If your idea of British country gentry comes from Downton Abbey, P. G. Wodehouse’s (Jeeves and Wooster) Blandings will correct that very quickly. Lord Emsworth and his Blandings family are a far cry from Lord Grantham and the Downton crew.
A two-disc DVD set of the British TV adaptation of Wodehouse’s stories is scheduled for release in the U.S. from Acorn, September 3. The series stars Timothy Spall as Clarence Emsworth, the lord of the manor, a bumbling, but lovable eccentric whose only real interest in life is his beloved pig, Empress. Jennifer Saunders plays his disapproving sister whose main object in life seems to be to civilize her brother. Mark Williams is the dependable butler who is as much a friend of the family as he is a servant, and Jack Farthing is the heir to the estate, a silly fool of a ne’er do well.
Classic stereotypes, these and the supporting characters are all played with broad strokes just short of the kind of thing you’d be likely to see in a Benny Hill sketch. Lord Emsworth can’t remember anyone’s name, indeed he can’t remember much of anything. Saunders’ Connie is a controlling martinet, and Williams’ butler is the essence of practical wisdom. Minor characters are similarly stereotypical: a Scottish gardener with an accent so thick no one can understand a word he says, a fortune hunting widow with a bratty young son, a chorus girl masquerading as a foreign princess. There isn’t an actor in this cast who is unwilling to go over the top. It’s almost as though they were told the broader the better. And not only do they get away with it, they embrace the silliness and it works.
The plots of each of the episodes are farcical enough to justify the acting style. The first episode deals with a contest for the fattest pig, the last with the fortune hunter’s machinations. There are episodes concerning his sister Connie’s attempt to straighten Lord Emsworth out by hiring a controlling secretary, her ploys to keep various nieces away from suitors that she finds unsuitable, and one where the foolish Freddy thinks he’s married a showgirl.
Much of the humor deals with things like pigs with gas, manure, clumsy suitors knocking over furniture, manure, mistaken identities, manure, visiting city ragamuffins, and manure. Did I mention muck? Talk about an excremental vision. If you’re looking for gentile drawing room comedy, Blandings is not for you.
By any reasonable meausure, I should hate this show. By any reasonable measure but one — it is laugh-out-loud funny. The characters may be unrealistic stereotypes, the acting may be way over the top, the directors may indulge themselves in silly sight gags, but none of that really matters if you find yourself laughing. And there wasn’t an episode that didn’t manage to get me laughing. Frothy perhaps, but how often is it that show aims at froth and falls flat. Certainly not all the gags work, but enough do to make this show a lot of fun. Effective froth is no mean achievement.
Lord Emsworth and his family may not remind many viewers of the Downton crew, they are certainly pale shadows of Wodehouse’s own Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, but how many are there that measure up to bars that high. Blandings is a lot of fun.