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Television

Wodehouse to the rescue

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

19 January 2013

9:00 AM

I knew this would happen: I’ve been watching season five of Mad Men on DVD and it’s spoiled me for normal telly. If you notice increased levels of toxicity — dissatisfaction and disgruntlement — in the following grumblings, then Mad Men is the reason.  Nothing pleases me so much, you see, and I am likely to remain crabby and sniffy until the effects of that 13-episode pleasure-binge wear off.

Where to go from Madison Avenue in 1966? Which to choose of these bracing alternatives: the cuckoo-land of Mr Selfridge (Sunday, ITV), the dismal wastes of Utopia (Wednesday, Channel 4) or the company of those dashing, anxious, well-dressed Spies of Warsaw (Wednesday, BBC4)?

I should have enjoyed Spies of Warsaw much more than I did: it had been adapted by Messrs Clement and La Frenais and it starred the sainted David Tennant. It looked gorgeous — sprinkled with the BBC’s best-quality fairy dust — but even though I attended faithfully to every minute of those three long hours I was not rewarded — it dawdled worse than a toddler on a Sunday walk.

Since we knew how it would end (rumble of tanks), and what would have to happen before it did (kiss-and-make-up), none of the other business seemed to be critical. If I had loved the characters I might have worried more about them, but they were so well labelled — ‘drunk Russian writer’, ‘faithful retainer’, ‘doomed Bolshevik couple’, ‘disbelieving army superior’ — that character didn’t come into it. Our hero, Jean-François Mercier (Tennant), looked understandably gloomy, but rather confusingly bored. Was that supposed to be ennui? Heartbreak? The pessimism of the well-informed? I didn’t believe that this sorrowful, faun-like creature could manage a hard day in the office, let alone the spying, fighting, dancing and kissing that he took on after hours: his clothes all looked too big for him and when he picked up a rifle it almost toppled him over. Neither sparky Lady Angela (Fenella Woolgar) nor the approaching German army seemed able to raise his dander, and as long as the man at the heart of the drama was acting at half-speed, no amount of espionage, counter-espionage, crossing and double-crossing could be sufficiently enthralling.


Mr Selfridge wants to be a musical. Can’t we let it? And free up Sunday nights for something else? That ‘Harry Selfridge’ character, he’s longing to sing us a song — all he needs is an orchestra and a chorus line. Jeremy Piven (who also happens to be one of the show’s producers) shouts and mimes like a pantomime dame: when he is sad, he hangs his head; when he is lustful, he flashes his eyes; when he is nervous, he shies like a startled pony. Striding about in ‘Accessories’, fingering scarves and giving instructions in his Super-Loud Voice, he seemed to be waiting for the shopgirls to link arms, pull up their skirts and break into a chorus. He is the ‘brash American’ of old-fashioned British film and folklore, and he is come — Praise him! Praise him! — to turn a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of shoppers. Why bother with ten little shops, asks Harry, with their fussy ideas and their tiresome independence? There is room for all ye huddled masses under Selfridge’s glorious roof.

I missed some of the first episode of Utopia (because random, gruesome, vicious acts of cruelty tend to give me the vapours) but what I did see looked good: a group of strangers, a government conspiracy, the threat of a nasty virus and a rather lovely-looking, rained-on Liverpool. I’ve yet to be convinced, however, that a torture scene is ever worth the watching and as soon as that charming Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) was tied to a chair I had to switch on the Hoover and catch up with the housework — I couldn’t listen and didn’t dare look. If next week is just as brutal I will have to conclude that I’m too weedy for Utopia.

Before Blandings (Sunday, BBC1), I was nervous. The comedy of P.G. Wodehouse, so brilliant and inimitable on the page, is devilish hard to translate to the screen. As soon as a ‘Pip-pip’ or a ‘What-ho’ is spoken out loud, character slips into caricature; even the most lovable eccentric will look a fool in a tilted boater. What if the BBC had made a hash of this? What if the next 30 minutes were grotesque? Unfunny? Embarrassing? What if there was no laughter, but only cringing silence? To watch it fail would have been a worse torture than to watch that poor nice man being brutalised in Utopia.

I needn’t have fretted: Blandings was a triumph. It was funny, silly and charming in all the right proportions. Disgruntlement and crabbiness were forgotten. Timothy Spall (Emsworth) and Mark Williams (Beach) were superb and struck the perfect Wodehouse chord. With any luck, if I watch it again, my favourite exchange —

‘I’m not going to marry you!’

‘You’re a silly little nonsense, aren’t you? Now come here and kiss me.’

— might gruntle me back together once and for all.


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