in the genre. As for me, I'm still an admirer of his work. And though the man was flawed, who isn't?. Wodehouse in Exile seemed to me to be informative as well as entertaining, and it enriched my understanding of the great writer's life.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Oh, this sounds very interesting. I always find it fascinating to learn how someone is viewed in hindsight like that.

seana graham said...

Pico Iyer has written an excellent article on this whole aspect of Wodehouse's life in a recent Harper's, which you can find the beginning of here. I had heard a bit about the propaganda story, but it seems that Wodehouse was absolved of all blame.

It is so strange what some people go through in their public lives. You couldn't write it in a novel and be taken seriously.

J said...

I'm a big Wodehouse fan, and have known about this incident for some time. I hope the program will be shown in the States at some point

Anonymous said...

This echoes my experience of discovering Wodehouse at around 12 or so; my father could hardly bear to even see the books in the house and muttered 'you do know he was a traitor?' every time another one came in from the library or the local bookshop.

Bob_in_MA said...

I, too, am a big Wodehouse fan. And I'm not sure how I would have felt about his activities if I had been an adult in 1945.

Empathy was obviously not something he spent much time on. There was also an incident here in the 1930s, at the depth of the depression, when he joked how one of the movie studios was paying him $1,500 a week for almost no work. At the time, that would have been a very comfortable middle-class salary for a whole year.

But he wrote some fantastic sentences. Most of the books have three or four of these. The following is from A Damsel in Distress, just after a page boy has annoyed the hero:

"What George was thinking was that the late king Herod had been unjustly blamed for a policy which had been both statesmanlike and in the interests of the public. He was blaming the mawkish sentimentality of the modern legal system which ranks the evisceration and secret burial of small boys as a crime."

To me, that was worth the price of the book.

Ed said...

Quite a lot of Wodehouse's books are crime fiction of sorts. Except that the crime is theft (of jewellry, pigs etc) rather than murder.

pratclif said...

See the reactions to the film by descendants of British civilians who were interned 5 years at Tost.