Terry Wogan explores the extraordinarily long career of his literary hero, PG Wodehouse. Featuring archive material and contributions from Stephen Fry and Griff Rhys Jones.
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MUSIC: "By The Sleepy Lagoon" by Eric Coates
"And one book. You already have the statutory ration of the Bible
-and the works of Shakespeare."
-"I don't want the works of Shakespeare."
"Can I take PG Wodehouse's collected works instead?"
"No. That would... You may take your favourite three or four novels
of PG Wodehouse. We'll bind those together for you."
That's the great Roy Plomley, letting me know who's in charge
on Desert Island Discs nearly three decades ago.
But the programme invited me back just a few years later,
and this time the BBC granted my foolish wish
to take away the life's work of PG Wodehouse -
to my mind, and the minds of better men than me,
the best comic writer who ever laid his fingers on a keyboard.
So, this is a chance to find out what his work reveals
about his world and ours,
to uncover, if it's possible,
some of the skill and complexity
behind writing that just...trips off the page,
to explore the elusive man behind a familiar, even controversial name,
and to share an abiding passion
with some like-minded coves.
It's impossible to describe the sunniness of the language,
the way it lifts you out of yourself like no other writer on Earth!
I roar with laughter almost all the time.
He's, I suppose, the funniest writer I've ever read.
He is, really... I mean, he is truly a genius,
in the sense that he is unique. There isn't anybody else like him.
It's a deal-breaker. I couldn't be friends with someone who doesn't find him funny.
It's like suddenly being given a glass of champagne.
You just go, "Oh, well, yes. I think so!"
Um... I just love it!
It's a sort of comedy pornography. It's hard comedy.
Well, maybe... Maybe I was being a little rash,
twisting the BBC's arm for Wodehouse's complete works,
because this groaning pile
doesn't even come close to representing the oeuvre -
just a healthy selection of his novels and collected short stories.
Add memoires, countless magazine pieces,
lyrics for the big musicals of the day,
plays and film scripts -
you'd need an age on that desert island to get through it.
The sheer volume of it all is remarkable enough.
But what really knocks you sideways about Wodehouse's 70 years and more
as a professional writer is that virtually everything he did
was bathed in sunshine,
written to amuse,
and that he succeeded with spectacular, joyous regularity.
Just take Bertie Wooster's description
of the formidable Honoria Glossop.
Of course, there are probably fellows in the world -
tough, hardy blokes with strong chins and glittering eyes -
who could get engaged to this Glossop menace and like it,
but I knew perfectly well that Biffy was not one of them.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls
with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh
like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.
So, starting somewhere near the beginning,
here's our man Pelham Grenville, or Plum, as he called himself,
as a mere lad - that's him on the right -
alongside his brothers Armine and Peverill.
Years later, Wodehouse would have Bertie Wooster observe,
"You know, Jeeves, there's some raw work pulled at the font
from time to time." I wonder where he got that idea!
He was born into what we would call, I think, the upper-middle classes.
His father was a judge in Hong Kong,
and so his family was symbolic, one might say,
of the type of family in the high period of the British Empire
that both had its roots in the land,
extending, administering, the great British Empire,
the greatest empire the world had ever seen.
'Sir Edward Cazelet, the author's step-grandson,
'explained to me just what being part of a family
'of imperial civil servants meant for the young Wodehouse.'
Plum actually saw his parents only three times
between the ages of two and 15.
He saw them for six months in all over that period.
So he really had no close relationship with them.
Any responsible social worker nowadays would say,
"This is quite intolerable. There'll be problems."
When he was over 90, Wodehouse could still vividly recall a childhood
spent shuttled between his gaggle of aunts and uncles.
Many of the latter were clergymen, and the young Plum would join them
on visits to the local gentry.
There always came a time when the hostess would say,
"Don't you think it would be nice
if your little nephew had tea in the servants' hall?"
And I'd go off to the servants' hall,
and they're full of sprightly footmen and vivacious parlour maids...
..and I loved it. I got on awfully well with them.
Wodehouse virtually had no contact with his parents.
Do you think that had a lasting effect on his personality?
I think he grew up as a kind of orphan.
Um, the first time he saw his mother,
when he was four years old - the first time consciously -
he thought she was another aunt. And they were absent from his life.
He was brought up by aunts, and by butlers and chambermaids
This was his world. He lived, as it were, below stairs,
and the picture you get of adults in his books
is of a small boy looking at them from the wrong end of a telescope.
Something I particularly love and admire about Wodehouse
is his eternal optimism.
But it's not difficult to see the impact of a lonely childhood
running through his long life. Vast energy went into his books,
but precious little in the way of emotion,
and he dealt with the real world by ignoring it
or making fun of it.
You don't read him to experience a sort of sense of, er...
HE LAUGHS ..of a long, developing story
in which you get closer to the social and, er,
emotional centres of his characters.
One of the reasons I think people read Wodehouse's novels
is not to find out more about people's feelings
but to watch the way in which feeling is managed.
That's why people read Wodehouse when they're unhappy.
He's like a children's writer in one sense.
It's a complete fantasy world.
Nobody really gets hurt. Nothing really terrible happens.
And because they're about people who are doing nothing
and living in this extraordinary world
which is fancy-free and has no consequences, it's comedy.
I'm sorting through these clothes.
Er, these are for repair and these for discarding.
Wait a second! This white mess jacket is brand new!
I assumed it had got into your wardrobe by mistake, sir -
or else that it had been placed there by your enemies.
I will have you know, Jeeves, that I bought this in Cannes!
