Adapting Wodehouse for the radio is a challenge – but the BBC has succeeded brilliantly

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

23 May 2020

9:00 AM

Leave it to Psmith

Radio 4

Eric the Skull

Radio 4

Everyone knows a Lord Emsworth. Mine lives south of the river and wears caterpillars in his hair and wine on his shirt and has just occasionally written for this magazine. That doesn’t much narrow it down. When you look at him, you understand a little better why P. G. Wodehouse is topping the lists of authors to read during lockdown. It’s not just that the books are funny. With an Emsworth or a Bertie Wooster you’re guaranteed that idling and dithering will land you somewhere. Even if it is in the soup.

Adapted for Radio 4 this fortnight, Leave it to Psmith, the second in Wodehouse’s Blandings series, sees the dithering Earl invite a prospective thief into his home after mistaking him for a Canadian poet. Emsworth’s sister, the imperious Constance, has arranged for the Earl and the poet to have lunch. The only trouble is that neither knows what the poet looks like. Emsworth’s hopeless son Freddie is meanwhile plotting to steal his aunt’s necklace to fund his latest hare-brained scheme.

Airing on Sunday afternoons, the two-parter is produced by Jarvis & Ayres, the husband and wife team behind some of the most enjoyable recent renditions of Wodehouse’s classics. Martin Jarvis, who has played Jeeves on Broadway and carried a successful Wodehouse one-man show, is brilliant as the bumbling Emsworth. He does not so much deliver his lines as force them out from a supine position on a club banquette. Patricia Hodge makes a delightfully stern Constance: ‘Clarence, stand up straight, you’re drooping like a damp sock.’

Leave it to Psmith is a challenge for radio, requiring numerous scene changes and sleights of hand to reveal a string of cases of mistaken identity. To carry out the theft, Freddie (George Blagden) employs the services of Psmith (with a silent ‘p’), the disaffected fishmonger who will do anything — ‘Crime not objected to!’ — for a few bob. But Psmith (Edward Bennett) catches the attention along the way of Emsworth’s new library archivist, the beguiling Eve Halliday (Susannah Fielding), who like Emsworth originally takes him for somebody else.

This would be confusing were we not privy to the characters’ doubts. Emsworth remarks how unlike a poet — and how unlike a Canadian — is the curious ‘Mr McTodd’. Constance suspects something when she sees his hair. What sort of poet cuts it short? But as often, it’s the household staff, namely the efficient Baxter, who is on to him from the start. Caddish Psmith must earn his crust.

Eric the Skull, also on Radio 4 this week, is a lighthearted contemporary drama about the formation of the famous Detection Club. Fenella Woolgar plays Dorothy L. Sayers, the snooty narrator of the piece, who henpecks the unclubbable Agatha Christie (Janie Dee) into becoming a member and generally chivvies her fellow crime writers along. Sayers dreams of the club president wearing ‘red liturgical tunicals’. Christie can envisage nothing worse.

There are some splendidly catty lines. Thriller writers are strictly personae non gratae. E.C. Bentley amuses with endless clerihews when Sayers enquires why he’s failed to write another novel. Fusspot G.K. Chesterton passes everything by his wife and turns his nose up at frivolity, ‘the mustard of the cold meat of life’.

But the drama is dampened by the heavy-handedness with which characters are introduced. Arthur Conan Doyle is referred to in conversation as ‘the creator of the most iconic detecting pairing in the history of literature’. Agatha Christie’s entrance is preceded by a potted biography of her marital breakdown and disappearance. We even have Sayers speaking from beyond the grave of her literary reputation in the ‘golden age’ of crime writing. There are few gentle hints. No subtle sleuthing. It’s less Lord Peter Wimsey than Dick van Dyke.

The story perks up towards the end as the crime writers seek a skull for use in their initiation ceremonies. Of all their characters, Poirot emerges as best placed to locate one, drawing on his contacts in the medical world. But what to call it? ‘Yorick’ is suggested but misheard as ‘Eric’. The name sticks. As red lights are placed behind his eye sockets you’re reminded what a macabre mob this was. Members of the modern Detection Club still honour him this way. Alas, poor Eric was a she.

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