Alex Massie

Wodehouse on TV?

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In response to this post, a reader asks how did I like the Fry and Laurie TV adaptations? Well, only up to a point is my answer. They are, probably, as good an effort as television can muster but they still, to my mind, fail to cut the mustard. An honorable failure, then. Or rather, to put it more charitably, they were closer to being a success than anyone had ay right to hope they would be.

Fry was, I always thought, rather too oleaginously piscine as Jeeves while Laurie played Bertie as - hard though this may be to believe - too much of a fat-headed ass. They got away with these excesses largely because the two friends act so well together; their timing and ease in each others company rescued them on numerous occasions. Equally, the costume, set design and music was as good as you could desire, I think, giving the series an attractive sheen that helped the viewer believe in this light-hearted nonsense. It was all agreeably frothy.

And in the end its failure wasn't really anyone's fault. The problem lies in the material. Wodehouse's England seems superficially real - I mean, the houses, the gardens, the clothes, the servants, the gentleman's clubs and all that all exist - but of course it isn't real at all. But it's the sort of fantasy that's very hard to put across on film or television.

The language problem is more significant however.

There's a further difficulty with the Jeeves & Wooster stories: unlike, say the adventures at Blandings, these are told in the first person. Much of the charm rests upon the tone of Bertie's monologue. But it's a narration that exists on the page and can't easily be transferred to the screen. Thus we may smile when Bertie says "I pronged a moody forkful of eggs and b" but all television can do is show Bertie eating breakfast with a puzzled, or thoughtful, look on his face. Not quite the same thing at all, old bean.

That's one reason why I think one might have more success with a Blandings adaptation, especially since the country-house drama is such an established genre in its own right. Of course, in Wodehouse the drama is twinned with farce, requiring a light touch and, crucially, actors who don't think they're takin part in farce...

Still, even then a screen adaptation

struggles with this sort of stuff: "Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons." Well, yes, indeed.

That being the case, I think that the Wodehouse most readily adaptable to the television screen may be the golf stories. Here too, a realistic setting is immediately apparent (everything - or almost everything- takes place on the golf course after all) and though the stories are narrated by the Oldest Member he tends not to be the dominant voice. Just as usefully, the golf tales show Wodehouse at his most judgemental: there are good eggs and rotten bounders, while, being short stories, they're not too stuffed with plot. Equally, what plot there is tends to have a natural stroy arc, ending with a lessonĀ  - of life or love or whatever - being taught by the sternest schoolmistress of them all: golf itself.

Now, of course, I doubt you'd have the same ratings success with the golf stories (nor the same international sales) but I think they'd be easier to transfer to TV than Jeeves and Wooster. Fry and Lurie: entertaining stuff, but not quite, in the end, a success.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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