-And wore it, sir?
-Every night, at the casino.
Beautiful women used to try and catch my eye.
Presumably they thought you were a waiter, sir.
Don't you think it was strange, though,
that he retained
that kind of almost naive English-public-school attitude?
Yes. I mean, the mystery of Wodehouse
is the childlike nature of his character.
In his golden period, really -
he wrote from the mid-Edwardian era all the way through to the '50s -
there is no mention, as far as I can remember,
and I'm pretty sure I'm right, of the First World War
in any of his books. Not a mention!
And that's not to say that he hasn't got a fine eye and ear
for the Zeitgeist, so you find lots of sort of references
to contemporary intellectual trends in his writings,
so he refers to the Freudian subconscious
and he talks about Red propaganda and splitting the atom
and all these sorts of things, but he tends to do it in an ironic way,
to joke about it.
He knew the way the world wagged, and he was not an innocent
in the true sense.
It's just, as far as writing was concerned,
he just closed his mind off to all things political,
all things unpleasant.
It seems to me that he was keeping the true facts, as it were,
about the world, at arm's length throughout his writing career.
Um, but who could blame him for that?
'Whether it was an escape from the real world or an encounter with it,
'Wodehouse began a hugely formative period of his life
'here in the South London suburbs in 1894.
'He entered Dulwich College as a boarder,
'starting what he'd later describe
as "six years of unbroken bliss".'
'Here in the Masters' Library,
'which would have been mightily familiar to Wodehouse,
'there's a chance to learn about the education he absorbed within these walls.'
What would have been the curriculum of the school then?
-What would it have left him with?
-Wodehouse had no doubt
that the ethos of the school was that a boy, a serious boy,
should study classics, and a gentleman should study classics.
And he said it was the best education a writer could have had.
But they read a lot of English literature too.
There are many embedded quotations, as you know, in Wodehouse, from English literature.
If your little scheme works, Jeeves,
and Rhoda gives Uncle George the heave-ho,
-it'll do your pal a bit of good, eh?
I fancy he will consider it a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Rather well put, that, Jeeves! Your own?
No, sir! The Bard of Avon.
When the time came for Wodehouse to leave Dulwich,
the imposing figure of the school's master
passed judgement on his time there.
He said that the boy Wodehouse was often forgetful.
"He finds difficulties in the most simple things,
and asks absurd questions,
whereas he can understand the more difficult things."
"He has the most distorted ideas about wit and humour."
And he ended up by saying, "One's obliged to like him
in spite of his vagaries."
In the Great Hall of Dulwich College,
the honours board bears the name Wodehouse, EA,
marking the success of the author's brother Armine
in gaining a place at Oxford.
And of Wodehouse, PG, there's not a sign.
His father's financial problems
meant his hopes of going to university were dashed.
Throughout his long, long career,
Wodehouse almost never allowed real emotional pain
to impinge on his fiction.
But in this case, he transposed his own disappointment
onto Mike Jackson, all-round good egg and cricketing hero
of some of his early novels.
"'Aren't I going up to Cambridge, Father?' stammered Mike."
"'I'm afraid not, Mike. I won't go into details,
but I've lost a very large sum of money since I saw you last -
so large that we shall have to economise in every way.'"
"'I'm afraid, too, that you will have to start earning your living.'"
"'I know it's a terrible disappointment to you, old chap.'"
"'Oh. That's...all right,' said Mike, thickly."
"There seemed to be something sticking in his throat,
preventing him from speaking."
He'd obviously seen Oxford
as a way out of this somewhat restrictive childhood
and family life, and so I think he was very cast down.
But actually, Oxford's loss was literature's gain.
Do you think he would have been a writer at all if he'd gone to...
Probably not. I think he would have become a civil servant or a judge.
-Fate worse than death!
Instead of following his brother's path and studying Latin and Greek
here in the city of the dreaming spires,
Wodehouse was sent to the City of London,
to begin his working life
on the staff of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank.
Well, I disliked it at first, of course,
because all I could afford was a cup of coffee and roll of butter
for lunch, which rather shook me to me to my foundations.
But, er, it wasn't bad. When I got used to it, I liked it.
Wodehouse lent his not-inconsiderable presence
to the bank's rugby team, but he was late for work
perhaps a little too often,
and here at his old school
there's evidence pointing to the young man's priorities.
PG Wodehouse, like myself, went off and joined a bank.
But while he was in the bank, he continued to write.
Absolutely, and this notebook is the record
of all that literary work that was going on
in the evenings, weekends, or whenever he wasn't at the bank.
He was writing stories, submitting them,
and getting paid.
£1, 11 and 6, I see here somewhere. It's the old money!
-Then we get to September 1902.
It's a marvellous month, where he notes,
"Total for September, £16 and four shillings - record so far."
-It's extraordinary. So then he's able to make
this monumental decision on September 9th,
"having to choose between the 'Globe' versus the bank,
and chucked the latter, and started on my wild lone as a freelance."
-So he didn't need the day job any more.
'Wodehouse clearly had his shoulder to the journalistic wheel
'in the years after he left school,
'but he wasn't suited to every opportunity that came his way.'
Wodehouse was actually an early Edwardian agony uncle.
He was employed for a brief time by a journal
called Tit-Bits. The owner was very proud of the fact
that they had a problem page.
In some ways it's a surprising find,
but it's not surprising that Wodehouse couldn't handle
an emotional problem page seriously. He couldn't take it seriously,
and in fact he was "let go", as it were.
