BBC Four’s historical drama about P.G. Wodehouse felt like an attempt to rehabilitate a novelist who doesn’t actually need rehabilitating. It actually seemed, ironically, a bit like propaganda, showing as it did a version of history that portrayed Wodehouse and his wife as the most lovable people in the world, and all criticism of Wodehouse to be illegitimate in the extreme.
The film told the story of the English novelist’s time in Europe during WW2. He spends some time in a concentration camp, is manipulated by the Nazi’s into broadcasting some propaganda, and then seeks to rescue his damaged reputation in the UK and US. I had many problems with Wodehouse in Exile, not least amongst them the characters.
As I mentioned above, both Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, are portrayed as being loved by all. Now, that might have been the case, but the work was not put into the film’s writing to justify this portrayal. Ethel is a very annoying character; shouting at people, being rude, suddenly dancing and singing for no reason, flirting with other men. And yet every other character loves her. There is one scene where she somehow storms into a recording studio guarded by the fucking Nazis and protests angrily, to everyone’s amusement. It’s like the film is in complete awe of its characters. That can be okay, but only if you do a lot to convince the audience to be as equally in awe, otherwise it’s just jarring, and you find yourself asking: ‘Why do all these characters love this incredibly annoying, rude person?’
Wodehouse himself was better written, and did seem quite a likable person from the start, mainly because of his wit. ‘I think it’s the German army. Shall we let them in? Or will we pretend we’re out?’ ‘I think it’s time [Hitler] took a firm position on his moustache. Does he want it or not?’
Despite this, the level of love other characters had for Wodehouse throughout the film was way over the top. ‘He’s a kind of saint, in a way,’ says one character, and even the military intelligence officer sent to question his treason loves him. As do all the Nazis. I get it, okay? Wodehouse wasn’t a traitor. You don’t need to ram down our throats how nice he was. Be a little more subtle.
I haven’t read any of P.G. Wodehouse’s works, so I wonder if maybe I’m missing something, and I suspect that fans of his writing might have appreciated the film more. For instance, the characters are almost stereotypes of Englishmen. Everyone is so incredibly wet, and very upstanding. Everyone is ‘old bean’ or ‘chap.’ ‘There’s a bombing raid on at the moment – very boring,’ says Wodehouse’s daughter, who becomes a flustered, hysterical, antiquated version of a woman at one point, being calmed down by her gentlemanly husband. I can only assume such characterisation is a tribute to Wodehouse’s idiosyncratic writing, because if it isn’t, it is bloody awful.
The film’s very flattering portrayal of Wodehouse results in a lack of critique or exploration of his propaganda broadcasts. There is one good scene where a government minister angrily denounces what Wodehouse has done, but we needed more scenes like this. Instead, we got the case against what Wodehouse did put into the mouths of some beastly journalists, with their flashbulbs and shouts, and in every other scene where criticism is raised there is always someone on hand to dismiss it.
The only person in the film who doesn’t like Wodehouse is Mackintosh, a character so irredeemably bad he could fit seamlessly into a Disney film as the villain. He could have been given a moustache to twirl menacingly and it wouldn’t have been out of place. He was a smarmy, snivelling, pretentious, insecure traitor. It’s poor writing to make an antagonist that black and white. And his character made huge shifts to serve the plot: in the beginning he’s dumb and insecure and then suddenly he’s a master manipulator. You could maybe explain this by arguing that Mackintosh was a spy only pretending to be dumb, but if that was the case then the film needed to indicate that in some way.
There’s also some pretty dodgy attitudes towards Germany and the French – ‘You loathsome little frog!’ ‘Fuck the French!’ – and an attitude towards England that bordered on nationalism. ‘Oh England, what do you do to those who love you,’ is a line that is so overwritten I cringed to hear it.
So, yeah, I guess I didn’t like Wodehouse in Exile. I imagine P.G. Wodehouse fans probably disagree though. I liked the character of Wodehouse – and Tim Pigott-Smith’s portrayal was good – but there were too many problems with the film around him. In an essay, George Orwell wrote about Wodehouse’s time in Europe, criticising those who attacked him: ‘It was a chance to ‘expose’ a ‘wealthy parasite’ without drawing attention to any of the parasites who really mattered.’ If only Wodehouse in Exile had approached the subject with as much depth, and with less sycophantic flattery. I would guess that the film’s writer is a huge P.G Wodehouse fan who couldn’t bring himself to criticise what he loves. Kill your idols they say. It might have been a better film if the writer had followed that advice, and had written more objectively.
- The scenes with Wodehouse’s daughter seemed shoehorned in to add some pathos at the end, when it’s revealed she has died. To be fair, it’s such a big event in Wodehouse’s life it probably had to be included, and it must have been hard to try and fit it in alongside the main story.
- Wodehouse changed over the course of the film, becoming more cynical and critical, which was good.
- ‘Maybe jolly old England won’t be there anymore ‘old chap’,’ says Mackintosh. Such a line seems almost like a critique of anyone who doesn’t like the whole English upper-class dialogue thing – you must be a villain if you don’t like it.
- Quite a captivating beginning: radio voiceover–opening credits – bombs.