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Why we're Plum crazy
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Daily Mail, 30 December 2002

Why we're Plum crazy

Christopher Matthew

THE first question that should be asked of any television profile of a famous figure is whether it tells us anything about the person we didn't know already.

In the case of P.G.Wodehouse - Plum to his friends - I'd guess that before Saturday night's BBC2 profile, most people knew very little, if anything.

In which case let's hope that the programme will have inspired a lot of people to turn to the books and to find out for themselves why Wodehouse is considered by many to be not only one of the best comic writers of the 20th century, but one of the best writers ever.

His life, apart from the unfortunate episode of the wartime broadcasts from Germany, was pretty dull. He was happiest when writing, but, of course, a man pecking away at the typewriter keys hardly makes riveting television.

Very sensibly, producer and director Ian Denyer decided to devote most of his film to the work.

In this, he was ably assisted by, among others, Wodehouse's latest biographer, Robert McCrum and lifelong Plum fan, John Mortimer.

McCrum got rather bogged down in psychological speculation when he suggested it was absence of parental love that made relationships with women alarming to Wodehouse; but about Wodehouse the writer, he was quite clear - 'You look back to the 20th century and there aren't many people to touch him.' John Mortimer confined himself to reading a passage from one of the Blandings stories and explaining that Wodehouse was amazingly well educated, and could apply great Shakespearean thoughts to trivial things, like a breakfast egg or a pair of pyjamas.

Much was made of Plum's early success on Broadway and the fact that he, Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton changed the concept of musical comedy with shows like Oh Boy! which ran for 475 performances.

The programme refuted once and for all the canard (arising from that wartime broadcast from Berlin) that Wodehouse was a Nazi sympathiser - a fact which was concealed in the Public Record Office as an official secret until 1999.

In a rare interview Plum said he was not bitter, but he was sorry it had happened. 'If you've done a foolish thing, you've got to take the consequences,' he said.

He never returned to England, and it was suggested that it was because he felt he had been so hard done by that the Queen Mother was keen to go to America to give Wodehouse his knighthood in 1975.

BUT did we really learn anything new? There were some fresh interviews, including a revealing portrait of his wife Ethel by her onetime secretary, and a recently discovered home movie of Plum and Ethel, taken in rural Germany after his release from the wartime prison camp.

It was also said - in an oddly throwaway line - that an attack of adult mumps in 1901 'put paid to any hope of fatherhood'. Quite how this was known was not explained.

Fortunately for Plum, he and his step- daughter Leonora were devoted, though her early death during a routine operation - a tragedy that devastated Plum - was not even mentioned. But, then, one imagines that this shy and diffident man would have preferred it that way.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2008. Established 04/04/1996.