Years ago I did some charity gig with Will Self, a sort of Desert Island Books. He had chosen a Raymond Chandler, and I remarked on the similarities between Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse. Both were educated at Dulwich College, both were wonderfully stylish and stylised writers, both were masters of the dazzlingly witty, totally unexpected metaphor.
Will Self favoured me with the de haut en bas curled lip familiar from television. There was no comparison, he said. Wodehouse wrote about a discredited imperialist age; Chandler by contrast tackled the gritty reality of life on the mean streets of LA — or words to that effect.
He was wrong. Chandler’s world, of unfathomable — indeed inconsequential — plots, and gorgeous dames packing heat, was as artificial as Blandings Castle or the Drones Club, Philip Marlowe quite as unreal as Bertie Wooster. Both adored language and loved to make it do tricks, like a performing dog. Wouldn’t Wodehouse have been proud of a gangster who ‘looked as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake’? Or a woman so beautiful she could make ‘a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window’?
Chandler used to slice A4 sheets of paper into four, horizontally, allowing him to type roughly 25 double-spaced words before changing the sheet. If he hadn’t introduced a new character, a plot development or a brilliant turn of phrase, he’d rip it out and start again. Wodehouse is much the same; every sentence has to pay its way. There is no padding. (Incidentally, Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein/IRA once revealed he was a Wodehouse fan. ‘Not the Paisley balaclava today, I think, Sir — or any day, murmured Jeeves…’)
Wogan on Wodehouse (BBC2, Friday) did not add greatly to our knowledge, even if it was a treat for fans. The wartime broadcasts from Germany were skated over, with the usual conclusion that Wodehouse was simply naive. (Is there such a thing as ‘culpable naivety’?) Bertie Wooster’s attack on Spode, his Oswald Mosley character, was brought out again, implying that Wodehouse was adept with silly people, though rather less deft with evil people.
The recent release of MI5 material implies that he was somewhat more aware of what he was doing than he perhaps let on; my own guess is that he liked stability and creature comforts in his life, and was prepared to do what it took to keep them. In any case, Terry Wogan was a good person to do the honours; like Wodehouse (and Chandler) he had the classics crammed into him at school, giving him a wider frame of reference than — I’d say — all other radio disc jockeys put together.
The fabulous Outnumbered (BBC1, Friday) is back and the children are as dementedly realistic as ever. Ben’s phone is stolen so Karen embarks on a stream of consciousness. They should put tracking devices in all phones, and the bubonic plague virus, so that muggers and their families are all killed, and thanks to the tracking devices, the authorities will know where to find the bodies. The show is particularly brilliant on the remorseless logic of children. A parent blusters, ‘How many times have I told you!’ and the child replies, ‘Twelve?’
The funniest episodes have usually revolved round big events: a wedding, or a catastrophic family holiday. This one was about the funeral of a gay uncle who is to be cremated. Ben recalls going to a cremation, where there was a bouncy castle; it turns out that he was at a hog roast. Like Life of Riley, the programme is astute about the changes technology has brought to family life: competitive Wii, for example, or the way people use text messages even if they’re in the same house. We do it, for heaven’s sake. So much easier than going upstairs. Even when they’re talking to someone, the offspring rarely make eye-contact; like real children they are, for much of the time, in their own private world.
Page Eight (BBC2, Sunday) by David Hare had a sensational cast: Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and many others. The camerawork was meticulous and enticed you into each scene. For a spy thriller, the plotting was almost straightforward. So why did it not quite ring true?
Partly because there was no small talk. I don’t mean people should have said things like ‘weather’s looking up!’ or ‘how many miles do you get to the gallon?’ Just something that wasn’t grave and lapidary. Every line was freighted with meaning. But people don’t talk like that, even in MI5. Towards the end, someone said, ‘You want some coffee?’ and it rang more true than the earlier daughter to Dad, ‘I don’t want you near me. Do you have any honest relationships at all?’