Heavy Weather (TV)

Heavy Weather (TV)

"Heavy Weather" was a dramatisation for television by Douglas Livingstone of the novel "Heavy Weather" by P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), set at Blandings Castle. It was made by the BBC and WGBH Boston, first screened by the BBC on Christmas Eve 1995 and shown in the United States on PBS's "Masterpiece Theatre" on 18 February 1996.

Content and cast

Though abridged for a 90-minute film, "Heavy Weather" followed closely the novel of 1933, the fourth in the Blandings series. Many of the familiar elements of the Blandings books were present: the wish of Lord Emsworth's nephew, Ronnie Fish, to marry a chorus girl, Sue Brown [Benny Green identified Wodehouse and Compton Mackenzie as the only two modern British novelists to have depicted chorus girls as likely candidates for marital bliss: Green (1981) "P. G. Wodehouse: a Literary Biography"] ; the concern of Emsworth's sisters, the imperious Lady Constance Keeble and Ronnie's mother Lady Julia Fish, to ensure that the reminiscences of their other brother, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood [It is unclear why the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, as the son of the 8th Earl of Emsworth (see Geoffrey Jaggard (1968) "Blandings the Blest"), was not Lord Galahad Threepwood (see "Whitaker's Almanac", annually), rather as his sisters were Lady Constance and Lady Julia.] , were not published; Galahad's protectiveness towards Miss Brown, the daughter of his long lost love Dolly Henderson [In the novel of "Heavy Weather", Threepwood denied that he was the father of Sue Brown and Benny Green argued that he probably viewed Dolly Henderson "only from a distance" (Green (1981) "P. G. Wodehouse: a Literary Biography").] ; the sustained efforts of the publisher Lord Tilbury (a character probably based on Lord Northcliffe [N. T. P. Murphy (1981) "In Search of Blandings"] ) to gain possession of the reminiscences; Lord Emsworth's determination that his prize Berkshire pig, the Empress of Blandings, should win the silver medal in the fat pigs class at the Shrewsbury agricultural show; Lord Emsworth's employment of a private detective, P. Frobisher Pilbeam, to protect the Empress and his rivalry with his neighbour, Sir Gregory Parsloe [Sir Gregory's full surname was Parsloe-Parsloe, though this was never revealed in the television drama and Wodehouse usually wrote the name simply as "Parsloe".] , of Matchingham Hall, who had not only his own designs on the fat pigs class, but, as a prospective Parliamentary candidate, an interest in suppressing Galahad's reminiscences; and the employment as Lord Emsworth's secretary of Monty Bodkin, who, as with most holders of that office, had an ulterior motive (in this instance, the need to hold down paid employment for a year in order to be considered suitable to marry one Gertrude Butterwick).

The cast

"Heavy Weather" had a distinguished cast: Peter O'Toole as Clarence, Lord Emsworth, Richard Briers as Galahad Threepwood, Judy Parfitt as Lady Constance, Sarah Badel as Lady Julia, Roy Hudd as Beach the butler, Ronald Fraser as Sir Gregory Parsloe and Richard Johnson as Lord Tilbury, the recently ennobled George "Stinker" Pyke. Pilbeam was played by David Bamber who became widely known around the same time as Mr. Collins in the BBC's adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". Other members of the cast included Rebecca Lacey as Sue Brown, Benjamin Soames as Ronnie Fish and Samuel West as Monty Bodkin.

The screenplay was written by Douglas Livingstone (born 1930). The director was Jack Gold and the producers, Verity Lambert and David Shanks.

The broader context

There were many devotees of Wodehouse who assumed at the time that "Heavy Weather" was, in effect, a “pilot” for a series of Blandings adaptations. As such, this would have complemented the four series of "Jeeves and Wooster" (Granada, 1990-3), stories derived from Wodehouse that featured rising stars Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster. However, not only did no series follow, but "Heavy Weather" has never been repeated on British television, nor released in Britain on video.

