Amazon Plus Video Review: ‘Blandings’

I didn’t have high hopes for the BBC miniseries Blandings (2 seasons available on Amazon Prime). Comments from members of the Wodehouse group on Facebook were unenthusiastic or downright hostile. I myself found it wanting in certain areas, but better than I feared.

Deep background: Most people have heard of Jeeves and Wooster, but P. G. Wodehouse had other story cycles, notably Blandings Castle (which now and then intersected with J&W). Blandings is an idyllic stately British home in the county of Hampshire. The theoretical master of Blandings is Clarence Threepwood, Lord Emsworth. Emsworth, however, is an amiable idiot, barely sentient, obsessed with gardening and his prize pig. So actual power is wielded by his formidable sister Constance – one of Wodehouse’s legendary “Scaly Aunts.” Constance dominates both Emsworth and his son Freddie, who is as mutton-headed as his father, but more active. A man about town (member of the immortal Drones Club), Freddie divides his activities between losing money gambling and falling in love with girls whom Constance finds unsuitable.

The two seasons of Blandings consist of six and seven episodes respectively. All are based on actual Wodehouse stories. I didn’t follow them line for line, but going by my memory they kept fairly close to the original plots. (The main differences between the two seasons are that George Cyril Wellbeloved, the pigkeeper, is unaccountably dropped in Season Two, and Beach the Butler is recast.)

The adaptations were funny; I’ll grant that. Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, as they should be. However, they seemed to me to be differently funny from the original stories. The colors are louder, the comedy broader, more slapstick. Perhaps that’s a good way to compensate for Wodehouse’s essential authorial voice, but it sometimes seemed a tad over the top. The old Jeeves and Wooster series with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie handled things better.

Young Freddie Threepwood is a case in point. Jack Farthing plays him pretty broadly, and his garish wardrobe and exaggerated quiff of hair are perhaps what Bertie Wooster would have exhibited, had Jeeves not put his foot down.

The big problem in the casting is with Clarence, Lord Emsworth (Timothy Spall). I think I speak for all Wodehousians when I declare that this is some Imposter (of course, Imposters are an important element of many Wodehouse plots). Clarence in the books is usually described as tall and thin, sporting pince-nez glasses. He prefers to dress shabbily, having no sense of personal dignity. However, the Emsworth we encounter here looks like a madman. His hair stands on end. He doesn’t seem like the kind of man who’d wear pince-nez at all. And he’s fat. He’s funny enough, but he’s wrong.

I was happy, in Season Two, to see the arrival of Uncle Galahad Threepwood, (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt, a name almost worthy of Wodehouse himself). “Gally” is an elderly roué, as at home in the city as his brother Clarence is in the country. He’s much smarter than Clarence, though, and an inveterate schemer. He’s written and acted well, and he sports the requisite monocle. However, Julian Rhind-Tutt, though elderly on close examination, has bright red hair which makes him look too young from a distance. Gally’s hair should be white, though his eye is not dimmed nor his natural force abated.

The most faithful performance, I think, is that of legendary comedienne Jennifer Saunders as Aunt Julia. She perfectly portrays a woman of Strong Opinions who takes no nonsense from the idiot men around her. Without her firm guidance, the whole estate would fall to pieces, and she knows it. Saunders is able to convey, however, that Constance loves her family deep down, and wishes the best for them – though her idea of “the best” is looking respectable and marrying the Right Sort of People.

Blandings is worth watching, and will give you some laughs. But go to the original stories afterward, and see it done properly.

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