Bertie Wooster, if not actually disgruntled, is far from being gruntled. Gussie Fink-Nottle has summoned Bertie to Totleigh Towers, where he is currently studying the mating habits of newts in the full moon. Gussie’s engagement to the drippy Madeline Basset, who believes that the stars are god’s daisy chain, is under threat. Madeline thinks that Bertie loves her, and the code of the Woosters dictates that in the event of an estrangement with Gussie, Bertie would be compelled to marry Madeline, whose father Sir Watkyn Basset happens to be the magistrate Bertie faced after pinching a policeman’s helmet on boat race night. Meanwhile the redoubtable Aunt Dahlia commands Bertie to steal a cow creamer sneakily acquired by Sir Watkyn, or else Bertie will be denied access to Anatole’s fabulous cooking. Uncle Tom, who looks like a pterodactyl with a secret sorrow, must have this cow creamer for his antique silver collection. Stephanie “Stiffy” Bing, who has more curves than a scenic railway and a dog who bites first and asks questions later, blackmails Bertie into pretending to steal the said cow creamer, only to be thwarted by her lover Harold “Stinker” Pinker, who is more broke than the ten commandments. The fearsome Roderick Spode, who had the kind of face that made you want to climb a tree and pull it up after you, thinks Bertie is a thief and philanderer, and wants to pulverize him. But Spode has a fatal flaw for a fascist dictator in training; he designs women’s underwear. Enter Jeeves, whose formidable intellect is strained to the limit, but in the end, as in Shakespeare’s comedy, all’s well that ends well.
This then is the hopelessly convoluted yet totally delightful plot for Perfect Nonsense, a masterful and pioneering stage adaptation of the 1938 Wodehouse gem The Code of the Woosters. Wodehouse’s genius was undoubtedly his command of comic prose, and his completely unique ability to make one laugh out loud at a ridiculous plot or a colorful simile. Screen adaptations have fallen woefully short of capturing this Wodehouse magic. The BBC’s recent attempt at the bucolic saga of the eccentric Lord Emsworth and his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, was nothing short of disastrous. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie are talented enough actors to make the Jeeves and Wooster series mildly amusing, but with Perfect Nonsense, for two glorious hours I sat there with a beatific smile and a lingering sense that Plum, as the late Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was affectionately known, sat by my side and spun me a wonderful yarn. The Jeeves and Wooster series was always written as a first person narrative by Bertie, and the Goodale brothers, Robert and David, use the clever device of having Bertie play the role of thespian to engage the audience very directly. Steven Mangan is brilliant as the vacuous, bungling Wooster, and Mathew Macfadyen is monumental playing Jeeves, and everyone else for good measure. The Wodehouse estate was understandably skeptical when the project was first presented, but my hats off to them for taking a chance. This is a theatrical tour de force. The master would approve.
The experience was all the more novel for the company; as far as I could tell, 100% of the sell-out crowd was English! Cricket has been described as an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British. Similarly, most Indians believe Wodehouse was an Indian writer accidentally born in Guildford. In my days growing up in New Delhi, Wodehouse was far and away the best-selling writer in India, and even to this day Penguin sells more Wodehouse novels in India than it does in the rest of the world. The reason for this peculiar obsession with a quintessentially English world of idiotic aristocrats who play with rubber ducks, quirky peers who breed pigs and erudite butlers who read Spinoza has been the subject of much debate. Shashi Tharoor, a former President of the Wodehouse Society at my alma mater St Stephen’s College, suggests that Wodehouse’s “subversion of the English language appeals most of all to a people who have acquired English but rebel against its heritage.” Others speculate that “modern Britain shies away from its feudal past that India so readily embraces”. There may be elements of truth in both statements, but at some level this will remain a mystery, not unlike the cult following in India enjoyed by libertarian heroine Ayn Rand in this bastion of Fabian socialism. Ironically, the only Wodehouse reference to India anyone can recall is one that might have resulted in immediate detention on arrival in Mumbai. “Why is there unrest in India? Because its inhabitants eat only an occasional handful of rice. The day when Mahatma Gandhi sits down to a good juicy steak and follows it up with roly-poly pudding and a spot of Stilton, you will see the end of all this nonsense of Civil Disobedience.”
While Wodehouse’s enduring popularity in India is intriguing, the saga of his fortunes in his own homeland is fascinating. At the heart of the controversy is the series of radio broadcasts made by Wodehouse while interned as an “enemy alien” in occupied France, Belgium and eventually Germany. While Plum argued that it was Much Ado About Nothing, a Comedy of Errors might be closer to the mark. Transcripts of these broadcasts make for riveting reading. Consider this, from the first broadcast. “The first time you see a German soldier over your garden fence, your impulse is to jump ten feet straight up into the air, and you do so. About a week later, you find that you are only jumping five feet. And then, after you have been living with him in a small village for two months, you inevitably begin to fraternize and to wish that you had learned German at school instead of Latin and Greek.” Vintage Woodhouse, but to a London reeling under the blitz, this was nothing short of blasphemous. In Wodehouse’s beloved Dulwich College, students were caned if caught with a Wodehouse novel. Despite his eventual rehabilitation culminating in a knighthood in 1975 – he died a few weeks later, declaring he had nothing more to achieve – a generation of Britons that might have been his greatest fans instead viewed him with suspicion. Rather like a high performance German automobile, Wodehouse was deserving of their respect, but not their affection.
There is, however, an entire other dimension to these broadcasts – wheels within wheels, as Bertie would say. They show a man of indomitable spirit, much in the fashion of Roberto Benigni’s masterpiece Life is Beautiful. One can almost imagine the master whistling the Colonel Bogey March while living on “potatoes and rumors” or “Shakespeare sonnets and cheese.” On the experience of being transported in a cattle truck he has this to say. “Every time I stretched my legs, I kicked a human soul. This would not have mattered so much, but every time the human souls stretched their legs, they kicked me.” Or his description of his French prison cell. “There was nothing much we could do except stand, for the enclosure was evidently designed by an architect who had seen the Black Hole of Calcutta and admired it.” Wodehouse dealt in delight rather than philosophical insight, but in his final broadcast from Tost (“If this is Upper Silesia, what on earth must Lower Silesia be like”) you get the clear sense of a man, now in his late fifties, wearying of his travails but determined to stand by the principles that have always sustained him. “Life in an internment camp resembles life outside, in that it is what you make it. Nothing can take away the unpleasant feeling of being a prisoner, but you can make an effort and prevent it getting you down. And that is what we did.” At which point an Indian fan might have said Lage Raho, PG Wodehouse.
In my student days, The Wodehouse Society at St. Stephen’s College – founded in the sixties and apparently the first of its kind – was a hotbed of activity, and the annual Practical Joke Week the highlight of its existence. Tragically, the society has been defunct for over 30 years as a result of a prank involving women’s underwear flying half mast on the flagpole. In a concession to history, the college website (http://www.ststephens.edu/societies/wodehouse.htm) still lists The Wodehouse Society, but rather than describing its activities the page carries the following one-line message. Biding their time. On the eve of the master’s birthday (October 15th), and on the threshold of what promises to be a major Wodehouse revival in London, now might be a good time for the powers that be to relent and let the phoenix rise from its ashes.