Show Hide image

Something nasty in the Wodehouse

"Blandings" and "Utopia" reviewed.

Blandings; Utopia
BBC1; Channel 4

For future reference, here is my cut-out-andkeep guide to brilliant, funny books that have never and will never, work on television, no matter how much the director adores them, no matter how hard the producer laughed when he first read them, no matter how much this star, or that star, longs to bring such and such beloved character to life.

It goes like this: the novels of Nancy Mitford; Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons; The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith; Money by Martin Amis; the Just William stories of Richmal Crompton; and, most importantly, anything at all by tempting old P G Wodehouse. Please, television commissioning editors, do feel free to cut this out and stick it in your wallets along with the photographs of little Otto and your place in Sussex. You will save us all an awful lot of pain if you do.

It is Blandings (Sundays, 6.30pm), the BBC’s new adaptation of Wodehouse’s stories about the eccentric inhabitants of Blandings Castle, that has provoked me to write this list – and if you watched it too, you will know why. Piles is funnier than Blandings. So is a Cannon and Ball DVD or a Tom Sharpe novel. When Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC1, says that Wodehouse brings sunshine into people’s lives, he is quite right. You could always tell when my father was reading Wodehouse: his laughter was so explosive, his Dr Scholl sandals would sometimes fly from his feet (yes, you read that right; this was the Seventies and he was a university lecturer).

But television adaptations of Wodehouse bring only clouds. Clouds of depression and existential angst. How, you wonder, as you watch yet another masterclass in Great British Overacting, was this ever allowed to happen? This version of the Blanding stories has been dramatised by Guy Andrews, the man who brought us Lost in Austen. It’s not his fault that books whose genius lies in their tone lose 90 per cent of that genius when you reduce them only to dialogue.

What chutzpah to imagine that you will be the one to get round this essential conundrum. Timothy Spall is Lord Emsworth, who wants only to be left alone with his prize pig, the Empress; Jennifer Saunders is his sister, Constance; and Mark Williams is Beach the butler. Spall is fine, though I believe in him as a toff not at all. The other two seem to have just strolled in off their old sketch shows; they’re manic and cardboardlike at the same time, which is quite some feat. Jack Farthing does a nice turn as Lord Emsworth’s dumbo son, Freddie – tinkety tonk! – but his energy has nowhere to go and you can sort of see that he knows this. He looks panicky and uncomfortable.

The pig is excellent. The first episode included not one but two lame jokes about her extraordinarily euphonic farts, which seemed a bit desperate in a half-hour show. But she put in a stand-out performance: nuanced, vivid, even plangent at times. And now I’m going to move on because, honestly, what else can I say? Blandings is so bad, even a pig is embarrassed by it.

Channel 4 has a new series, Utopia, that it seems to be spinning as State of Play for a new generation (and isn’t it amazing – naming no names – how some journalists just lap this stuff up?). I was all set to enjoy it mightily. I love conspiracy dramas and I love graphic novels, and this is a conspiracy drama about a graphic novel, so it might have been written for me (it’s by Dennis Kelly, who is best known for his plays and for writing Pulling with Sharon Horgan).

Yet it’s not as clever as, I suspect, it thinks it is and it’s pointlessly, horribly violent. Its zeitgeisty preoccupation with 21st-century anxieties makes it feel overloaded, too. Mutant genes, internet privacy, rising food prices, flu vaccines; all the madness is here. Will I stick with it? I suppose so. It looks lovely (apart from the gore), and there are chirpy performances from Alexandra Roach, Adeel Akhtar and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the trio of comic-books nerds. More to the point, I’ve just finished my Mad Men box set. What else is a girl to do these bleak January evenings?

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel