Posts Tagged ‘wodehouse’

Blandings at the BBC

So soon after writing about adaptations, and claiming that there was no requirement for any adaptation to be faithful to its original source, I found myself watching the first episode of BBC’s new adaptations of P. G. Wodehouse’s Blanding stories and find myself muttering the word “travesty” under my breath. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. But then again, perhaps I don’t: if this first episode had been good television comedy in its own right, then it wouldn’t have mattered how far it strayed from the original. But since it isn’t, the gap between the adaptation and the original becomes too large to overlook.

Wodehouse is notoriously difficult to adapt, since so much of his effect relies on his prose. Simon Callow, who has recorded some audiobooks of Wodehouse’s work, speaks of a certain Mozartean quality. Now, this may appear to be the sort of pseudo-intellectual gibberish that regularly graces Private Eye’s Pseuds’ Corner, but I can actually see what he means: Wodehouse’s sentences are all so exquisitely crafted, so artfully phrased, that not the slightest detail can be altered without spoiling their delicate perfection. The effect is admittedly very different from the effect of Mozart’s music, but the delight in the sense of utter perfection that is beyond any possible improvement is evident in both.

And the humour of his writing comes, in the main, from his phrasing. And once you take away that prose – as one must in an adaptation – what are we left with? Merely childish and absurd stories.  Even when the plotting is ingenious, as it frequently is, the ingenuity seems but to serve mere childish and absurd ends.

Not that there haven’t been successful adaptations – by which I mean adaptations that have stood up well in their own right. I am not old enough to remember the adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster stories with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, although I have heard fine things about them; but the more recent adaptations of these stories with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry were, I thought, pretty good. By no means perfect, of course: Stephen Fry was arguably a bit too young to make a fully convincing Jeeves; every time the scriptwriters substituted their own gags for Wodehouse’s, the sense of bathos was all too apparent; there was far too often a reliance on slapstick, a type of comedy that is most un-Wodehousian; the location for certain stories was changed for no good reason from the English country house to US – even for something such as Joy in the Morning, an archetypal English country house farce if ever there was one; not enough was made of Madeleine Bassett, one of Wodehouse’s most glorious comic creations; and so on. But generally, the production values were excellent, the supporting cast was good, and Hugh Laurie seemed the definitive Bertie Wooster. The misjudged slapstick episodes apart, the feel of the original stories was well caught. If the BBC Blandings Castle series could be as good, I thought, it would be worth watching. Sadly, it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.

For the Blandings Castle stories depict an idyllic world. As Evelyn Waugh famously put it, “The gardens of Blandings Castle are that original garden from which we are all exiled.” In these stories especially, the skies are clear and cloudless, the amber summer sunlight dapples the lawn and the terraces, and there’s always a pint of the finest ale to be had at the cosy pub in Market Blandings. There may occasionally be a bit of summer lightning, but it passes quickly, and it’s nothing serious. Indeed, there’s nothing serious in mortality at all: all is but toys, and life is an endless delight. This may all sound unbearably twee and sentimental to the uninitiated, but so formidable is the charm of Wodehouse’s writing, it’s surprising how even the most embittered and cynical of souls can so easily fall under its spell. Evelyn Waugh for one – not known for being the cheeriest of souls. And even Kipling, who doesn’t really appear to have had most easy-going of natures to judge from his often disturbing later stories, described “Lord Emsworth and the Girl-Friend” as “the perfect short story”. Delight and contentment don’t normally  make for compulsive reading, but here we have a miraculous exception: Wodehouse is the only author I can think of who has managed to pull it off.

Of course, it’s all make believe. It is difficult to discern the time in which Wodehouse’ stories are set, but the 1920s or the 1930s seem most probable. Historically, this was the time of the Depression, the General Strike – a time of great poverty and of mass unemployment, of hardship and even of starvation. In this context, a bunch of frivolous people who have never done a day’s work, and who lead lives of ostentatious wealth and luxury without the slightest thought of their social responsibilities, cannot be seen as anything other than morally despicable. But all that’s in the real world: the world Wodehouse depicts is very, very far from all that. His world is, as Evelyn Waugh put it, Eden, a vision of that paradise itself from which we are all exiled.

