Wodehouse at war — and all at sea

There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who think that PG Wodehouse is the greatest comic writer in the English language; and those who for the life of them can’t see what the fuss is about. I am firmly in the former camp, which is why I was fascinated by BBC4’s Wodehouse in Exile (screened last Monday and still available on iPlayer as I write on Sunday morning).

It deals with the one great blunder that Wodehouse made in his life – broadcasting (on German radio) some light-hearted reminiscences of his time as an internee in a German prison camp. Coming at the height of World War II and before the United States entered the war, this was a bone-headed idea which led to him being accused of treachery in Britain and to permanent (if luxurious) exile in the United States.

It was a terrific production, with Tim Piggott-Smith giving a wonderful performance as a bemused innocent at large in a dangerous world, and by Zoe Wanamaker as Ethel, Wodehouse’s fiery, exotic wife. Nigel Williams’s screenplay did a great job of explaining how ‘Plum’ got into the mess, and of what a tragedy it turned out to be.

Checking with the two Wodehouse biographies (Robert McCrum’s and Frances Dolandson’s) in my collection suggests that the screenplay was pretty accurate. But what was most striking to me was a realisation that the reason Wodehouse was so good at bringing two of his greatest creations – Bertie Wooster and Lord Emsworth – to life is that he was, in a way, just describing himself. In real life he was, like Bertie, a good-hearted, innocent chump.