I’m actually more fascinated by what P.G.Wodehouse did and didn’t do during the First World War than during the second, but BBC4’s version of his internment and the notorious broadcasts from Berlin was not a programme I was going to miss, if only because that excellent actor Tim Pigott-Smith was taking the part. He did very well, so far as the script would let him.
The general drift of the programme – that Wodehouse was a political innocent who did not realise the stink his broadcasts would cause – was reasonable enough, though I doubt if the real PGW was quite as unworldly as the one in this film, who was surprised to learn that he had keen fans in Germany. I think the actual PGW would have known the exact state of his German royalties, to the last pfennig.
For the first five or ten minutes, the dialogue grated. Every remark that PGW made was facetious. This was doubtless to remind people of the nature of his writing, but made it a bit like a biopic of Shakespeare in which the main character spoke entirely in iambic pentameter. As the film continued, the facetiousness eased off slightly.
I rather liked the internment camp scenes, with Wodehouse finding himself at home in an all-male community whose deprivations and reliance on food parcels must have reminded him of boarding school. I was less convinced by the panto-German guards, and their bemusement in the face of the British sense of humour.
The writer seemed to want to squeeze in random snippets of Wodehouse biography, not always relevantly. Sometimes this worked, as when Zoe Wanamaker (as Ethel) reminded us that he was a good lyricist by giving a brief but charming performance of the Wodehouse/Kern ‘Lock up your troubles’ song (from Sitting Pretty). At other times it was disconcerting. At one point Ethel hinted that Wodehouse did not pay her enough amorous attention, to which he replied something about having had the mumps. Which would surely have meant little to the average viewer who did not know Christopher Hitchens’ slightly barmy theory that the lack of sex in Wodehouse’s writing was due to his having been essentially neutered by an attack of childhood mumps. (My own theory is that the lack of sex in his stories was caused by the fact that when he began to fashion his characteristic style, stories lacking sex were much more likely to be accepted by editors.)
One episode really annoyed me, however. Another character says ‘I’m not a writer,’ and Wodehouse was shown as ruminating morosely in roughly these words:
But am I a writer? A real writer goes deep down into things. I just write a kind of musical comedy.
This is clearly based on a remark in Performing Flea:
I believe there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn.
Which is very different. Wodehouse describes two kinds of good writing, and does not identify one as better than the other (Both, though, are implicitly contrasted with a third kind of writing – the sort that neither goes deep nor provides the delights of musical comedy.)
No, his is not the ‘not caring a damn’ sort of writing produced by the rare courageous genius, but it is superbly crafted, and is doing something difficult. Wodehouse knew better than most how very difficult it is to produce a successful musical comedy, and he did not despise the genre. What is more, he is producing musical comedy, but without a key ingredient – the music that not only delights the audience, but distracts it, so that when the next plot twist comes, it is surprising and enjoyable.
In a Wodehouse novel or story, there is no music to do this job, so it’s the virtuoso manipulation of language that has to do it – and do it brilliantly. Nobody else does it quite like Wodehouse, and he knew he was good. I don’t think he’d have depreciated himself in the way that the character in the film does.