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The Times 26 September 2000

Beyond a Joke

Ian Johns

P.G. WODEHOUSE was probably the greatest writer of comic prose in the 20th century, yet he managed to wipe the smiles off many Englishmen and even had some of his books burnt in disgust. Roger Milner's new play, Beyond a Joke, currently on tour until November 11, tells the sad tale of "Plum" Wodehouse's fall from grace.

Wodehouse and his wife Ethel were living in Le Touquet when the Germans arrived in 1940. The couple were arrested and he subsequently spent 11 months in an internment camp in Upper Silesia.

In June 1941, shortly before his 60th birthday, he was transferred to a hotel in Berlin. Soon afterwards he met an old Hollywood friend who suggested that
he broadcast a series of lighthearted talks to America to reassure his many fans there that he was none the worse for his ordeal. Goebbels, however, realised the propaganda coup before him and had Wodehouse's five wry commentaries transmitted to Britain.

Although these talks had no trace of Nazi propaganda, the very act of broadcasting on German radio meant that he was branded a traitor by the British press and politicians. Two years later, Wodehouse and his wife were exiled by the Nazi authorities to the Hotel Bristol in Paris.

Beyond a Joke is set in the Hotel Bristol in 1944, shortly after the Liberation, when the Wodehouses are enjoying a comfortable lifestyle. Malcolm Muggeridge, then an officer in the Intelligence Corps, has been sent to cross-examine Wodehouse while Plum and Ethel appeal to an unsympathetic Duff Cooper, the newly arrived British ambassador, for a visa which will allow them to return to Britain.

As seen at the Richmond Theatre, Christopher Morahan's production is a slackly paced affair. It isn't helped by Milner's script which often seems like stitched-together research and anecdotes masquerading as dialogue (at one point Wodehouse simply starts reading passages from his diary to Muggeridge). Talky scenes are interspersed with extracts from the infamous broadcasts, but they all lack dramatic bite.

To raise the action stakes, Milner introduces a subplot in which the Wodehouses help a French chambermaid (Beatriz Batarda), who has been branded a collaborator by the Resistance after falling in love with a German soldier. It's not enough, though, to overcome the static drama.

What stands out in this production are some low-key but effective performances. Anton Rodgers is convincing and touching as the pipe-puffing Plum, a benign, almost unworldly, figure who gets too easily wrapped up in his work while the world goes mad around him.

Angela Thorne also impresses as the no-nonsense Ethel, someone you believe would be unfazed by Bertie Wooster's formidable aunts. There is good support, too, from Ian Gelder as the sympathetic Muggeridge and Michael Cochrane as Duff Cooper, the vehement voice of disgust at Wodehouse's actions.

By the end of the play, you reach the conclusion that all Wodehouse was
guilty of was being a political simpleton. To believe he was another Lord Haw-Haw is to ignore the work of a writer which includes that bracing satire on Mosleyite fascism, The Code of the Woosters.

Ultimately, Wodehouse didn't so much let down his country as let down himself.

Copyright Michel Kuzmenko (gmk), The Russian Wodehouse Society © 1996-2023. Established 04/04/1996.