In a country obsessed with Downtown Abbey, a Wodehouse revival is hardly a shock. After all, the indefatigable perfection of Fry and Laurie as much-loved Jeeves and Wooster is still a tantalizing aftertaste on our ever-critical palate.
So, it was with baited-breath that we tuned into director Paul Seed’s adaptation of Blandings for the BBC this week. Could this series provide an authentic homage to Wodehouse? Would it capture the nuanced idiosyncrasies of Wodehouse’s world of Blandings; of a group unfettered by social convention, untroubled by money and unscathed by the great war? The real question became this: would Paul Seed successfully navigate the tightrope between frolicsome twaddle and disciplined frivolity?
The stellar cast was filled with promise. National favourites Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders assume the roles of comically unhinged Lord Emsworth and his pugnacious sister Lady Constance. Emsworth is a hapless socialite with an aversion to top hats and formal functions, preferring to lose himself in a classic volume of Augustus Whiffle’s Care of the Pig. Spall’s distinctively dulcet tones lend weight to the comic intricacy of the prose. He wraps his assumed RP around Wodehouse’s phrases with such finesse that phonetics students everywhere are undoubtedly frothing over diphthongs and glottal stops.
Saunders also plays a stinker, as we knew she would, and is helped along by a particularly spirited script. Waiting on her ungainly brother’s preparations to ready himself, she meets the finished result with faultless retort and comic perfection, asking if he’s “ready for what, a gypsy funeral, a carnival of grotesques, a convocation of turpentine and mentholated spirit”? The power of her acerbic wit hits with the force of a ten tonne sow, and so with loving accuracy Saunder’s enriches an already rich script. Brilliant!
Although a slender affair, the storyline does have its moments. First episode in the series, ‘Pighoooooey’, centre’s on the deranged attempts of the Blandings’ residents (and an assortment of other crazies) to win the Fat Pig Annual Agricultural Competition. Freddie, Embersons’ vapid son, has much to gain from a victory, and through his misplaced machinations he manages to thicken a somewhat thin plot. Jack Farthing, who plays Freddie, successfully navigates the role of an over-determined slap-stick posho, and instead of being the nuisance he is to his aunt, is an entertaining and welcome injection. Like a bull in a china shop, Freddie whirls on screen to effusive splutterings of ‘tinkety tonk’ leaving one whiplashed by the hilarity of his nonsensical aristocratic airs.
Blandings is an effervescent experience made up of illicit love affairs, baleful aunts, prize-winning pigs, unruly farmers, natty young men– ultimately a dysfunctional upper-class whose domestic dramas revolve around the life and times of rose-gardens, marble-collections and The Empiress of Blandings, a hefty sow. The comic genius of Wodehouse, and subsequently this series, is the mayhem and madness of a seemingly carefree idyll. It is the ultimate light, witty relief from the travails of life – made ever-poignant by the fact that the first readers of Blandings would have been in the midst of war. Blandings becomes the ultimate escapism, as Wodehouse intended it. He poured into Blandings his deepest feelings for England; a joy that has filled the result with unapologetic merriment and laughter rather than banal frivolity. Paul Seed perfectly captures this precarious balance.
Besides, what could be better than watching Timothy Spall ‘go the long way round an arpeggio’, dressed as if he’s raided every vintage store in Headingly. In the words of Wodehouse himself, ‘he looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say “when”‘. Who wouldn’t love a series written by a man who’s passing drivel is the repartee we can merely dream of. Wodehouse writes: “he had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle’. We write, ‘your mum’. Oh to be mortal!
Blandings is on BBC One on Sundays at 6.30pm.
words: Jess Owen