Photography: Pamela Raith
It all started with my own interest in PG ‘Plum’ Wodehouse. When I was at RADA I was given a copy of Right Ho, Jeeves by Tom Wilkinson, who was directing at the Academy. I read it and loved it, little knowing that a few years later I’d be starring in a wonderful TV adaptation. I have since become a bit of an aficionado, and a few years ago I went to see Perfect Nonsense, a Jeeves and Wooster play in the West End starring Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen. Afterwards I was talking to some fellow Wodehouse enthusiasts and it made me realise just how big an interest there in his work, but how little I knew about the man himself. So I read a few biographies and learned about his extraordinary life, including his early career as a Broadway lyricist. I called my friend Bill Humble and said ‘do you think there might be a play about this?’, and he replied that he’d just finished working on a screenplay about his life, so I’d called at just the right time. That was around five years ago.
The play takes place in Plum’s office in Long Island during the 1950s. He was living there because of the ‘great shaming’, as he called it, of his experiences as an internee during the war, when the Germans manipulated him into making what became known as the ‘Berlin broadcast’, which was used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. He wrote a diary of this period called Wodehouse in Wonderland, which is appropriate because that’s very much how he spent his life – he needed to create and live in this fantasy world, and was never happier than when he was writing. Sadly the diary was never found, and he never returned to England after the war. In the play he is visited by a biographer, which prompts him to reflect on the past.
As a young man, before he became known for creating Jeeves and Wooster, Plum worked as a lyricist on a series of shows which are now seen as the birth of the American musical. I always think it’s quite strange that this man we now associate with such quintessentially English characters, was in those days better known for his work on Broadway. So I perform some of these songs during the show and I’m really enjoying the chance to sing again. I used to do a lot of musicals when I was starting out, and even won a musical award at RADA, though I soon realised my dancing skills weren’t up to it!
When you’re playing a character people know, like Churchill for example, people know what they looked and sounded like, so there’s a certain expectation. But with Wodehouse that isn’t the case. There isn’t actually much footage of him, and people always said that in reality he was a very reticent and shy figure. Despite creating these extraordinary, larger-than-life characters, he didn’t really socialise, and generally liked to disappear into his imagination. So to portray him as he was would not necessarily work. I’ve realised I need to let the words and music speak for themselves, in order to give a more rounded portrayal of the man himself. This is very much my take on Wodehouse, rather than an impersonation.
Well for one thing I was bowled over by both the humility and the talent of Stephen and Hugh. I remember on the first night before filming, they arrived having just filmed the finale of Blackadder Goes Forth. Obviously I didn’t realise at the time they’d just made such a big piece of television history. The next day I had a conversation with Stephen about my character, Tuppy Glossop, and said I’d found there wasn’t a huge amount of description of him in the books. Stephen immediately quoted a passage from one of the short stories, where Plum describes him as being “like a bulldog that’s just had its dinner snitched”. That was such a help to me, and evidence of Stephen’s vast knowledge of the work. We had a fabulous time making that series.
Absolutely. I really like touring, getting to explore new parts of the country and introducing the play to new audiences. I try to do a play at least every two years, as long as someone lets me, so I’ve seen a lot of theatres in my time. Rather than counting sheep at night, I count stage doors! I’m also hoping to take Wodehouse in Wonderland to India and the States, so it will reach some of Plum’s international fans as well. Hopefully there will be lots more stage doors for my imaginary collection by the time we’re done.
Writing uses a lot of the same creative muscles that you use as an actor. Early in my career I spent five years at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and we did a lot of different plays and variety nights, including lots of improvisation. This has stood me in good stead as a writer, because there’s an awful lot of improvisation involved. And certainly all the work I’ve done over the years creating characters has been really helpful as well. I suppose in a way my writing has become my own little wonderland.
I think it was Derek Jacobi who said that if you want to act, don’t, and if you have to you’ll do it anyway. You’ve got to go into it with your eyes wide open. And that’s especially true now, when it’s very difficult amid the cost of living crisis and everything else. As PG Wodehouse himself put it, if you’re looking for fairness, don’t go into showbusiness!
– by Theo Bosanquet
Wodehouse in Wonderland runs at the New Wolsey Theatre from Thursday 16th – Saturday 18th March, with a post-show talk taking place on Friday 17th.