So, how should these stories be filmed? At a leisurely pace, I’d imagine. With gentle, nostalgic lingering of the amber sun dappling the lawn in the mornings, and the lazy cotton-wool clouds drifting gently by. Or something like that. I don’t know – I am not a film-maker, and don’t really have much idea on how best to convey the feel of these, or indeed of any other, stories. But I would know better, I think, than to adopt a jaunty pace; or to focus on the plotline (which is more than a bit silly and not really of much interest to begin with); or to use fast editing techniques. Everything here was utterly misjudged: just about everything that could be done wrong was done wrong. Shame really. Let’s just hope it doesn’t put off those who have yet to enter Wodehouse’s endlessly delightful fictional world.

Comedy is no laughing matter

Definitions are tricky things. There is so much that is more easily recognised than defined. For instance, we all know that a “tragedy” is a play (or a film or a novel or an opera or whatever) where everyone – or, at least, the main character – dies at the end; but even so, we recognise Oedipus the King as a tragedy even though Oedipus remains at the end very much alive. Fair enough – the mood at the end isn’t exactly upbeat – but then, what about The Oresteia? Not only does no-one die at the end, the whole thing culminates with a triumphant hymn of joy! Such inconvenient disregard for the rules of tragedy has led theoreticians to come up with all sorts of alternative definitions. The intricacies of these definitions need not concern us now, but they can – as far as I’ve read – be boiled down to “Tragedy focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience”. That really is sufficiently broad-brush to cover everything we recognise as tragic.

But what about comedy? We’re on safer ground here, surely? Comedy is whatever makes us laugh. (Or, if we want to include such stuff as Absolutely Fabulous, it is whatever is at least intended to make us laugh, even if it doesn’t.) But there are objections here as well. There are many works that are undeniably tragic in nature, but which do nonetheless contain incidental humour. So we may modify our definition with the adjective “primarily”: a comedy is a work the intention of which is primarily to make one laugh. No problem with that one, one might think. But a few weeks ago, I found myself at the Royal Albert Hall, at the Proms, listening to the Welsh National Opera perform Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Throughout the four and a half hours or so of the music (six hours including the intervals), I don’t think I laughed once. I don’t even think I smiled, or chuckled. I knew all the jokes already, and, to be entirely honest, they weren’t that funny the first time round either. There are more laughs in any two minutes picked out at random from an episode of Fawlty Towers. And yet, I recognised the world presented in that opera as essentially comic. And what’s more, I found it elating. Walking back from the Royal Albert Hall to the South Kensington tube station, I seemed to be in another world.

So what was it in that work I responded to? What was it I recognised as being comic, even though it didn’t make me laugh? And it’s not just Die Meistersinger: I fail to laugh at other much loved comic operas – Verdi’s Falstaff, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, say; or Shakespeare’s comedies – As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or even much loved episodes of Dad’s Army or Fawlty Towers: I have seen all of these so often I know all the jokes backwards, and the element of surprise that is so essential to raise a laugh is no longer there. And yet, for all that, I enjoy entering into these worlds which, despite the lack of laughs, I recognise as comic. Some of them even leave me feeling elated.

I suppose if the term “tragedy” can be defined as works that focus primarily on the darker elements of the human experience, then, conversely, “comedy” can be reserved for those works that do the opposite, i.e. as works that focus primarily on all those elements that enhance life, that make it worth living – all those things that tell us there is more, much more, to life than merely the death that ends it. Before Wagner composed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he had composed Tristan und Isolde (a concert performance of which this September, incidentally, I have tickets for), and there, the two protagonists, having given up on all that this world has to offer, long only for death. That I can recognise as tragic. But comedy tells us something very different. In Die Meistersinger, Hans Sachs too renounces, and the renunciation is not easy: but the renunciation does not lead to a longing for death. Sachs even refers to the story of Tristan & Isolde (Wagner allows the orchestra to play a strain from his earlier work at this point), but tells us he does not want to end like King Marke: that tragic world is referred to, and is rejected. There is more to long for than merely death.

