It is something of a truism that much of the best-written humor has not translated well to the screen. This is a special hazard for those who dare to adapt the works of the great British humorist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975). Wodehouse was widely acknowledged, by authors such as Orwell and Waugh, as one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. They were correct, and the fact that this great gift was placed in the service of humor is one of the instructive ironies of life.
The first-person narration of wealthy London idler Bertie Wooster, in the numerous stories and novels Wodehouse wrote about him and his lifesaving valet Jeeves, is one of the great delights of English literature. A good prose style, however, is difficult to reproduce on the screen. (Voiceover narration, which is sometimes tried, is seldom effective and usually just a distraction.) Hence, Wodehouse’s writing, though full of brightly drawn characters and dazzling dialogue, seldom transferred well to film during his lifetime. Few people particularly admire the Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress (I am one of that happy few), for example, and the two 1930s adaptations starring David Niven and Arthur Treacher as Wooster and Jeeves, respectively, are for addicts only. (Which means, of course, that I have seen them more than once.)
The British Broadcasting System (BBC) got it just right, however, with the production of Wodehouse Playhouse. Just before the author’s death at age 93 in 1975, the BBC produced this series of adaptations of Wodehouse stories from three of his six major sagas. (Wodehouse wrote approximately seventy novels and three hundred short stories.) Series One of Wodehouse Playhouse, now available on DVD in a nicely presented two-disc set from Acorn Media, includes six Mulliner stories and one golf tale. (Wodehouse had a passion for golf, and he wrote nearly three-dozen stories set in that particular world, narrated for the most part by the Oldest Member (who has not actually played the game himself for many years.) The two forthcoming sets will present more from each of those series and three Drones Club stories.
The producers did well to concentrate on the Mulliner stories, for it is in these tales, according to no less an authority than the author himself, that Wodehouse tried to be at his funniest. “I must warn my public,” he wrote in the preface to an omnibus volume of these stories, “that in The World of Mr. Mulliner I am writing as funny as I can, and I can only hope that there will be no ill results.” The stories are told by Mr. Mulliner, owner and barman of the Angler’s Rest, and each tells the tale of one or more of his many and varied relatives. (The stories name 43 in all.)
Mr. Mulliner, “a stout, comfortable man of middle age,” is a very self-effacing though engaging narrator. This means that the humor of the stories is not so much in their literary style — though that aspect is highly winsome here, as in nearly all of Wodehouse — as in the bizarre events of the narratives. They are, after all, fish stories of a sort, what we Americans call tall tales.
Wodehouse Playhouse begins with “The Truth About George,” which is the first Mulliner story Wodehouse wrote. Mulliner’s nephew George, suffering from a terrible stammer, wishes to declare his love for comely Susan Blake, the vicar’s daughter, with whom he shares a passion for crossword puzzles. Unfortunately, his efforts to declare this emotion result in nothing more articulate than “a sibilant gurgle which was no more practical use than a hiccup.” George undertakes a professional cure that involves speaking to at least three strangers per diem and, when the stammer arises, singing out his meanings.
This leads, as is of course inevitable, to his being mistaken for a madman who believes himself (falsely) to be the Emperor of Abyssinia, thence to a pursuit by a mob of vigilantes through the English countryside, and . . . well, if you cannot guess, I certainly won’t spoil it for you.
The TV adaptation tells this story faithfully and manages to convey the humor and cheerful disposition of Wodehouse’s original. John Alderton and Pauline Collins play the leads in this episode and in all of the others, except in a case or two in which Alderton takes on a juicer role as antagonist. The range of characters the two performers play in the seven episodes in this release is impressive. Alderton depicts, among others, a jealous magician, a lover who falsely believes himself jilted, a prissy poet who has occasional spells of passion for blood sports, and a blustering Hollywood movie producer. Collins, who won an Academy Award nomination in 1988 for her performance in Shirley Valentine, is a highly gifted comedienne equally comfortable as a Cockney, a smarmy upper-class ingénue, and an American flapper who is scheming to become a movie star.
On top of all these delights, each episode is given a brief introduction by the master himself, then in his nineties. For a true Wodehouse aficionado, the series would be worth the price just for that. In addition, however, these may well be the best screen adaptations of Wodehouse’s work yet devised. (The Jeeves and Wooster series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie was also quite good, especially the first few episodes.) Although the Wodehouse Playhouse shows were recorded on videotape rather than film, the direction is effective, and the sets and locations are appropriately varied and interesting.
Laughter may not be the best medicine, but it is a fine tonic for a worried soul. Wodehouse Playhouse makes an excellent introduction to this great humorist’s world, which is a highly satisfying and, I should say, healthy place to be.
— S. T. Karnick, and NRO contributor, is editor in chief of American Outlook, published by the Hudson Institute.