Still, London in the early 20th century
wasn't a bad place for a young writer to be.
A rising, increasingly literate population
meant that, with titles such as Punch and The Strand to the fore,
this was the golden age of the magazine.
Did he have to write to order, then? If you're writing for magazines
or serials and things, it's to order, isn't it?
Absolutely, and all his life he liked to get paid for what he did.
He liked to deliver what you asked him to do,
on time, to length, and get paid for it.
-A real professional.
-A real professional journalist/writer.
In over 70 years as a published novelist,
beginning when he was just 20,
this professionalism - unfussy, unrelenting -
dominated Wodehouse's life.
One of the things I most love about Wodehouse
was that he was so hardworking,
and he belongs to that generation of writers -
two writers he very much admired, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh -
the same generation where they just put their books out,
one in the spring, one in the autumn, and they worked really, really hard.
He was a supreme professional
for whom the day was all about getting up,
going and sitting in front of his typewriter,
his Royal, the same typewriter he kept throughout his life,
and typing out the words. He said, "I sit at my desk and curse a bit,"
-when asked what his technique was.
-It wasn't all that easy for him.
One assumes, the way the books are written,
that the flow would have come to him very easily,
but he didn't sit around waiting for the muse to land.
The Latin scholar in him would have said, "Ars celare artem est" -
"Art is to conceal art", and he certainly concealed it.
He was an artist, an important, very good artist.
But he was also a professional writer,
and he learned how to write,
and he developed his craft deliberately,
sitting down for long hours for years and years,
until he could do it exquisitely.
At his peak of productivity,
Wodehouse wrote 8,000 words a day.
But his work was never just produced. It was polished.
I tell you what I love - I love revising.
Getting the first stuff down is always hard,
but once it's down, you can see what's wrong with it.
'You can see that one page ought to be five pages earlier,
'and that sort of thing.'
Wodehouse had always wanted to pay his way as a writer.
In 1914, aged 32, he'd taken on the additional responsibilities
of a family man, when he married Ethel Wayman,
and became a deeply devoted stepfather to her daughter Leonora,
whom he would call "the queen of her species".
His wife Ethel was quite the hostess, in their various homes
in Long Island and in France, and he would tend to hide in his study,
smoking his pipe and sipping his whisky,
and probably reading back his day's work.
The deal with Ethel, his wife, was that he made it and she spent it. That was the deal.
Given that his wife enjoyed entertaining and gambling,
you can see that Wodehouse needed to keep earning.
But that doesn't begin to explain his devotion to his work.
He didn't write to live. He wrote to exist.
He was only interested in work,
so if you came, and you knew his books,
you knew him.
His routine was, you get up, you work all morning,
you have lunch, you go for a walk, you have a cocktail,
you work some more, have a cup of tea, work some more, go to bed,
listen to the radio, go to sleep, get up, work.
It just goes on and on and on.
He wrote because that's what he did.
And... And his dedication, his fulfilment in writing,
was his life.
'The Clicking Of Cuthbert!
'A rarely seen version of one of Wodehouse's famous golf stories,
'and proof that the work of the master of dialogue
'was in demand from the silent cinema.
'Wodehouse was by now a major name in his own right.
'Enduring characters such as Psmith
'and the denizens of Blandings Castle
'were already well established, along with a duo
'Wodehouse described to a school friend as
'"a bloke called Bertie Wooster and his valet".'
Well, now, that came about... I was writing a short story
where Bertie - he was called Reggie Pepper in those days...
He and his friend got into an absolute fix,
and it's impossible that either of them could find the solution to it.
And it suddenly occurred to me, why shouldn't Reggie, Reggie Pepper,
have a valet who...was omniscient?
Wodehouse chronicled the adventures of the hapless Bertie Wooster
and his rescue by the unflappable, infallible Jeeves
for 60 years, and the characters remain the most familiar route
into the author's world of comic fantasy.
There is no greater lover of words, in my experience, than you.
When did your particular love of Wodehouse start?
I can date it exactly. It was my tenth birthday.
I was given a copy of Very Good, Jeeves
by a godmother, and I consumed it in an evening.
And it was like falling in love, all that sense of,
"I've been here before, I know this." Somehow it was right.
The way the sentences fell was just made for me, and I knew it,
and within a very short time I had a huge collection.
I think it's you that said the plotting is fantastic.
Obviously the characters are amazing,
but it's the words. It's the language.
That's right. It's particularly important
when you come to a dramatisation,
to look at this problem, if you like, with Wodehouse,
that, like any writer, there are three strands -
characterisation, storytelling, and the language that is used
to convey it all. It is the language that rises above all.
It is... No-one else wrote like that. I mean, he was a lord of language,
and there are very few of these born every generation.
How did you feel, yourself, to have to take on the role
of Jeeves, and put the words on the screen, as it were?
It... It was a heck of an ask.
I mean, two things occurred to me when Brian Eastman, the producer,
came to me and Hugh, and we both said afterwards,
on the one hand, we can't possibly do this. It would be sacrilege.
On the other hand, we can't possibly let anyone else do this!
It was going to happen, and therefore we thought, well, gosh,
we would kick ourselves forever if we didn't try.
Among the grim regiment of my aunts, only Aunt Dahlia stands alone
as a real sportsman. I mean, look at my aunt Agatha!
-Indeed, sir. Yes.
-And Aunt Julia!
-And Aunt Charlotte!
Ugh! She's the one who sent me that rather bitter postcard
of Little Chilbury War Memorial when I refused to take her frightful child
-to lunch on the way back to school.
