Had your fill of the pomp and drama of “Downton Abbey?” When the oppressive propriety of British high society becomes a bit too stuffy, a jaunt down the cobbled lanes to Blandings Castle might be just what the butler ordered.
No one pricks the bubble of British pomposity better than P.G. Wodehouse, the prolific author best known for his Jeeves and Wooster stories (which had their supreme on-screen incarnation in the 1990 Grenada TV series “Jeeves and Wooster,” with Stephen Fry and Hugh Lurie). A lesser-renowned series of short stories cast a wry eye on the twits and prigs of the shabby-patrician Blandings estate, and those are the source of a cheeky six-episode BBC series that plays more like a slapstick, sitcom version of Wodehouse.
“Blandings: Series 1” stars Timothy Spall (of “Harry Potter” and several Mike Leigh kitchen-sink dramas) as the jolly Lord Clarence Emsworth, dotty, bumbling patriarch of Blandings Castle. He lives there with his overbearing sister Lady Constance (“Absolutely Fabulous” creator Jennifer Saunders), his ne’er-do-well son Freddy (Jack Farthing), his dour, long-suffering butler Beach (Mark Williams), and his prize corpulent sow, the Empress.
Each episode rolls out as a brief, eccentric adventure punctuated with certain reliable Wodehouse refrains. Freddy (whom Farthing portrays as a more dithering variation on Bertie Wooster) shows up in need of money from his latest gambling lark, with a floozy-du-jour on his arm, and promptly crashes his car into a tree. Lady Constance launches another scheme to get her wastrel brother’s house in order (such as bringing in a priggish, numbers-crunching secretary to impose tedious fiscal discipline on Clarence’s old-world largess), and the loyal, slightly soused Beach nobly shields the happily dim-witted Clarence from various grubbing guests and scheming interlopers who visit the castle.
Spall, with his wonky British teeth and shabby-chic attire (complete with a top-strung straw hat), is a cheerful marvel as the foggy-headed but kind-hearted Lord Emsworth, and the always canny Saunders gives the pinched sister Connie a cutting wit and a crisp but affectionate tolerance for her brother’s fecklessness. But it’s Farthing as the chipper, unrepentant idler Freddy who gets the broadest laughs and the sauciest of Wodehouse dialogue.
At 30 minutes per episode, “Blandings” often feels a bit too light and airy for its own good. Wodehouse’s farce – its sharply witty skewering of the foibles and foolishness of the idle class – can be deceptively keen and insightful when given room to breath and play out (witness the longer-form brilliance of “Jeeves and Wooster”). Still, these short bits of Wodehouse serve as delightful teasers that just leave us wanting more. What ho?
- Dennis King