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It is enough to be funny
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The Times, 4 May 2000

It is enough to be funny

Stephen Fry

CW DOCTOR Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse defies superlatives.

Had his only contribution to literature been Lord Emsworth and Blandings Castle, his place in history would have been assured. Had he written of none but Mike and Psmith, he would be cherished today as the best and brightest of our comic authors. If Jeeves and Wooster had been his solitary theme, still he would be hailed as The Master. If he had given us only Ukridge, or nothing but recollections of the Mulliner family, or a pure diet of golfing stories, Wodehouse would nonetheless be considered immortal.

That he gave us all those and more - so much more - is our good fortune and a testament to the most industrious, prolific and beneficent author ever to have sat down, scratched his head and banged out a sentence.

The only really controversial episode of Wodehouse's life, his broadcasts to friends from Berlin while an internee of the Germans in France and Belgium during the Second World War, is dug up from time to time by people wanting to make mischief and the ignorant. It wouldn't be worth mentioning if it hadn't been unearthed yet again quite recently, together with completely unjustifable newspaper headlines in the British press linking the name Wodehouse with words like Nazi, Fascist and Traitor.

But as George Orwell wrote in his celebrated 1945 essay In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse: ". . . in the case of Wodehouse, if we drive him to retire to the United States and renounce his British citizenship, we shall end by being horribly ashamed of ourselves." The fact remains too that for decades after they were made, Wodehouse's broadcasts were used by, among others, the CIA, as models of how to pull the wool over a captor's eyes by the use of irony. For Wodehouse's view on Fascists, one need only consult the descriptions of Sir Roderick Spode in The Code of the Woosters to see how a political innocent may still be capable of scorching satire.

CW When Hugh Laurie and I had the extreme honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of television adaptations, we were aware of one huge problem facing us. Wodehouse's three great achievements are Plot, Character and Language, and the greatest of these by far is Language. Wodehouse's language lives and breathes in its written, printed form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted it is compromised. Our only hope in making the televison series was that the stories and characters might provide enough pleasure on their own to inspire the viewer to pick up a book and encounter The Real Thing.

I think I should end on a personal note. I have written it before and I am not ashamed to write it again. Without Wodehouse I am not sure that I would be a tenth of what I am today - whatever that may be. In my teenage years the writings of P.G. Wodehouse awoke me to the possibilities of language. His rhythms, tropes, tricks and mannerisms are deep within me.

But more than that he taught me something about good nature. It is enough to be benign, to be gentle, to be funny, to be kind. He mocked himself sometimes because he knew that a great proportion of his readers came from prisons and hospitals. At the risk of being sententious, isn't it true that we are all of us, for a great part of our lives, sick or imprisoned, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, this balm for hurt minds?

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