-Aunts are noted
for strong opinions, sir. It's a distinguishing mark of the breed.
It's a tradition. The servant-master comedy
is a very old tradition. It goes back to Roman plays
and through Ben Jonson and Commedia dell'Arte and so on.
People have always found delightful
that of the fool of an employer
having rings run round him by his wiser employee.
The thing that's so unique about Jeeves and Wooster
is that it's told in the first person,
so it's all through Bertie's voice,
and Bertie's voice is one of the great voices in all literature.
'And for me, the greatest voice of Bertie Wooster
'was heard in a classic BBC radio series
'starring Richard Briers.'
"'Morning, Jeeves,' I said."
"'Oh, good morning, sir,' said Jeeves."
"He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table
by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip."
"Just right, as usual."
"Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong,
not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer."
"A most amazing cove, Jeeves."
"So dashed competent in every respect."
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again."
"I mean to say, take just one small instance."
"Any other valet I've ever had used to barge into my room
in the morning while I was still asleep,
causing much misery."
"But Jeeves seems to know when I'm awake
by a sort of telepathy."
"He always floats in with the cup
exactly two minutes after I come to life."
"Makes a deuce of a lot of difference to a fellow's day."
-Marvellous, isn't it?
Oh! But you took on the role of Bertie Wooster,
and Stephen Fry has said, rightly, that one of the great voices
in English literature was that of Bertie Wooster.
-Did you think of him as somebody - fairly vacant mind...
-..but rapid tongue?
-Yes. I always felt that he wasn't that thick,
that he did his very best. He messed things up,
but he did have a very good go, and was terrified of the aunts,
of course. Lived in fear of the aunts.
But I thought he was not quite brainless as one thinks.
How many times was he engaged? About seven times?
-Only because he was afraid of the women.
He couldn't say no. Extraordinary. Very charming about him.
Now, I listened on the radio to The Purity Of The Turf,
which is a really funny story about Bertie and Bingo
trying to make a few quid on the side
by backing a big fat choirboy, who can run like the wind,
in, as it were, the school fete.
Now, that, in fact, although it's hard to believe...
-..is in cartoon form
in a Japanese comic.
-It starts at the back, of course.
And this is The Purity Of The Turf, as characterised by...
-Now, that can only be Bertie.
-And that's Jeeves.
-With the umbrella.
-And that's the fat choirboy...
-Terribly fat, yes.
..who they lost a lot of money on.
-You can see how it's all drawn here.
-Isn't it amazing?
He was loved universally, wasn't he? Lovely stories.
It doesn't matter that none of us have ever had a man's gentleman,
a gentleman's gentleman, looking after us.
It doesn't matter that we haven't got horrifying aunts.
The fact that it isn't the real world is thrilling.
To paraphrase his great admirer, Evelyn Waugh,
Wodehouse's innocent characters are "still in Eden".
They've never sunk their teeth into the forbidden fruit.
But Wodehouse always insisted that Bertie Wooster
owed something to the reality of life in his Edwardian youth.
London was full of Berties in the old days.
Those fellows were all more or less dependent on aunts
and uncles and various people.
They had their little allowances,
and they didn't want to jeopardise them.
It's curious to think, nowadays, of that life,
but it really did exist at that time.
'And here in London's West End,
'I've joined Wodehouse scholar Norman Murphy
'to hear how he tracked down the real locations
'which feature in the world of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.'
And then I read the letter, when he said,
"I always like using a real building, a real location."
"It saves time and effort."
-And Bertie Wooster's flat is right over there.
-15 Berkeley Street.
-This is where Jeeves ministered to him?
Ministered to him, and Wodehouse was here for three months that year,
third flat, upstairs, exactly as Wodehouse tells us.
-That's where it all began.
-Show me more.
-Round the corner.
So, Norman, where are we now?
In some respects, we're now in the home of Wodehouse's Mayfair,
-because the white building there...
-The one with the pillars?
-..is the home of Mrs Dahlia Travers.
-Oh, my word!
-And Aunt Dahlia he liked.
-Aunt Agatha he was afraid of.
Exactly. Aunt Agatha was based on his own aunt Mary Deane,
who was the curse of his childhood, and Dahlia based on his aunt Louisa,
-a lady he did like.
-They were all based on his own aunts?
-The big ones, yes. Two of them were.
-And he was frightened of them?
Remember, he had 20...15 uncles... He had 15 uncles and 20 aunts.
'Next we're off in search of the gentlemen's club
'where Bertie Wooster and his pals whiled away so many days and nights.'
The immortal site is here, the Drones Club.
-The real Drones Club.
-This is it!
-This is it.
In 1919, a young officer who'd come back from the trenches
said, "I'm now going to start a club,
a young man's club." He called it Buck's Club,
and in one story,
Bingo Little told Bertie all about his love for Honoria Glossop
in Buck's Club. Bertie wishes he would shut up,
because the man behind the bar, McGarry, was listening
with his ear flapping. Who was barman here in 1941? McGarry.
So these stories are based on real locales?
Places he knew, places his friends lived, places he knew very well.
This was his milieu. This was Bertie Wooster's London.
Bertie Wooster's Mayfair. We're here.
Between its publication in 1923
and the outbreak of war in 1939,
The Inimitable Jeeves alone sold around three million copies,
when the paperback was still in its infancy.
So, you might ask, just what tricks was Wodehouse pulling off
to reach such a vast readership? Well, the fact
that he was able to pepper the Jeeves-and-Wooster stories
with references to great literature
alongside talk of "squaring the elbows" or "parting brass rags"
provides a bit of a clue.
