Wodehouse in Exile, BBC Four, review
Benji Wilson reviews Wodehouse in Exile, a BBC drama focussing how author PG Wodehouse came to face a treason charge that led to his exile from Britain.
By Benji Wilson7:00AM GMT 26 Mar 2013
The idea of PG Wodehouse being accused of treachery towards his country – a country whose self-image he did so much to create – may seem laughable now, but as BBC Four’s fine drama Wodehouse in Exile showed last night, that was what happened during the Second World War.
His crime, such as it was, was to have been released a few months early from an internment camp in Upper Silesia in 1941, whereupon he was enthusiastically sucked up by the German propaganda machine and put on the radio to tell the Americans in a series of typically peppy dispatches how well he’d been treated.
Wodehouse thought his broadcasts would show the world unbroken British resolve. In fact he had been duped, and back in London the response was incandescent: “The only wisecrack he ever pulled that the world received in silence,” one newspaper said.
This was a classic BBC Four “inspired by real events” film (of the sort that will soon be no longer: BBC Four has exiled drama as of later this year), and it bounded on at a suitably Woosterian lick. Writer Nigel Williams cast Wodehouse as a sweet old man who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, let alone to an unctuous Nazi. It was only later in the piece when Wodehouse’s wife Ethel finally let him have it with a blast of indignation that you began to question whether a man of such brilliance could really have underestimated the impact of his own words to such calamitous effect. But then as Ethel said, “You can never resist it – the chance to amuse.”
Wodehouse in Exile Review – BBC Four
Posted on March 26, 2013
Wodehouse in Exile - BBC FourBBC 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.
At the start of the Second World War Wodehouse and his wife remained at their Le Touquet house, where, during the Phoney War, he worked on Joy in the Morning. With the advance of the Germans, the nearby Royal Air Force base withdrew; Wodehouse was offered the sole spare seat in one of the fighter aircraft, but he turned down the opportunity as it would have meant leaving behind Ethel and their dog. On 21 May 1940, with German troops advancing through northern France, the Wodehouses decided to drive to Portugal and fly from there to the US. Two miles from home their car broke down, so they returned and borrowed a car from a neighbour; with the routes blocked with refugees, they returned home again.
The Germans occupied Le Touquet on 22 May 1940 and Wodehouse had to report to the authorities daily. After two months of occupation the Germans interned all male enemy nationals under 60, and Wodehouse was sent to a former prison in Loos, a suburb of Lille, on 21 July; Ethel remained in Le Touquet. The internees were placed four to a cell, each of which had been designed for one man. One bed was available per cell, which was made available to the eldest man—not Wodehouse, who slept on the granite floor. The prisoners were not kept long in Loos before they were transported in cattle trucks to a former barracks in Liège which was run as a prison by the SS. After a week the men were transferred to Huy in Liège, Belgium, where they were incarcerated in the local citadel. They remained there until September 1940, when they were transported to Tost in Upper Silesia (then Germany, now Toszek in Poland).
Wodehouse's family and friends had not had any news of his location after the fall of France, but an article from an Associated Press reporter who had visited Tost in December 1940 led to pressure on the German authorities to release the novelist. This included a petition from influential people in the US; Senator W. Warren Barbour presented it to the German ambassador. Although his captors refused to release him, Wodehouse was provided with a typewriter and, to pass the time, he wrote Money in the Bank. Throughout his time in Tost, he sent postcards to his US literary agent asking for $5 to be sent to various people in Canada, mentioning his name. These were the families of Canadian prisoners of war, and the news from Wodehouse was the first indication that their sons were alive and well. Wodehouse risked severe punishment for the communication, but managed to evade the German censor.
“I never was interested in politics. I'm quite unable to work up any kind of belligerent feeling. Just as I'm about to feel belligerent about some country I meet a decent sort of chap. We go out together and lose any fighting thoughts or feelings.”
On 21 June 1941, while he was in the middle of playing a game of cricket, Wodehouse received a visit from two members of the Gestapo. He was given ten minutes to pack his things before he was taken to the Hotel Adlon, a top luxury hotel in Berlin. He stayed there at his own expense; royalties from the German editions of his books had been put into a special frozen bank account at the outset of the war, and Wodehouse was permitted to draw upon this money he had earned whilst staying in Berlin. He was thus released from internment a few months before his sixtieth birthday—the age at which civilian internees were released by the Nazis. Shortly afterwards Wodehouse was, in the words of Phelps, "cleverly trapped" into making five broadcasts to the US via German radio, with the Berlin-based correspondent of the Columbia Broadcasting System. The broadcasts—aired on 28 June, 9, 23 and 30 July, and 6 August—were titled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training, and comprised humorous anecdotes about Wodehouse's experiences as a prisoner, including some gentle mocking of captors. The German propaganda ministry arranged for the recordings to be broadcast to Britain in August. The day after Wodehouse recorded his final programme, Ethel joined him in Berlin, having sold most of her jewellery to pay for the journey.