This alone tended to set it apart from the array of successful dramas, set in the second quarter of the 20th century, that had were shown on British television in the 1980s and early 90s. In addition to "Jeeves and Wooster", these included definitive adaptations from 1984 onwards of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Poirot stories (with Joan Hickson and David Suchet in the leading roles) ["The Body in the Library" and eleven other Miss Marple dramas (BBC 1984-92) and "Poirot" (successively LWT, Granada Productions and ITV Productions since 1989)] ; other detective stories, such as Christie's "The Seven Dials Mystery" (LWT, 1980), featuring Cheryl Campbell as a neo-Wodehousian "flapper", Lady Bundle Brent, and Margery Allingham’s about Albert Campion (BBC 1989-90); "The House of Elliot" (BBC 1991-4), with Louise Lombard and Stella Gonet as struggling couturiers in the 1920s; and two series (LWT 1985-6), based on E. F. Benson’s "Mapp and Lucia" novels, that, although described by one leading critic as "nicely realised, if appealing more to the fans of the six novels ... than to the audience in general" [Philip Purser in "Halliwell's Television Companion", 3rd ed, 1986. Leslie Halliwell himself felt "Mapp and Luica" "never really got the spirit of the books, and would alienate potential readers" "(ibid.)"] , were nevertheless repeated several times over the following twenty years and released in both VHS and DVD formats.

Wodehouse on film and television

In fact, as film historian Leslie Halliwell noted, Wodehouse’s "sagas of upper class twits and manservants in the twenties have been oddly neglected by the screen, though they were much imitated" ["Halliwell's Filmgoer’s Companion", 8th ed (1984)] . However, there were two films made in the 1930s with Arthur Treacher as Jeeves ("Thank You, Jeeves!" in 1936, which also featured David Niven as Wooster, and "Step Lively, Jeeves!" in 1937) and, in 1937, "A Damsel in Distress" (1919), virtually a Blandings novel, but with different characters, was turned by RKO into a musical film, scored by George Gershwin, that starred Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine.

An adaptation by C E Webber of a Wodehouse short story of 1935 ["Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend" in "Blandings Castle" (1935)] was broadcast on BBC children's television in March 1956 as "Lord Emsworth and the Little Friend". Then, in the 1960s, the BBC made a popular series called "The World of Wooster" (1965-7), featuring Dennis Price as Jeeves and Ian Carmichael as a rather middle-aged Bertie Wooster (Wodehouse himself much preferred Price’s performance [Robert McCrum (2004) "Wodehouse: a Life"] ). This led to, among other spin-offs, a series of "Blandings Castle" (1967) with Sir Ralph Richardson as Lord Emsworth, Meriel Forbes as Lady Constance, Stanley Holloway as Beach, Derek Nimmo as Galahad Threepwood, and, as one Wodehouse scholar acutely observed, a Wessex Saddleback, rather than a Berkshire, as the Empress of Blandings [Geoffrey Jaggard (1968) "Blandings the Blest"] .

Between 1984-92 there were several BBC radio adaptations of Blandings, in which Richard Vernon, as Lord Emsworth, conveyed a mix of eccentricity and amiability (his delivery being quite similar to that in his occasional role in "Yes Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister" (BBC TV 1980-8) as the befuddled City banker Sir Desmond Glazebrook). Ian Carmichael played Galahad in a number of these productions. In 1992 Random House Audiobooks released an abridged version of "Heavy Weather", read by Martin Jarvis.

In 1995 "Heavy Weather" became the first and only visual feature-length version of Blandings since the Second World War, closer to the original novel than most other adaptations of Wodehouse. Some may have found Peter O’Toole’s Emsworth a little too eccentric and irascible, while the touches of "realism", such as quantities of pig-swill, which tended not to intrude into earlier Wodehouse productions, conceivably detracted from the cosy air of fantasy. But, even so, the lack of any follow-up to such a major enterprise seemed puzzling to many.

"Heavy Weather" and the 1990s

Like the adaptations of Benson's "Mapp and Lucia", "Heavy Weather" probably appealed more to fans of Wodehouse than to a wider audience (a serious consideration for a programme broadcast at peak viewing time on Christmas Eve). It is possible too that, by the mid 1990s, the public's appetite for dramas of the 1920s and 30s, was beginning to wane. A "genre" that was coming strongly back into vogue at the time was the large scale adaptation of the classic novel. This was typified by the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" (with Colin Firth as Darcy and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Ehle having come to public attention as the vampish Calypso in "The Camomile Lawn", Channel 4's dramatisation (1992) of Mary Wesley's novel (1984), which opened on the eve of war in 1939), but there there were also feature films of other Jane Austen novels, such as "Sense and Sensibility" (with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and Hugh Grant, 1995) and "Emma" (a film with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role and a TV version with Kate Beckinsale, both 1996 [These followed the film "Clueless" (1995), set contemporaneously, in which Alicia Silverstone's Cher was plainly based on Austen's Emma.] ). A further landmark was the film, "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994), starring Hugh Grant. This was a highly successful light comedy in the tradition of the Ealing films of the late 1940s and early 50s, but clearly rooted in the present day (and with some of its vernacular language), rather than looking to the past.

