P. G. Wodehouse, an incredibly prolific British humorist (writing nearly 100 books, and many plays, movies and short stories) was one of the greatest prose writers of his or any other century. Hardly a paragraph goes past without some witticism, some pithy, beautifully made remark that turns a phrase in a direction it hasn’t gone before, often with humorous results. No words ever wasted, no dialogue indistinct or bland. And he spent all that wonderful talent writing light comedies about the misadventures of the British aristocratic class.
His work is not trenchant satire. No one’s ox is really being gored, no deep social meanings extracted, because his writing isn’t satire. It’s pure fantasy, creating a class of people who don’t do much more than go from castle to castle, getting engaged and then laboring to break off those engagements. No one ever actually gets married, or sick, or has children, or dies or has anything remotely serious happen to them. Nor do they age, or move beyond about the 1910s (and it’s an alternate-world 1910s, with no horrible WWI to scar the continent and its people forevermore.)
One of these ageless families is the subject of this TV adaptation: Blandings Castle, home to addle-minded Lord Emsworth, his imperious sister Connie, and occasionally his aggressively stupid son, Freddie Threepwood. More than to any human being, Emsworth is devoted to his enormous sow, the Empress, and he spends his days concerned with her care and feeding at the expense of whatever aristocratic duties he may have. Emsworth (played wonderfully by Timothy Spall) has only one real human ally in the house, the dour but knowing head butler, Beach (Mark Williams, who might be best known as Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter films). Beach is a variation on a stock Wodehouse character of the “fixer” – the most famous of which is Bertie Wooster’s angel-in-disguise Jeeves. Beach is minor-key Jeeves, not as incandescently bright, and possibly constantly drunk (not that Lord Emsworth would ever notice, or disapprove.) And not that the dilemmas Lord Emsworth finds himself in are ever too serious. The stakes for Emsworth are ridiculously low. In the first episode, “Pig Hoo-o-o-o-ey”, Lord Emsworth is distraught because his pig-man Wellbeloved is in jail for drunken disorderly, and so the Empress will not eat, from pining for her caretaker.
Meanwhile, Connie (Jennifer Saunders) wants him to break off his niece’s engagement with a middle-class man just back from America. He tries, despite not recognizing his niece, or the suitor, or the man from America. One of the funnier running gags is that Emsworth generally can’t remember or often recognize who he is talking to at any one time, including his own son. Nothing much comes of any of it.
All of the six half-hour episodes in this first series are similar – minor romantic problems distracting Emsworth from his beloved pig while Connie tries to keep the good name of the family from being too embarrassed by Lord Emsworth’s eccentricities. And, for the most part, it maintains the spirit (and, at its best, much of the language) of Wodehouse’s stories. There isn’t much of a sense of continuity to the series. Most of the humor is found in the dialogue, in the contrast between the erudite and elevated language the characters use to convey ideas that are completely brainless or nonsensical.
What has been added by the adaptors is a healthy helping of toilet and even some mild sex humor, which couldn’t be further from the spirit of Wodehouse. Much of the bawdy humor comes from the Empress, who is heard rather graphically farting and defecating while Emsworth compliments her on her digestion. In the second episode, Freddie Threepwood wants to impress the local pretty dog walker, but his mongrel is more devoted to leg-humping than being impressive for an attractive girl. It’s all mostly PG-rated, but that misses the point. Wodehouse’s world is effervescent, and its connection with reality is tenuous at best. It does not require “realism”, it is not compatible with “edginess”, even with such blunt knives.
But, despite my occasional misgivings at tone of some of the content, Blandings largely does its job. It’s a funny show, and I laughed consistently at it. And it inspired me to re-read some of Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, which is worthwhile on its own.