Aftermath: reactions and investigation
The reaction in Britain to Wodehouse's broadcasts was hostile, and he was widely considered to be a coward and a traitor, although, Phelps observes, many of those who decried his actions had not heard the content of the programmes. A front page article in The Daily Mirror stated that Wodehouse "lived luxuriously because Britain laughed with him, but when the laughter was out of his country's heart, ... [he] was not ready to share her suffering. He hadn't the guts ... even to stick it out in the internment camp." In the House of Commons Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, regretted Wodehouse's actions. Several libraries removed Wodehouse novels from their shelves.
On 15 July the journalist William Connor, under his pen name Cassandra, broadcast a postscript to the news programme railing against Wodehouse. According to The Times, the broadcast "provoked a storm of complaint ... from listeners all over the country". Wodehouse's biographer, Joseph Connolly, thinks the broadcast "inaccurate, spiteful and slanderous"; Phelps calls it "probably the most vituperative attack on an individual ever heard on British radio". The broadcast was made at the direct instruction of Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, who overruled strong protests made by the BBC against the decision to air the programme. Numerous letters appeared in the British press, both supporting and criticising Wodehouse. The letters page of The Daily Telegraph became a focus for censuring Wodehouse, including one from Wodehouse's friend, A.A. Milne; a reply from their fellow author Compton Mackenzie in defence of Wodehouse was not published because the editor claimed a lack of space. Most of those defending Wodehouse against accusations of disloyalty, including Sax Rohmer, Dorothy L. Sayers and Gilbert Frankau, conceded that he had acted stupidly. Some members of the public wrote to the newspapers to say that the full facts were not yet known and a fair judgment could not be made until they were. The management of the BBC, who considered Wodehouse's actions no worse than "ill advised", pointed out to Cooper that there was no evidence at that point whether Wodehouse had acted voluntarily or under compulsion.
When Wodehouse heard of the furore the broadcasts had caused, he contacted the Foreign Office—through the Swiss embassy in Berlin—to explain his actions, and attempted to return home via neutral countries, but the German authorities refused to let him leave. In Performing Flea, a 1953 collection of letters, Wodehouse wrote, "Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn't. I suppose prison life saps the intellect". The reaction in America was mixed: the left-leaning publication P.M. accused Wodehouse of "play[ing] Jeeves to the Nazis", but the Department of War used the interviews as an ideal representation of anti-Nazi propaganda.
The broadcasts, in point of fact, are neither anti- nor pro-German, but just Wodehousian. He is a man singularly ill-fitted to live in a time of ideological conflict, having no feelings of hatred about anyone, and no very strong views about anything. ... I never heard him speak bitterly about anyone—not even about old friends who turned against him in distress. Such temperament does not make for good citizenship in the second half of the Twentieth Century.
The Wodehouses remained in Germany until September 1943, when Allied bombing led to the couple being allowed to move back to Paris. They were living there when the city was liberated on 25 August 1944; Wodehouse reported to the American authorities the following day, asking them to inform the British of his whereabouts. He was subsequently visited by Malcolm Muggeridge, recently arrived in Paris as an intelligence officer with MI6. The young officer quickly came to like Wodehouse and considered the question of treasonable behaviour as "ludicrous"; he summed up the writer as "ill-fitted to live in an age of ideological conflict". On 9 September Wodehouse was visited by an MI5 officer and former barrister, Major Edward Cussen, who formally investigated him, a process that stretched over four days. On 28 September Cussen filed his report, which states that in regard to the broadcasts, Wodehouse's behaviour "has been unwise", but advised against further action. On 23 November Theobald Matthew, the Director of Public Prosecutions, decided there was no evidence to justify prosecuting Wodehouse.
In November 1944 Duff Cooper was appointed British ambassador to France and was provided accommodation at the Hôtel Le Bristol, where the Wodehouses were living. Cooper complained to the French authorities, and the couple were moved to a different hotel. They were subsequently arrested by French police and placed under preventive detention, despite no charges being presented. When Muggeridge tracked them down later, he managed to get Ethel released straight away and, four days later, ensured that the French authorities declared Wodehouse unwell and put him in a nearby hospital, which was more comfortable than where they had been detained. While in this hospital, Wodehouse worked on his novel Uncle Dynamite.
While still detained by the French, Wodehouse was again mentioned in questions in the House of Commons in December 1944 when MPs wondered if the French authorities could repatriate him to stand trial. Eden stated that the "matter has been gone into, and, according to the advice given, there are no grounds upon which we could take action". Two months later George Orwell wrote the essay "In Defence of P.G. Wodehouse", where he stated that "it is important to realise that the events of 1941 do not convict Wodehouse of anything worse than stupidity". Orwell's rationale was that Wodehouse's "moral outlook has remained that of a public-school boy, and according to the public-school code, treachery in time of war is the most unforgivable of all the sins", which was compounded by his "complete lack—so far as one can judge from his printed works—of political awareness".
On 15 January 1945 the French authorities released Wodehouse, but they did not inform him, until June 1946, that he would not face any official charges and was free to leave the country.