As with HG Wells, or comic predecessors
such as Jerome K Jerome, he found a way to appeal to the swelling ranks
of bank clerks and office workers in Britain and beyond.
And these are people who were using all kinds of local slang,
and he was mixing this with the classical style,
so it's a mixture of the high art and the low art,
and he was somebody who managed to make a new style
out of this mixture of popular and literary.
So, when he writes about fate being like the rock in a stocking
the rock in a stocking is both...
..wonderfully poetic - I mean, as good as Chaucer -
um, incredibly funny,
because it both...it's both banal
at the same time as being...
as being, er...extraordinarily profound.
He's a very, very good writer of sentences.
I mean, when I read Wodehouse as a kid,
you read them for the plots and what happened in them.
As you get older, and you take writing more seriously, as I do,
when I read those sentences, I think that they are...immaculate,
that it's very, very difficult to write a sentence as good as that.
And not only that, to write another one and put it next to it,
and then another one, and a dialogue.
I mean, it's fantastically high-quality writing.
You read it not for the plot, which you can remember,
but for the style, the similes, the metaphors,
the gloriously surreal metaphors.
-Uncle Fred In Springtime?
-It's called Uncle Fred In The Springtime.
There are many Wodehouse characters who occur again and again,
and Uncle Fred is one of them, Lord Ickenham.
He's a splendid figure, and a complete disgrace of an old man,
and Pongo, his nephew, is very scared of his aunt, Lady Constance,
and, er... HE CHUCKLES
..and this is what Ickenham says.
He says, "'Don't blame me if it turns out that that's the wrong thing
and Lady Constance takes her lorgnette to you.'"
"'God bless my soul, though - you can't compare the lorgnettes of today
with the ones I used to know as a boy.'"
"'I remember walking one day in Grosvenor Square
with my aunt Brenda and her pug dog Jabberwocky,
and a policeman came up and said that the latter ought to be wearing a muzzle.'"
"'My aunt made no verbal reply.'"
"'She merely whipped her lorgnette from its holster
and looked at the man, who gave one choking gasp
and fell back against the railings, without a mark on him,
but with an awful look of horror in his staring eyes,
as if he had seen some dreadful sight.'"
"'A doctor was sent for, and they managed to bring him round,
but he was never the same again. He had to leave the Force,
and eventually drifted into the grocery business.'"
"'And that is how Sir Thomas Lipton got his start.'"
No mark on him, as if he had seen some dreadful sight.
I mean, that's the language of Conan Doyle,
and it's about an aunt bringing out a lorgnette.
I think Wodehouse is the century's greatest comic novelist
surely on the strength of his language.
He managed to use comedy as almost a language distinct unto itself,
a language into which anything could be translated.
You want it to go slowly because the language is so funny
and enjoyable to read - on the other hand, the sort of helter-skelter pace
that's going to propel you from page one right down to the end.
When I say it's a bit like pornography,
it does.... After a while, you can become sated by it.
You start to read too much Wodehouse
and it's not just you exhaust your laughter muscles,
but you start to say, "Yeah, yeah, this is brilliant comedy,
but I'm not sure I could go on reading it all night,
all day tomorrow," because it's got this wonderful artificiality about it.
Although capturing such wonderful artificiality is no cakewalk,
Wodehouse Playhouse, a highly popular series of the mid-'70s,
remains a relatively rare example
of a successful Wodehouse adaptation.
Miss Minna Nordstrom!
And after Tim Rice visited the Wodehouse home
a few years earlier, to discuss a planned Jeeves musical,
he realised the task was not but the work of a moment.
All I felt I was doing was making the great Wodehouse less funny,
and I kept thinking, "This isn't..."
"All I'm doing is unimproving him."
And in the end I pulled out,
because there's nothing really that a musical version can add to it,
I don't think, can add to the genius of PG.
As Punch magazine had it way back when,
criticising Wodehouse's work
is "like taking a spade to a souffle".
But the novels and short stories that just trip off the page to read
are the result, of course, of almost ceaseless effort,
which in turn points to another curiosity about his work.
For him, life was about work,
but he wrote about people who never did any work at all.
And I've always found that the most intriguing paradox
about PG Wodehouse.
It can't be that Wodehouse wanted to join the ranks of the idle rich.
His success made him very wealthy, but idle?
He'd sooner have run a mile in tight shoes.
So was he just fixated on the upper classes? Was George Orwell,
who in many respects understood Wodehouse very well,
right to claim that his work betrays an "old-fashioned snobbishness"?
I think the answer is no, and I think no for two reasons,
the first of which is, if we actually look at the plots,
who's in charge, we can see very much
that Jeeves is in charge of not only Bertie's wardrobe
but his love life and his entire future.
So I think that what you could say about Wodehouse is
that the upper classes are mostly twits.
They are... The benefit of a good education has been lost
on almost all of them. The only person who knows his Shakespeare
and his Pope is Jeeves, so that there are subtle ways where that idea
that the upper class equals good
and the servant class equals put-upon is subverted all the way through.
The second reason I'd say no is class,
and the various ranks of class, are really, for Wodehouse,
they're just a plot device, a system.
Wodehouse's novels revolve around things being out of place.
His job, as a writer, is to play with these things
being out of place, and to put them back into their place,
and class provides one of the ways in which he can do that.
Televised here for the first time in 55 years,
this is the BBC version of perhaps the most famous
of Wodehouse's short stories, set at Blandings Castle.
