Up to a point, Mr Fry

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.



  1. Nemo
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    Another Wodehouse book that reflects the then-current scene is RING FOR JEEVES (1953) in which Bertie is absent as he is taking a course in how to survive without servants if it comes to that.


  2. Posted September 8, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Yes, ‘Ring for Jeeves’ is the novelisation of a play written in collaboration with Guy Bolton, and seems a deliberate attempt to try to see how Jeeves and Co would fit into the post-war world.
    Am I right in thinking that after this, Wodehouse more or less gave up on modernising Jeeves and Wooster, and instead just let them flower in a world of their own?
    I recently read ‘The Mating Season’ (1949), and noticed one sly little contemporary reference. When Gussy Fink-Nottle is arrested after paddling in Trafalgar Square fountains late at night, and protects his identity by fobbing off the police and magistrates with an alias, the name he chooses is Alfred Duff Cooper. This was, of course, the name of the wartime Minister for Information who had encouraged and joined the vindictive attacks on Wodehouse after the ill-judged broadcasts he had made while interned by the Germans.

  3. Matthew M. Robare
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t blame Stephen Fry for not knowing much about Wodehouse and the First World War. The man’s sheer output was staggering and his musicals are little known today.

    One of the earliest Wodehouse stories I read was a parody of Invasion literature involving Boy Scouts saving England.

    As for the post-war world, there was a story called “Bingo Bans the Bomb” where Bingo Little was arrested at a sit-in.

    • Posted June 1, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Much more about Wodehouse’s response to the Great War will be detailed in my contribution to the forthcoming essay collection: ‘Middlebrow Wodehouse’. Watch this space for further details.

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