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Psmith and the BBC psilly asses

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DOMINIC Sandbrook in the Mail on Sunday draws attention to BBC Radio 4 Extra and its latest repeat of an adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s Psmith in the City. It is preceded by an announcement that listeners should steel themselves for ‘some dated attitudes and language’.

You don’t say. The story was written well over a century ago, appearing first as a serial in The Captain magazine in 1908 and 1909 before being published as a book by A & C Black in 1910.

In it Psmith (the P is silent) and his old school friend Mike Jackson are reunited when they find themselves working for the New Asiatic Bank, a thinly disguised portrait of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (now HSBC) where Wodehouse himself endured a torrid spell before his writing career took off.

The two chums have several run-ins with management and Mike is eventually fired before Psmith solves all his problems and has him reinstated. Of course, as always in Wodehouse’s world, there is no sex, no angst, nothing to frighten the horses.

So why the BBC announcement? Sandbrook writes: ‘At first I wondered if this must be some mistake. Perhaps the warning had been transposed from some more dangerous programme, such as a stand-up show by Bernard Manning? 

‘But the warning was meant for Psmith. So what were these toxic and potentially traumatising attitudes? For the life of me, I still don’t really know.

‘At one point, Psmith talks of going “out East”, where you have “a dozen native clerks under you, all looking up to you as the Last Word in magnificence”. But was that it? Did that merit a warning?

‘As it happens, this radio adaptation was made in 2008. Did the actors realise they were participating in something steeped in sick imperialistic assumptions? I doubt it.

‘Venturing into the cesspit of social media, I often find Left-wing pundits insisting there is no such thing as cancel culture and that the whole thing is an evil Tory myth.

‘But when people are sticking warning labels on P G Wodehouse, something is seriously wrong. Indeed, you could hardly find a more ludicrous target, because he was one of most tolerant, generous-spirited writers imaginable. So generous-spirited that he’d probably have laughed this off. “I never was interested in politics,” Wodehouse once remarked. “I’m quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling.”

‘Being cut from a meaner cloth, however, I do feel worked up about it. When I think of these finger-wagging commissars sitting in judgment on a writer who has given so much pleasure to so many readers, I feel like Bertie Wooster’s Aunt Agatha, gearing herself up before a titanic tirade.

‘Do we really need a warning that P G Wodehouse is “dated”? What next? A lecture before Hamlet, to warn us that poisoning your wife or killing your uncle is now considered poor form? A warning before Roald Dahl or Ian Fleming?

‘But, of course, Dahl and Fleming don’t need warnings now, for they have been posthumously updated.’

Good for you, Mr Sandbrook. I agree with every word. And I look forward to revisiting the entire Psmith series, which includes a visit to Blandings Castle in the final instalment, Leave it to Psmith, published in 1923.

For readers unfamiliar with the character, I can do no better than quote the eminent Wodehouse historian Richard Usborne in his Wodehouse at Work to the End, in which he describes the author’s progress from books about school to the world of grown-ups.

‘Psmith is Wodehouse’s first adult hero. His eyelids are a little weary and he wears a monocle. In a schoolboy world, where nobody else has done much but play cricket . . . Psmith talks and behaves like someone who has swept together thousands of experiences and is never going to be surprised at anything again. In his first book (Mike) he patronises his headmaster, in his last he patronises Lord Emsworth.

‘Psmith is like a breath of good, stale night-club air coming through the healthily open, if precautiously barred, windows of common room, study and dormitory. To readers of Wodehouse, he is the link between Awkward Adolescence and the Great After Life.

‘Psmith is a lazy man who likes his comforts. He is strongly opposed to missing his sleep and he quotes a learned German doctor’s theory that early rising leads to insanity. Psmith offers us late breakfasts, deep armchairs, the smell of cigar smoke, the folding of the hands in repose after good lunches in clubland. Psmith wafts us painlessly from the School Close to Piccadilly.’

While the Psmith books pale in comparison with Wodehouse’s classic later works such as the novels Right Ho, JeevesThe Code of the Woosters and Joy in the Morning, they are a fascinating chapter in the development of our greatest comic writer. And leave worrying about the dated attitudes and language to the idiots at Broadcasting House.

David Lindley, RIP

I was deeply saddened to learn of the death at 78 of the brilliant American multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, long-standing sidekick of Jackson Browne and Ry Cooder. Here is a piece I wrote about him in 2020 and here is his stellar lap-steel contribution to Browne’s These Days.

The Dead Sea Scribe

My former Daily Mail colleague Mike Stanford, a sports desk stalwart, emailed me to pass on the following story, told to him by a former Reuters executive. 

‘A keen young reporter on Reuters was asked to do a story about the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which he described them as being 2,006 years old. When a sub-editor queried this surprisingly precise figure he replied confidently, “It’s right. I checked in the files and six years ago we said they were 2,000 years old”.’

Old jokes’ home

My therapist says I have a preoccupation with vengeance. We’ll see about that.

A PS from PG

‘Oh, yes, he thinks a lot of you. I remember his very words. “Mr Wooster, miss”, he said, “is, perhaps, mentally somewhat negligible but he has a heart of gold”.’

PG Wodehouse: Thank You, Jeeves

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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