Welcome to Part Nine of our post-election almost-escapism in Tales for Our Time - Psmith, Journalist, P G Wodehouse's account of a gallant press (that's the escapist part) amidst the graft and corruption of New York (that's the not so much) a little over a century ago.
In tonight's episode an Etonian, a Wyoming straight-shooter and an up-and-coming boxer finds themselves on the mean streets late at night, and alas a little lost as to their precise whereabouts. Fortunately there are persons approaching who should be able to point them in the right direction:
Psmith stepped forward, the Kid at his side.
"Excuse me, sir," he said to the leader, "but if you can spare me a moment of your valuable time—"
There was a sudden shuffle of feet on the pavement, a quick movement on the part of the Kid, a chunky sound as of wood striking wood, and the man Psmith had been addressing fell to the ground in a heap.
As he fell, something dropped from his hand on to the pavement with a bump and a rattle. Stooping swiftly, the Kid picked it up, and handed it to Psmith. His fingers closed upon it. It was a short, wicked-looking little bludgeon, the black-jack of the New York tough.
"Get busy," advised the Kid briefly.
Congratulations on the new reading, Mark. You mentioned in your preface that imitation of P G Wodehouse's prose style was very difficult. It occurs to me that that is equally true, when it comes to performing his works. Back in the Seventies, in between power cuts, we in the UK were occasionally able to watch "Wodehouse Playhouse": half-hour BBC productions starring John Alderton, mainly as a Mulliner character. A little later, there was a brief series of Wodehouse-based monologues, in which Alderton alternated with Paul Eddington.
Alderton (whose 80th birthday, I see, is this Friday) seemed to be born to play Wodehouse roles and I'm not sure I have ever seen him in anything else, although he has, of course had a wider career. Paul Eddington, on the other hand, sank like a stone in those Wodehouse performances. In general, of the two, I'd say Eddington had the broader range and his performances as Jim Hacker in "Yes, [Prime] Minister showed his comic genius. Nevertheless, he couldn't do Wodehouse. I don't know why. Perhaps, the somewhat funny-lugubrious presence he brought to his roles was just wrong for Wodehouse.
One of the Alderton episodes involved a visit to NY by a typically ingenuous protagonist. My favourite line:
"A concrete overcoat? I wouldn't be seen dead in one of those!"
I agree, Owen, that Wodehouse is very difficult to do on the big or small screen - because he writes in heightened prose that, absent the authorial voice, requires a heightened acting style very difficult to sustain over an hour or so. You also need an adaptor who can find other ways to fill the gaps left by the narration, as my old Bafta chum Clive Exton managed to do when scripting "Jeeves & Wooster".
Still, I'm a little stunned to hear you say you've never seen John Alderton in anything other than Wodehouse. This was his boffo ratings smasheroo:
There was an episode of "Please, Sir!" in which Joan Sanderson, the martinet of an old-school spinster schoolmarm, is attempting to be "with it" and renders Hair thus:
This is the aging of the dawn of Aquarius...
As the years go by, this has struck me as an ever more profound joke: for at least a quarter-century, we've been living through the aging of the dawn of Aquarius.
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