Viewed in this light, it is surprising how rare true comedy is in the modern world. Much that is ostensibly comedy has these days a dark edge: sometimes the darkness becomes dominant. There’s satire, there’s black humour: indeed, some even tell us that comedy is necessarily dark, and that comic works that do not address this darkness are not worth the candle. I have personally felt very uncomfortable with this. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate darkness in comedy: I can respond to the desperation at the heart of Steptoe and Son, the savagery of the satire in Till Death Us Do Part. But is this true comedy? Are not such dark drama and such vicious satire really aspects of the tragic?

The pilot episode of Steptoe and Son had ended in one of the most powerful and affecting of all tragic scenes: the son, Harold, desperate to get away from his father, had, quite insanely, attempted to draw the cart on his own (and yes, I’d guess the reference to Mother Courage here is entirely deliberate); and, unable, naturally, to do this, he had broken down in tears. And his father, bringing him back home and telling him sympathetically that he’ll make him “a nice cup of tea” somehow accentuates the tragedy: it rubs in the terrible truth that for Harold, there can be no escape, that he is doomed for ever to “nice cups of tea” with his father, whom he loves and hates at the same time. How many serious, tragic dramas have achieved scenes of such tragic intensity, I wonder? Yes, there are belly-laughs in Steptoe and Son, but belly-laughs alone do not a comedy make: the heart of Steptoe and Son remains a dark one.

For true comedy, one has to go to the likes of Sgt Bilko, Dad’s Army, The Morecambe and Wise Show. We have to go to the idyllic fictional world of P. G. Wodehouse (that Eden from which we are all exiled, as Evelyn Waugh once said), to the charm of Pickwick Papers. Or to Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, or to Verdi’s Falstaff. Not that these worlds are entirely untroubled, of course: Wodehouse’s world, admittedly, is of sunny, cloudless skies, where the worst danger to be faced is that of Bertie being hitched up to Madeleine Bassett; but Pickwick Papers is darkened by those extraordinary chapters of the debtors’ prison; Hans Sachs does not find it easy to acknowledge his advancing years, and to renounce that one hope of happiness he had cherished; and even Falstaff, at one point, threatens to descend into those dark regions of Otello, as Ford is overcome by an insane jealousy. We know of course that there is no real danger of the darkness overwhelming the light: the very fact that these works are all set out as comedies reassures us. The presence of the darkness can be and often is acknowledged. But that darkness is, in one way or another, overcome: unlike in Tristan & Isolde, there is more to look forward to here than merely death.

But works such as this – works that affirm – seem to me these days to be increasingly rare. It is almost as if writers can no longer believe in affirmation. Or that they consider it trivial, or self-deluding. Have we, I wonder, lost the ability to affirm in the face of it all? I’d guess we haven’t lost the ability to respond to it, to judge from my response (and not merely my response) to Die Meistersinger; or to judge by the continuing popularity of Wodehouse, or the re-runs of Dad’s Army. But possibly we no longer believe in it strongly enough to create it.

“There are dark shadows on the earth,” writes Dickens towards the end of Pickwick Papers, “but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light.” But, he continues “we … have no such powers”. Dickens’ eyesight, admittedly, did change later in his literary career: it became more bat-like, more owl-like. But I for one remain grateful that before this change in his eyesight, he gave us Pickwick Papers. And one can be equally grateful that Verdi, after a career of composing tragic operas, signed off with that miraculous work of true comedy, Falstaff; or that Wagner, in between composing operas about lovers longing for death or about the end of the world gave us Die Meistersinger. The comic vision is one that enhances our lives, and to lose it would be tragic.