Saturday, March 29, 2008

PG Wodehouse

I have been reading the biography of PG Wodehouse by Robert McCrum. Everyone knows of Wodehouse (pronounced woodhouse), the author of Jeeves and Wooster, but few now remember that he was persona non grata for many years because he broadcast over the radio from Nazi Germany. Indeed there was a distinct possibility that he might have been hanged for treason in 1945.

His early life was spent at Dulwich College in south east London, the same public school later attended by Raymond Chandler. His people couldn't afford to send him to Oxford or Cambridge so he went to work in a bank. He wanted to be a writer and eventually by selling short stories he was able to earn enough to leave it. Thereafter he wrote and wrote and sold most of his output. His first successful novels were about schoolboys, but he followed their careers after leaving school and created unforgettable characters such as Psmith, Jeeves, Bertie, Gussie Finknottle, the inhabitants of the Drones club and the denizens of Blandings Castle.

He was extremely successful on both sides of the Atlantic. Quite apart from his novels and short stories he was at the center of the pre-war Broadway scene, collaborating with the Gershwin brothers, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. He even went to Hollywood when the talkies came in, though the producers didn't quite know what to do with him. In the end MGM paid him a lot of money to keep him on the 'bench'. While there he wrote and revised his stories while making minor adjustments to scripts making a morning's work last three months.

He was peripatetic - largely to avoid double taxation. By the late 1930s he had settled in Le Touquet in France, but got trapped there by the advancing German army. Interned for more than a year, he was let out of prison when an American reporter explained to the Nazis just what an important writer he was. Ensconced in a luxury hotel in Berlin, the German Foreign Office, in the person of ex-Hollywood colleagues, persuaded him that it would be a jolly wheeze to broadcast over the radio his experience of life in an internment camp. In his Edwardian, self effacing manner, he made light of the experience and handed the Germans a propaganda coup. It was probably naivete that led him to fall in with their plans, but also extreme foolishness. Following the war he never again set foot in Britain, but gradually his popularity returned and in his nineties, having lived in Long Island for a long time and become an American citizen, he was eventually restored to the fall and made an honorary knight commander of the British Empire.

I also read 'Mike and Psmith' and early novel from 1913 yesterday. A slight and mildly amusing offering similar to the Billy Bunter novels I read when I was 10.


Anonymous said...

Sent your write up to my daughter in college. She loves
PG Wodehouse!

Anonymous said...

"The New Yorker" had a long article on PG Wodehouse. The author's uncle had a life-long 'relationship' as a reader of Wodehouse from the 30s on.

In the New Yorker article, Wodehouse came across as an innocent who was clueless that his WWII broadcasts would have any repercussions for him or his career.

As I've mentioned in response to another post here, I have the DVDs of 'Jeeves and Wooster' with Stephen Fry and the now-famous Hugh Laurie. Laurie, in particular, is hilarious.

Paul said...

I would recommend his biography, perhaps called "Memoirs of a Performing Flea". It is the funniest book I have ever read.

I like his reported death bed observation the "If I had not wasted all that time writing books I could have got my golf handicap down to 18.

Terry Hamblin said...

Hugh Laurie, better known now as Dr House, is a very good actor. He was also Stuart Little's 'father'. He is the son of an Olympic gold medalist at rowing (London 1948) who became a family doctor and scraped to send his son to Eton and Cambridge. There Hugh rowed in the University boat race (in the losing boat) and became President of footlights but only got a third class degree (which generally means he had a good time and didn't do any work). His Bertie Wooster surpasses that of Ian Carmichael who had the role before him (though whether Stephen Fry is teh equal of Dennis Price as Jeeves is another matter). Many American's didn't realise that he was not an American actor having only seen him in House.

Anonymous said...

I have the series Jeeves and Wooster on DVD, readily available. I'd heartily recommend it.

The scene where Jeeves (Fry) first meets a very hung-over Wooster (Laurie) is very, very funny. Laurie doesn't say a single word, but the looks and expressions on his rubber face are amazing.

House and Wooster are so dissimilar, it's hard to believe the same actor could play both. But Laurie did and does, and excels at both.

Anonymous said...

Hi Dr. Hamblin,
Sent my daughter the book you are reading.
For Christmas she had the dvds in her stocking.
She was thrilled. Now I am going to watch them!