Wodehouse called 'scum' in new play on links with Nazis
A NEW play that describes PG Wodehouse as "scum" for collaborating with the Nazis during the war has incensed members of the Wodehouse Society, who say it is an unfair slur on one of Britain's best-loved literary heroes.
Beyond a Joke, which is being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford at the end of this month, is based on files released by MI5 last year which revealed that PG Wodehouse was almost prosecuted for treason by the British Government at the end of the Second World War.
It focuses on radio broadcasts Wodehouse made in 1941 that made light of the Nazi regime and appeared to describe German soldiers in friendly tones. Wodehouse had been living in Le Touquet in Northern France when the Germans captured the town and took him to an internment camp as a prisoner of war.
Realising that they could make use of him, the Germans released him soon after with the proviso that he made some light-hearted broadcasts to the Americans - who at that time were not involved in the war - stating that he had not suffered under the Nazi regime.
Although Wodehouse said at the time that he agreed to this plan in order to reassure droves of American fans who had written to him about their concern over his well-being, tapes of the broadcasts were then sent by Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry to the BBC to be released to a UK audience.
They were never broadcast in Britain but the very existence of Wodehouse's recordings - and the fact that he was paid, albeit only £20, for making them - caused a furore in the British press and accusations that the writer was a traitor and Nazi sympathiser.
Wodehouse, his formidable wife Ethel (played by Angela Thorne in the play), and their Pekinese dog Wonder caused further irritation by moving from Le Touquet to live luxuriously in the Hotel Bristol in Paris, enjoying cocktails and eclairs, oblivious to the privations of war elsewhere.
The play, which was written by Roger Milner, is set in 1944 at the start of the Government's investigation into Wodehouse's relationship with the Nazis. Malcolm Muggeridge, who was then a major in the British Intelligence Corps, and Major Cussen from MI5 were both sent to Paris to cross-examine Wodehouse and concluded that he was naive but not a traitor.
Duff Cooper, then British Ambassador to Paris, took a less indulgent view and it is the passages of the play recounting the conversation between Cooper, played by Michael Cochrane, and Wodehouse (Anton Rodgers) that are likely to perturb the writer's fans the most.
At one stage Cooper shouts to Wodehouse: "The fact is Wodehouse that you lived quite happily in Le Touquet with the Germans. You didn't hear the cries of the men at Dunkirk a mile or two away - the dive bombers . . . No, you wanted to save your own skin . . ." In the play, Cooper goes on to call Wodehouse "scum" and suggests that the Government should "get rid" of him.
Michael Whitehall, who is producing the play, which opens on August 30 before moving on to the West End, said he did not think Beyond a Joke would discredit the creator of the irredeemably dim Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, his effortlessly superior butler. He said: "This is just about a very interesting part of PG Wodehouse's life. A lot of people who know his books wouldn't be aware of this darker side to his past.
"He may have been an innocent but the fact is that there were still people dying around the time he gave the broadcasts. The Battle of Arnhem was going on and thousands of people were being killed and he was living in this fantasy world. I think he was very naive but I don't think that degree of naivety can be entirely blameless."
Tony Ring, the editor of Wooster Sauce, the quarterly magazine published by the PG Wodehouse Society, was angered by the prospect of the play. He said: "If it is handled maturely it will be acceptable. But if artistic licence distorts the provable facts there will be a great deal of disquiet." Whitehall said: "This play has been researched in great depth - it isn't a hatchet job."