Since one of the things I’m working on at the moment is a short account of P.G.Wodehouse and the First World War, I was interested in the Wogan on Wodehouse programme on BBC2 last night.
Basically the programme did a good job of persuading viewers that Wodehouse was very funny and well worth reading. The talking heads said some worthwhile things, and relaxed avuncular vividly Wogan did much to convey the sheer pleasure that Wodehouse can give. The wartime broadcasts were dealt with sensibly.
I had a few niggles, but that’s the way I am. The general idea was that Wodehouse’s was a fantasy world, with no connection to reality. I think that description becomes increasingly true after the Second World War, as he became increasingly detatched from the country where his stories were usually set. In the twenties, I’m not at all sure that this was true. Think of The Coming of Bill, with its satire on the eugenicists. Broad satire, definitely, but putting Wodehouse on one side of a keenly contested contemporary issue. There’s more of his times in Wodehouse’s writing than is generally realised.
The TV programme mentioned a very good example from the thirties, The Code of the Woosters, which makes glorious fun of Mosley and his Blackshirts.
Stephen Fry (whose Jeeves was as near-perfect as it could have been) made the statement that got me calling out at the telly: ‘P.G.Wodehouse’s writings,’ he said, ‘contain hardly any mention of the First World War.’
Clearly Fry doesn’t know the 1918 musical ‘The Girl Behind the Gun’, which contains the song ‛Back to the Dear Old Trenches’, a trio for three soldiers whose womenfolk are giving them considerably more trouble than the German army would have done. Here’s an extract:
We’re going back to the dear old trenches,
Cozy trenches, good old trenches.
Life’s getting too exciting,
Trouble’s on our track,
That’s why you and I must go back, back back…
Far more pleasant than at present
Things out there are sure to be
Give me the trenches!
That’s the life!
Foeman’s rifles are but trifles
I would charge a battery,
But I’m afraid to meet my wife!
Wodehouse deals with the War, directly or indirectly, in other places, too. Probably, though, he doesn’t say the things about it that Stephen Fry might wish he had said.