There was an excellent BBC dramatisation today of P. G. Wodehouse’s internment by the Nazis in WWII. See it on iPlayer if you can, because it’s well worth watching. He was living at Le Touquet at the time of the invasion of France, unable to get away. Nearing 60, he would have been released at that age, but the Nazis saw a propaganda opportunity in getting the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster to broadcast humorous accounts of internment camp life from Berlin to America. The aim was to present a favourable image to the Americans, in order to delay their entry into the war.
So the naive and undeniably foolish Wodehouse was manoeuvred into the broadcasts with the aid of a British collaborator in the internment camp. This man was also sent to Berlin, all the better to keep up the pressure on Wodehouse. As portrayed in the programme, he simply wanted to lighten the burden of his fellow internees, and to show a sort of stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. There is one suggestion that he didn’t want to hear about the sounds coming from a concentration camp not far away, but it’s quickly passed over.
The British and Americans did not take kindly to the broadcasts from Berlin. “Cassandra” (William Connor), a columnist for the Daily Mirror, called him a traitor and lied outrageously about Wodehouse’s lifestyle in France, including saying that he hosted cocktail parties for the German officers. I’d like to have quoted him but I can’t find anything online. George Orwell, my other great literary hero, defended Wodehouse in forthright terms, while also pointing out his gullibility. Orwell’s piece is as much good literary criticism, and worth reading for that alone.
Wodehouse, the quintessentially English writer, never returned to England, becoming an American citizen. A secret MI5 report cleared him of treason, but was never published in his lifetime, a thoroughly cowardly course of inaction. It still makes me angry to think about this treatment of the greatest comic writer England has ever produced. If you have any doubts about what Wodehouse really thought of fascism, then I give you one of his great comic creations – Roderick Spode. He is clearly based on Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, with their trademark black shirts. With Spode, Bertie Wooster’s nemesis, it’s black football shorts
The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?
Lovely stuff, from a gentle, funny man, who brought such joy to the world through his writing.