"McAllister," I shall say, "I've had enough of your tantrums."
"Those flowers are mine, and I shall pick as many as I want."
I shall look him straight in the eye, and no nonsense! Yes, dash it!
Leave my flowers alone!
A typical Wodehouse aristocrat, Lord Emsworth,
is not an oppressor of the masses, but an amiable eccentric
who is terrified of McAllister, his grumpy Scottish gardener.
-Well, Your Lordship?
Er, w-w-well, McAllister, what appears to be the matter?
The topics that he writes about are very similar to those of Wilde -
country houses, gentlemen-about-town, aunts -
and he uses that sort of aphoristic wit.
But Wilde really was revolutionary.
Wilde really did turn the world, and, indeed, his own world, upside down.
But Wodehouse was, of course, conservative.
Despite the fact that revolution is raging around Wodehouse,
one never gets the feeling that he really thinks
that Jeeves, who is clearly much more intelligent than Bertie,
should actually seize economic power.
There's never a sense that he's interested in that kind of change.
No chance of Wodehouse having Jeeves storming the Winter Palace,
particularly when Mrs Wodehouse liked to live in some style,
with a staff of 11,
at this London address, in the '20s.
But does that mean that Wodehouse was a snob?
He married Ethel. Ethel was actually a chorus girl.
His best friend was a secretary.
He had a long correspondence with a housekeeper married to a postman.
For Wodehouse, it didn't matter what you did for a living. It mattered that you did it well.
He tended to write about the aristocracy and the landed gentry
and young men-about town at Drones Club
because he found them funny, and we still find them funny.
And if Wodehouse was obsessed with class,
how is it that he had a longstanding love affair
with the classless, restless energy of New York City,
which began when he was still making his way?
'I managed to sell two short stories in the first day,
'one for 300 and one for 200, which, of course, was wealth.'
So I think that was the first key that drew him to America,
and then soon after that came the musicals,
and obviously very quickly he was the man for lyrics.
For almost 20 years, Wodehouse the lyricist
was a major, enduring figure in Broadway musicals.
In 1917, he had five shows running at once.
And all the while, he was commanding top dollar
in the United States magazine market,
where authors made their name and their money.
He was writing, for a mammoth American audience,
an image of what they would like Britain, England, to be like.
He developed something some contemporary writers have developed,
which is, you sell the story in England,
and you sell the story all over again in America,
so he sells England to America, and America to England.
So no surprise that, when talking pictures arrived,
Hollywood came calling for PG Wodehouse,
leading light on Broadway, world-famous author.
As he said himself, "It was an era when only a man
of exceptional ability and determination
could keep from getting signed up by a studio in some capacity or other."
When he presented himself at the studio, he didn't know what he was going to do.
He hadn't been brought with a specific project in mind,
so he said, "What is it you want me to do?"
And very rapidly discovered that he kind of writing
he was expected to do was not the writing that he did.
This 1937 musical, starring Fred Astaire,
is one of the few substantial results
of Wodehouse's association with Hollywood,
a deeply frustrating experience
which inspired him to turn both barrels
on the Dream Factory.
Seven short stories and two novels.
This is real satire, with a certain amount of anger,
and this, in a way, was his writer's revenge
on the people in Hollywood who'd made a monkey out of him.
It is not easy to explain to the lay mind
the extremely intricate ramification of the personnel
of a Hollywood motion-picture organisation.
A Nodder is something like a Yes-Man,
only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man's duty
is to attend conferences and say "Yes."
A Nodder's, as the name implies, is to nod.
The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion.
This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes.
Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed
do the Nodders begin to function.
Decades of success in Britain and America
brought Wodehouse considerable wealth,
but not without complications. To simplify his tax affairs,
from the mid-1930s, he, Ethel, and their Pekinese
relocated to Northern France. In these settled surroundings,
he produced some of his very best work,
including a brilliant Jeeves-and-Wooster novel
containing uncharacteristic references
to contemporary politics.
No-one ever wrote a better description of the stupidity of Fascism
than Wodehouse in The Code Of The Woosters.
Wodehouse satirises Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirt movement
by having Bertie Wooster launch a withering verbal tirade
against Roderick Spode, would-be Fascist dictator
and leader of the Black Shorts.
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded
in inducing a handful of halfwits to disfigure the London scene
by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone.
You hear them shouting "Heil Spode",
and you imagine it is the voice of the people.
That is where you make your bloomer. What the voice of the people is saying is,
"Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags!"
"Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"
Encaenia, an annual ceremony steeped in tradition and academic prestige,
when Oxford University recognises the achievements
of a handful of distinguished international figures.
And at the 1939 ceremony, to his great surprise,
Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was awarded an honorary doctorate
by the university where he had hoped to study 40 years earlier.
If you see the photographs of Wodehouse getting his degree,
he already looks quite senior. He's all but 60.
So he had by then been...
..one of a handful of the most famous writers,
and writers for the theatre and the musical theatre,
in the world. I don't suppose he was matched. Who could match him?
Publishing some of his finest work, honoured by academia,
in the summer of 1939, Wodehouse was at the peak of his reputation.
A couple of months after a day of acclaim at Oxford,
he made a flying visit across the Channel from his French home,
coming here to Dulwich College to watch a cricket match.
'It was the last time he'd ever set foot on British soil.'
Wodehouse was not alone amongst expatriates in France
during that period to think that he didn't have anything to worry about,
and no-one expected France to fall in six weeks.
This was surprising, shall we say.
