Wodehouse brought back to life
BEWARE the man who doesn't like PG Wodehouse. He is almost certainly a complete blighter, a blighter, moreover, devoid of a sense of humour.
Yet for a time many regarded it as an Englishman's patriotic duty to despise Wodehouse, and he faced the possibility of arrest if he returned to Britain. What turned this most innocent of men into a pariah?
Roger Milner tells the story in this occasionally creaky but excellently acted new play, based on his own original research. It's a sad and touching tale that powerfully suggests that unworldliness can often look remarkably like guilt.
In 1940 Wodeouse was living with his wife Ethel in Le Touquet, and failed to get out before the Germans arrived. Like other men under 60, he was interned, eventually ending up in upper Silesia, where he was imprisoned for 11 months.
He was released early, however, and subsequently made five radio broadcasts in Berlin, offering a wryly amused account of his captivity. He believed that the broadcasts were intended only for America (not then involved in the war), and hoped they would reassure his friends there that he was alive and well.
Goebbels, however, recognised a propaganda coup, and transmitted the talks to Britain, where Wodehouse was perceived as a new Lord Haw-Haw. Anthony Eden accused him in Parliament of lending his services to the Nazis, and the BBC not only banned Wodehouse's books but broadcast vituperative talks about him by the Daily Mirror columnist Cassandra (aka William Connor).
The play is set in the Hotel Bristol in Paris in 1944, where the Wodehouses are living inluxury with their Pekinese dog, shortly after the Liberation. Malcolm Muggeridge, then an intelligence officer, has been sent to conduct an inquiry into Wodehouse, and Duff Cooper has recently arrived as the new British ambassador.
It's typical of the Wodehouses' lack of savvy that they initially mistrust Muggeridge, who is to turn into a staunch friend, and pin their hopes on Cooper, who is actually a malign enemy. The play also offers extracts from the notorious talks and, innocent though they are, one can see that their jaunty tone and failure to criticise the Nazis must have seemed intolerable to those who had suffered grievous losses in the war.
Milner's play, which I saw at Richmond Theatre, contains too much talk and not enough action, though he enlivens the drama with the story of a French chambermaid (Beatriz Batarda), who is cruelly punished by the Resistance for collaboration, and helped to safety by the Wodehouses.
It's the acting that distinguishes the evening, though. Anton Rodgers is the perfect Plum, kindly, distrait, obsessed with his work and more or less incapable of standing up for himself. His sense that he has betrayed himself, if not his country, is deeply affecting. Angela Thorne is equally good as his formidable wife. She comes over like a cross between two of Bertie Wooster's aunts, the kind, exhaustingly hearty Aunt Dahlia and the ferocious Aunt Agatha, and her grief over the death of her daughter provides the play with a depth charge of emotion.
Christopher Morahan's over-leisurely production is well served too by Ian Gelder's crisply sympathetic portrayal of Muggeridge, and by Michael Cochrane, who plays Cooper with truly chilling vindictiveness.
No one who has encountered that ridiculous fascist Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts in the Jeeves books, could suspect Wodehouse of Nazi sympathies. Milner is undoubtedly right to conclude that Plum may have been a silly ass, but he was no traitor.