A six-part BBC run of Blandings, based on Wodehouse’s much-loved accounts of the fictional life and times of Blanding Castle’s 9th earl, is designed to introduce a new family audience to his work. Set in 1929, with a starry cast, Blandings will follow the fortunes of the amiable, befuddled Emsworth, played by Timothy Spall, and his beloved pig, Empress.
The series, occupying a BBC1 Sunday evening slot from January, represents the biggest commitment to adapting Wodehouse’s work for television since ITV’s 23-episode Jeeves and Wooster, starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, in the early 1990s. It also takes the public obsession with the prewar and the posh into entirely new terrain.
Forever in search of peace and quiet, Lord Emsworth spends most of his life under siege from members of his unlovable household, who will be played by an all-star cast including Jennifer Saunders, Jack Farthing and David Walliams.
And in an echo of Downton Abbey, which is filmed at Highclere Castle, the Berkshire home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, the show was filmed at the 400-year-old Crom Castle, near Newtownbutler in Northern Ireland, home of Lord Erne.
Walliams started reading PG Wodehouse, whom he describes as “a comic master”, when the Fry and Laurie series was running. He said: “Unlike some of the things I have done, this was not rude. It is family oriented. It’s come at the right time. There is a big renaissance in costume drama, but there hasn’t yet been a comic one.”
According to Danny Cohen, controller of BBC1: “The British public have always adored PG Wodehouse’s eccentric, imaginative world. It provides a form of sunshine when you read it and I think it can have the same effect on viewers via TV. There is a joyfulness I hope people will take to their hearts.”
He added that period drama is liked because “much of the interest stems from the production values” – from costumes to carriages. “There is a lot of social satire. Class still dictates a lot of things in this country. Above all, these stories are very funny. Good humour lasts.”
Blandings will only be one element in what promises to be a golden year for Wodehouse-lovers. A darker side of the Wodehouse legacy is also to be explored in a drama in March which will re-examine the controversial period that the author spent in Nazi Germany.
Wodehouse was never publicly cleared of the taint of treason following his decision to accept Nazi requests to make wartime broadcasts to America from Berlin in 1941. The row which followed led to the writer moving to America in 1947.
An Innocent Abroad will be broadcast in March. Producer Kate Triggs said: “The film is all about a writer’s life, the imaginative world of a writer. Wodehouse is a great example of that, he worked all the time, he was happiest writing.” But, she said: “The man came crashing up against a massive European crisis which he was incapable of handling,” adding that actor Tim Pigott-Smith depicts Wodehouse “with all the nuances, as a naive in the genuine sense of the word”.
According to Richard Klein, the controller of BBC4: “The film slowly explores, with tension and psychological insight, how PG Wodehouse got himself into a Woosterish mess and allowed himself to be used by an evil regime.”
Wodehouse, successful in Britain and the US, aged 59, was trapped in Le Touquet, the Normandy resort, when the Germans occupied France in 1940. With his wife, Ethel, he made two attempts to flee but left it too late, partly because they did not want to put Wodehouse’s pekinese, Wonder, into quarantine.
He was interned for nine months, mainly in Germany, at Tost in Upper Silesia. The offending broadcasts appear to be have been sparked by an enterprising American journalist, Angus Thuermer, who tracked the writer down for an interview. This alerted the German foreign ministry to their important internee, and started a political game. The allegation made by his critics was that Wodehouse bought his release by agreeing to broadcast on German radio.
Triggs gives a different account: “The American element was very important. He got a lot of letters from the US after the Thuermer interview. In his life he had always written back, now he couldn’t. He saw the broadcast as a way of doing that.”
Wodehouse was released from the internment camp in June 1941 and was put up in the Adlon hotel, Berlin, close to the Reich Chancellery. The film shows Wodehouse being persuaded to write and record five broadcasts for his American fans. They adopted the light-hearted tone of a diary he had kept at Tost, which he read out to patriotic Englishmen with him. But they were made at a critical point in the war, when Hitler’s generals were preparing the invasion of the Soviet Union and discussions were under way about America coming into the war. The coup involving the author was taken up by Joseph Goebbels’s propaganda ministry, and Wodehouse was vilified by the British government and the press.
Triggs believes that elements of the British establishment regretted their prewar strategy of appeasement of Nazi Germany and took out their feelings of guilt on Wodehouse. “One of the questions the film raises is whether or not an artist has a responsibility to reflect what is going on around him. I think he had every right to live in the world he lived in, the past.”