The road to the radio broadcasts which were to lead to accusations of treachery
and dog Wodehouse for the rest of his life
took him from arrest in Northern France deep into the Reich.
As an enemy alien under 60, he was sent to an internment camp,
but all the while, he continued to write.
I used to write by hand, very laboriously,
in a room with about 50 people playing ping pong
and singing and so on. I managed to get it done, though.
How did the Germans persuade him that it was a good idea
to make broadcasts to America?
It's a painful episode, and it's the episode in his life
which sadly will never go away,
because it's the one thing that people remember about him,
because it was so dramatic. Basically he was in this camp
in Lower Silesia - sorry, in Upper Silesia.
As he said, "If this is Upper Silesia, what must Lower Silesia be like?"
And his books, as you know, are there to cheer people up.
And he thought, I think with commendable stoicism and sang-froid,
that it was a good idea to cheer up the members of the camp,
and he wrote comic pieces for the entertainment of the prisoners,
And the Lagerfuhrer, the controller of the camp,
I think the Germans saw a lot of publicity potential
in Wodehouse in 1940, '41.
This was a famous English writer,
and the real idea was to keep America out of the war.
In the summer of 1941, Wodehouse was released from internment
and sent to Berlin. Here he ran into an old acquaintance from Hollywood,
now working for the German foreign office,
who suggested he deliver some radio talks to the United States,
ostensibly to reassure his American fans of his wellbeing.
And Wodehouse thought this would be a jolly thing to do,
which was unbelievably foolish,
not because it was a stupid thing to do
but because he had not taken the temperature back home.
He hadn't been in England for some time. He didn't know what it was like in Britain during the war.
At this time, the full intensity of the Luftwaffe's blitz on Britain was just abating.
Meanwhile, the rapid advance into the Soviet Union,
an invasion which had begun less than a week
before Wodehouse's first broadcast, threatened the prospect of German victory in the East.
If you look at the talks, what he actually wrote and spoke,
they're harmless. They are absolutely classic Wodehouse comic pieces -
the problem being that, if you're broadcasting them from Germany
in 1941, they become something completely different.
"As a matter of fact, all through my period of internment,
I noticed this tendency on the part of the Germans
to start their little expeditions off with a whoop and a rush,
and then sort of lose interest. It reminded me of Hollywood."
You know, it's extraordinary.
Wodehouse compares being carted around by the Germans
and waiting eight hours for a train to leave
to working for a Hollywood studio.
but he plainly failed to grasp the seriousness of his
or his country's situation.
The very fact that the broadcasts are very sarcastic
at the expense of the Germans - that all counted for nothing.
He thought he had been a stiff-upper-lipped Englishman
in times of fear and war,
and he found he was considered someone who'd sold the pass.
-So the reaction in Britain was -
The tabloids went bananas, and he was denounced as a traitor
and as a fellow traveller, a stooge...
You think about the worst things you could say about somebody, they said it.
Wodehouse was attacked in Parliament too,
but discovering the reaction of his beloved old school
was among his major concerns when he fell into Allied custody in 1944.
He was right to worry, and they did take a very dim view of it,
and they cut him off completely,
and it was said that if a boy was seen reading a Wodehouse novel,
he could be caned.
I mean, he was that vilified.
Would he have faced official action? Would he have been called a traitor?
-Would he stand trial?
-This is one of the cruel things
about what happened to him. When he was in Paris in 1944,
he was interrogated by a judge,
and he was given a pretty thorough going over,
and they concluded afterwards that there was no case to answer,
and that's it. But they never told him.
There are those who argue that a man as intelligent as PG Wodehouse
deserves criticism for his wartime conduct -
that he surely must have known what the Nazis were about,
and if he didn't, he should have done.
Well, he was certainly an intelligent, educated man,
but he wasn't the first or the last of those to make a mistake.
He was someone who always assumed the best in others,
who thought he was displaying a stoical disregard for hardship,
but completely misread his times.
Does that mean that the charges levelled at him hold water?
Not in my book.
Was he harshly treated by the British Establishment?
Do you think that Plum was bitter about what had happened to him,
about the attitude of certain people in England
to what he had done while in Germany?
No. He was not a man who felt bitterness
in any circumstances.
What he was, he was deeply wounded by the attitude that had been taken
by quite a number in this country immediately after the war to him.
He couldn't face the hullaballoo, coming back.
I know I made an ass of myself and had to pay for it,
but... Oh, no, I don't feel any resentment whatever.
Feeling, understandably, unable to return to England,
Wodehouse and Ethel settled in Long Island
outside New York City in the 1950s.
Here, surrounded by books,
he settled into the predictable lifestyle he enjoyed,
including the exercise regimen, his daily dozen,
which he followed without fail for over 50 years.
And, just as his daily life followed a familiar path,
so too did his writing.
The post-war years brought rock 'n' roll,
the phenomenon of the teenager, the revolution in attitudes
towards sex. But one thing that didn't change a bit
was what Wodehouse called "my stuff".
He wanted the world to remain the same.
It was always the same. And not only did he want that
but he kept it the same by writing it the same forever.
He himself said, "I'm a bad case of arrested development."
He never... He was 21 all his life, creatively.
You never met Wodehouse any more than I did, to my great regret.
But what do you think, the fact that he wrote about the same people
-in the same kind of situations...
-What does that say about him
-as a person?
-I suppose you would say, pretty narrow a writer.
And he was obviously a comic writer. That's what he really wanted to do,
and he certainly didn't get in touch with Ibsen anywhere at all.
It was just really there to amuse and make an immense fortune.