The climate of the mid 90s

The mid 1990s were a period of transition in British popular culture and arguably in the country more generally. Although, in 1993, the Prime Minister John Major had made a widely quoted, almost Betjeman-eque, assertion that "fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer ... and, as George Orwell said, old maids bicycling to Holy Communion" [Speech to Conservative Group for Europe, 22 April 1993: "The Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Quotations" (1998) 204:16] , this seemed to some a rather sentimental and complacent view. By 1995 "Britpop" was at its height, in certain respects mirroring the impact of the Beatles thirty years earlier and about to be caught up, or subsumed, in the concept of "Cool Britannia". 1996-7 would see the rise of so-called "girl power" (notably, for a time, in the pervasive guise of the Spice Girls), the sweeping election victory (in May 1997) of Tony Blair and his "New" Labour Party and, a few months later, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the mawkish public reaction to which was thought by many at the time to have changed Britain for ever.

Moving on

Although, as Evelyn Waugh once said, "Mr Wodehouse's idyllic word can never stale ... He has made a world for us to live in and delight in" [BBC radio interview, quoted on Penguin paperback covers in the 1980s] , the circumstances of Britain towards at the end of the 20th century probably did not bode well for a sustained revival of Blandings. For example, in the next few years, the continuing adaptations of Poirot became a little "darker" in tone and dispensed with many of the lighter elements of the earlier episodes (such as Poirot’s associate Captain Hastings, who had many Wodehousian characteristics and, like Conan Doyle's Dr Watson, was "unable to keep his cognition uncontaminated by his all-too-human emotions and motives" [Astis Nandy (1989) "The Tao of Cricket"] ). In 2001 the film "Gosford Park", a murder mystery, set in 1932, which harked back to the "deep focus" of Jean Renoir's 1939 film "La règle du jeu", firmly established a trend away from the nostalgic, lavish period recreations - of which "Heavy Weather" was one of the last - that had been prevalent since the late 1970s.

Even so, a sign of Wodehouse's sustained influence was the establishment, as the Internet began to take hold in the mid 1990s, of a search engine called "Ask Jeeves". This title survived until shortened to "Ask" in 2006. The following year, when it was reported that the British Prime Minister wished to employ a butler (in fact, a "house manager" ["The Times", 15 January 2007] ), the "Mail on Sunday" referred to "Mr Blair's very own 21st Century Jeeves" ["Mail on Sunday", 14 January 2007] .

Sudeley Castle

"Heavy Weather" was filmed at Sudeley Castle, Gloucestershire, which was widely, though not universally, regarded as Wodehouse's model for Blandings [N. T. P. Murphy (1981) "In Search of Blandings"] . Wodehouse set Blandings in the more northerly county of Shropshire, a location that stimulated some intriguing research by Richard Usborne, a leading Wodehouse scholar, into train journeys (of which there were two in "Heavy Weather") between London's Paddington station and Market Blandings [Richard Usborne, appendix to P. G. Wodehouse (1977) "Sunset at Blandings"] .

Sudeley was the home, during her marriage to Thomas Seymour, of Queen Katherine Parr, sixth wife of King Henry VIII. Katherine died in 1548 and is buried in the chapel at Sudeley. The castle has been owned since 1837 by the Dent Brocklehurst family [N. T . P. Murphy (1981) "In Search of Blandings"] . In 1972 it passed, on the death of his father, to Henry Dent Brocklehurst (born 1966), whose mother, later Lady Ashcombe, initially held Sudeley in trust and, by the mid 1990s, had done much to develop its potential for tourism and business [See "Sudeley Castle & Gardens" (text: Nicholas Hurst), 1994] .

The location of "Heavy Weather" at Sudeley assisted public awareness of the castle and its grounds. Sudeley's promotional literature emphasised the Wodehouse connection, noting, for example, that the double yew hedges in the Queen's Garden were the inspiration for the gardens of Blandings ["Sudeley Castle & Gardens", 1994] .


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