The recent TV adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Blandings stories appears to have provoked not a little discontent among the author's devotees, the gist being that the stories have been dumbed down to appeal to the same audience that is lapping up Downton Abbey; specifically, viewers in the United States. The latter charge does seem a little unfair; the stories were mostly written when Wodehouse was in the US (he became a citizen in 1955) and all were published in the former colonies before they appeared in the UK. In many ways, the new version is taking them home.
As to whether they actually work or not as adaptations of the stories, I've kept my counsel because, for no particular reason I'd never actually read a Blandings story until this week. To be honest, I think I've only ever read a couple of the Jeeves and Wooster yarns and I can't recall being desperately impressed by them. Of course, I've adhered to the orthodoxy that Wodehouse is in the ranks of the comic greats, simply because his best one-liners, his apposite, absurd metaphors and similes are endlessly quoted and requested. And very funny they often are; but are they enough to qualify him as A Good Writer?
I picked up a compendium of Blandings stories so I could find out; for the record, it's Lord Emsworth Acts for the Best, first published by Penguin in 1992 but containing for the most part stories written in the 1930s. The first time we encounter the titular earl (in The Custody of the Pumpkin) he is attempting to look through his new telescope and complaining that it doesn't work. Fortunately, his butler Beach is on hand to advise him that the lens cap is still in place. Ho ho. A dedicated Wodehousian would suggest that this immediately demonstrates the loveable, batty other-worldliness of Lord Emsworth; whereas an objective newcomer might be forgiven for thinking it's an old, tired, lame joke that would just about pass muster in one of the lesser Carry On films.
That said, The Custody of the Pumpkin does contain at least one of those quotations that are always being recited by fans keen to maintain his reputation: "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." It's quite funny the first five or six times you hear it, although it began to pall when it was wheeled out every few hours in the dying days of Gordon Brown's premiership. And when seen in context, applied as it is to Lord Emsworth's gardener McAllister, it highlights the fact that those characters who don't come from the landed classes are treated as little more than music-hall stereotypes. The gardener is less a character, more a manifestation of grim Presbyterian glowering through a ginger beard. He talks funny too, all stretched vowels and rolled R's. Similarly, we encounter a park keeper and a policeman whose discourse comprises little but comedic officiousness and dropped aitches; and in a subsequent story there is a Cockney called Gladys who offers the following:
"A treat, ain't they?" she agreed eagerly. "I got 'em for 'im up at the big 'ahse. Coo! The old josser the plice belongs to didn't arf chase me. 'E found me picking 'em and sharted somefin at me and come runnin' after me, but I copped 'im on the shin wiv a stone and 'e stopped to rub it and I come away."
Now, to be fair, Wodehouse does not invest his aristocratic characters with immense psychological depth either; but they tend to be rendered in something approaching two dimensions. Just about.
The odd thing - for me at least - is that many other writers, some of whom I admire immensely, are unstinting with their admiration for Wodehouse's craft. The Penguin compilation has an introduction by the late Frank Muir (another writer I find amusing in small, select doses but I couldn't eat a whole one) in which he quotes Evelyn Waugh thus: "One has to regard a man as a Master who can produce on average three uniquely brilliant and quite original similes to every page." Well, it's an admirable skill, certainly, but does it really make him a master? Douglas Adams - also named by Muir as an admirer - was undoubtedly a very funny writer but I still maintain he never wrote an entirely successful novel; even his first and best has a deeply unsatisfying ending, mainly as a result of Adams's own procrastination. Waugh himself might only conjure up such a belter every few pages, but his own jokes are created to serve plot and characterisation and ideas, the stuff that matters in fiction, whether funny or serious. In Wodehouse, the funnies have to be good because, frankly, little else happens. The similarity between the two writers is that they deal with similar characters from similar social backgrounds; the difference is that Waugh often places his in scenarios of serious peril (over half his novels include a war or similar upheaval), the harshness of which accentuates the comedy when it comes. Peril for Lord Emsworth is when his pumpkin or pig seems unlikely to triumph at the local agricultural show. At least in Downton Abbey people occasionally die.
Of course, it's not inherently wrong in depicting a world in which nothing seriously disagreeable ever happens; one delight of books such as those involving Just William, Jennings and Billy Bunter, successful series published at the same time as Wodehouse's stories, is the extent to which the main characters perceive minor inconveniences (a bad school report; some missing cakes) as a crisis fit for a Greek tragedy. But these are stories about children; Wodehouse's world only makes sense if we accept that its inhabitants are suffering from some kind of arrested development, that they are essentially children as well. The critics argue that the new TV version is too crass, too broad, too obvious; too childish. I'm not arguing that its makers have created brilliant art; but in adapting the shows they may have seized upon a truth that the Wodehousians don't dare to confront.