Why the BBC saw fit to furnish us with but one solitary ’90s visit to Blanding Castle yet has since gone on to serve up two (so far) atrocious recent series with a markedly inferior cast is beyond me, but it’s most likely indicative of the Corporation’s increasingly slender grasp of quality control. Heavy Weather would have been the perfect opportunity to begin a prestige PG Wodehouse series, one to rival Granada’s Jeeves and Wooster.
Curiously, Douglas Livingstone (whose work includes the BBC’s classic 1981 Day of the Triffids) chose, or was asked, to adapt the fourth Blandings novel. While it couldn’t be said that the results suffer from undetailed backstory (Wodehouse tales are generally pretty much the same, it’s the conjugation that makes them sing), Heavy Weather (1933) is a direct sequel to Summer Lightning (1929, also known as Fish Preferred), and as such most of the principal plot strands are direct continuances. With the exception of Monty Bodkin’s involvement (a perfectly cast Samuel West), for whom this is his first Plum role, the line-up consists mostly of returnees. Even Lord Tilbury (Richard Johnson), though not appearing in Summer Lightning, is involved via Pilbeam (David Bamber).
In both then, the plots hatched and machinations manoeuvred revolve around the quest to publish, or prevent the publishing of, the Hon. Galahad Threepwood’s (Richard Briers) memoirs – full of scurrilous gossip that will cause great embarrassment to those implicated and no doubt lead to the family losing “every friend we have” – and the potential nobbling of his brother Clarence’s, Lord Emsworth’s (Peter O’Toole), prize pig the Empress (by Ronald Fraser’s Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe). There are also the prerequisite romantic entanglements and miscommunications; both nephew Ronnie Fish (Benjamin Soames) and Sue Brown (Rebecca Lacey), the chorus girl he’s engaged to and who meets with the disapproval of Lady Constance Keeble (Judy Parfitt), sister of Galahad and Clarence, appeared in Summer Lightning.
The key to a good Wodehouse adaptation, given that they can’t possibly translate the author’s fundamental genius – his musical prose – is to cast a director and actors able to assemble something of his sprightliness and tempest-in-a-teacup scenarios. And, where necessary, the knockabout farce (the recent Blandings seemed to think the latter was the sum total of Wodehouse, along with additional manure-centric jokes).
The director of this Verity Lambert-produced piece was Jack Gold, a TV stalwart (The Naked Civil Servant) who also forayed onto the big screen (Aces High, directing O’Toole in Man Friday twenty years before this gig) and he mostly provides a limber showing. Perhaps P Frobisher Pilbeam is a touch overdone as a creeping louse, lurking behind plant pots and suits of armour and announced by a sinister musical cue; Bamber certainly overplays him. And Soames’ Ronnie is possibly just a bit too wet; you need someone who can bring a flavour of character to even the most custom-fit and empty-headed romantic lead, and Soames is very much on the vanilla side.
Generally, though, this is spot-on, confidently inhabiting the deceptively difficult space between the slightly staider atmosphere of the aging Blandings residents and the ever-boiling imbroglios of activity that blight Bertie Wooster. O’Toole is magnificent as the not-wholly-there Clarence, fussing over his pigs and continually rebuked by his sister (when characters repeatedly assert they are scared of her, Parfitt makes certain we can see why). Briers absolutely runs with Sir Galahad too, already a past-master playing Wooster for BBC Radio in the early 1970s and clearly delighted to get his teeth into another classic Wodehouse creation.
Notable memorable moments include Sir Galahad’s anecdote regarding brothers Freddie and Eustace, the former habitually so pickled, he suffers no ill-effects when served up the roadkill hedgehog that lays low his abstemious brother (“What a curse meals are! If people would only stick to drinking, doctors would soon be out of business”). There’s Monty’s gaffe writing the “Uncle Woggly” newspaper column (advising the wee tots on an easy way to make a spot of money; “Get some mug, lure him into betting a quart whisky bottle holds more than a quart of whisky”), thus incurring the wrath of his employer Lord Tilbury.
Who is continually affronted by Galahad referring to him as “Stinker, I mean Pike, I mean Tilbury” (“Don’t, call me Stinker”; there’s something of the Spode to Johnson’s performance), and desperate for Galahad’s manuscript (“I beg you, on behalf on the English language”). Emsworth’s reaction to Pilbeam getting soaked when they are fortifying the Empress’ miniature castle during a downpour is much deserved (“Who cares about you? Can I enter you for champion pig?”), and Pilbeam is also singled out by way of the enduring unpopularity of facial hair in Wodehouse (“We should never have trusted him when we saw that moustache”).
Everything turns out fine, of course, except for Galahad’s manuscript (pig food). Presumably Ronnie and Sue tied the knot, as this was his third and final Plum appearance (I don’t know offhand if he’s referred to again). Monty Bodkin, of course, even goes on to get his very own titles. Heavy Weather was broadcast on Christmas Eve 1995 and, if it wasn’t for the Radio 4 version with Richard Vernon’s Emsworth (for some reason the BBC hasn’t seen fit to make them available; they do at least exist, unlike the 1967 series with Ralph Richardson as Emsworth and Stanley Holloway as Beach, of which only one episode survives), and a full series had been given the go ahead, it would be easy to imagine this taking its place as the definitive take on Blandings. Heavy Weather isn’t available on DVD, but it can be found (currently) on YouTube.