He was a writer who wanted to make money.
He said that very clearly from very early on.
And he was incredibly successful at doing that,
and I think he found a formula for making money and pursued that.
It's very important, and true of all really great writers,
that they understand their limitations.
He understood his, and he did what he did as well as he possibly could all his life.
If you have stories that you want to tell,
and if you feel affectionate toward your characters,
and you've still got stories that you have for them,
that you're dreaming up for them, why would you change?
We don't want to see Jeeves in his dotage.
He understood exactly the age those characters belonged at,
and he kept them there for decades.
Nonetheless, the fact that by the late 1960s
he'd been writing about the same characters for decade after decade
did present some problems.
Because in his head, all day every day,
he was thinking about his plot,
and, at the very end of his life,
he said, "This is difficult. I settle down to write a book,
and the hardest question is, have I written this book before?"
"And I have no means, other than reading them all, to be sure."
In 1968, a year of protest around the world,
Christopher MacLehose became Wodehouse's editor
at his London publishing house.
Although he was the most...
I mean, the iconic...comic writer in the world,
he was only, as I remember, selling something like
15,000 or 20,000 hardback books. I mean, that's not a great many.
And this puzzled him.
"Is it true," he would say, that sex and money
were the only things that people wanted to read about in books?
"I can't do that sort of thing," he said.
Wodehouse's work appeared in the magazines
which signified changing times, but for the eternal innocent,
sex remained out of bounds.
In all the Wodehouse work, beds are things you hide something under
or you hide under yourself. They have no other use.
Or you're woken up with your morning tea by your man.
They have no other place in human life.
Of course, when I started writing, sex was absolutely taboo.
You couldn't even hint at it.
I suppose one got set in one's ways.
Certainly he wasn't going to stop writing,
and he certainly wasn't going to change the way he was writing.
But I think he felt remote
from where what you would call the market was,
and that was one of the reasons he didn't ever come back to England.
He honestly felt that, if he had arrived in Southampton -
he would've surely come by sea -
that nobody would have come out to meet him.
I think the truth is quite otherwise.
I think there would've been bunting, a vast crowd of people,
just to set eyes on him, touch his sleeve.
Would you say his life was enormously happy in America?
He cut himself off, I think, from a lot of the realities of life.
It's an understatement - he was desperately sad not to come back
to this country.
Did he miss England? Did he ask you about how things were?
I think there were three things he wanted above all else -
to see rural England...
One was to, I think, get back to Dulwich,
just go to Dulwich and see it, walk round it and talk,
and go to a test match, a cricket test match.
Although past his 90th birthday,
Wodehouse still talked of returning to England.
I don't know if I'd find it very altered. I suppose I would.
After all, 30... How long is it? 30 years, isn't it? Long time.
'In the meantime he carried on writing,
'as he always had, amid signs that an old error of judgement
'had been forgiven. To his delight, a library at Dulwich College
'was named in his honour.'
He was measured for a waxwork at Madame Tussauds.
And then came the final act of rehabilitation.
PG Wodehouse gets to 90, and finally gets the knighthood.
I think he was thrilled by that. There'd been a big debate
within the British Establishment during the Wilson-Heath years.
Wilson was in favour of it,
and finally it was given in January '75,
the same batch, so to speak, as Charlie Chaplin.
And Wodehouse said a rather lovely thing.
When the news came through, he said, "So, that's that, then."
He'd been absolved, and he'd had his... He'd been given his pardon.
I think it's a sort of graceful act on the part of the government,
sort of more or less saying, "Well, that's that," you know.
But sadly the knighthood in some ways was the end of him,
because he was swamped with fan mail. He felt obliged to answer it,
and he developed a skin condition, went into hospital,
had a heart attack and he died, on St Valentine's Day '75.
Good writers normally deal with death, suffering, pain,
divorce, adultery and sexuality.
He avoids all those things, writes magnificent books,
and manages to write books that will be read
as long as anybody else's books.
Wodehouse has created characters that live for people
who've never picked up one of the novels,
and that is the sign of a really great writer.
You create a character that walks off the pages
and into the world. Amazing.
I find that, whatever the circumstances...
There was a point where my daughter was very desperately ill,
and the only thing I could do was read Wodehouse.
It got me through the most hideous time.
He's also left behind a feeling that...
you can be funny without being cruel.
You can be nice and charming without being boring.
I love that.
The people I most envy on Earth
are those who've never read any Wodehouse,
who pick up their first book, because they now have 90 books
to get through, and people have such sheer pleasure ahead of them.
There's no pleasure I know like it, and I envy them.
'After his death, the items which had been so much a part
'of his long working life were sent to Dulwich College,
'and reside in the Wodehouse Library.'
Here we are.
The great man's study,
brought across from Long Island in New York.
Wodehouse used to write down ideas in pencil.
"Man with horror of cats, like Lord Roberts,
falls in love with a girl who keeps cats."
Look at all this!
The Royal typewriter. This was his first book, I think.
-Very public school!
"To William Townend, these first fruits
of a genius at which the world will (shortly) be amazed,
(you see if it won't), from the author, PG Wodehouse."
I wonder - modest, kindly, innocent man that he was -
I wonder if he realised just how much of a genius he was,
and how much those words would come true.
The world would be amazed.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Terry Wogan looks at the life of writer PG Wodehouse. In exploring the extraordinarily long career of his literary hero, Terry employs rarely seen archive material and is joined by Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones, Joanna Lumley and a series of expert contributors in a documentary which addresses Wodehouse's longstanding appeal.