Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
Whenever you watch a live action adaptation of a book that you love, there is always the troublesome business of the casting. Will those starring in the production possibly match up to the version in your head from reading the original. If the actor does a good job, they might come close to how you imagined the role initially. An actor might even still do a good job, but just be wrong. Their performance is so at odds with your own take on the role, that, even if you keep watching it you’ll mainly be quietly tutting at it.
But occasionally an actor will come along and give a performance in a role that works so well, that so exceeds the version that once played in the brain, that they become that character going forward. When you re-read the book, it’s their version that you imagine. Whatever feeble brain casting you imagined before has been sacked and kicked out the imaginary production, forever replaced by the version you saw on screen.
There’s one example of this that, to me, did the job more successfully than anyone else. When Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were cast as the leads in Jeeves and Wooster, the early ’90s ITV adaptation of the PG Wodehouse novels, it was excellent casting. Both play the roles splendidly, but neither quite replaced the mental version I already had when reading the books. Alright, maybe my Wooster is now slightly more handsome in a Laurie-esque way and my Jeeves sounds slightly more Fry-dian when he speaks – but they didn’t replace what was there.
And then Roderick Spode, the Amateur Dictator, turns up in an episode. If truth be told, I never really got Roderick Spode when reading the books. He is, even by Wodehouse’s standards, one of the more cartoonish villains. A two-dimensional blimp that parodies fascists in the most mild-mannered way imaginable. He would toddle into stories as the violent threat to Bertie, ensuring that the stakes in the latest farce were even higher than before.
But I don’t think my brain knew quite how to imagine him: he seemed too large and angry to be an actual person in an actual scene with the other character, while also fascist, yet occasionally even sympathetic. Where do you even start with that?
I didn’t know. But the actor John Turner did. He delivers a glorious performance, pitched perfectly in that Wodehousian sweet spot between wit, broad comedy and drama. He doesn’t shy away from the character’s glorious excesses but he doesn’t ever overplay them. At no point do you ever think there isn’t this insanely violent bully in the room, and folk had better watch out.
But when called upon to be angry, or pompous, or violent or even penitent, Turner also employs a range of faces straight out of the silent comedy playbook. He would have been quite at home in early comedic cinema, I think. And I’ve taken that from his performance back to the books when I read them now. Spode now belongs alongside the pompous, combustible bosses that become increasingly exasperated at a Harold Lloyd or a Buster Keaton. It fits the character so well.
I think Turner also understood that the heart of Spode’s character is that of a school bully. The cruelty, the sense of entitlement, the sappiness coupled with a simplistic worldview that he will never allow himself to question. In the books, I never found the grand, political plans of Spode funny – having a wannabe dictator outline silly plans seemed to be letting those types off the hook. But Turner outlines these plans with the compelling sincerity of a man who actually believes them. He’s convinced himself that it works in his head, and he’s arrogant enough that this means they must be correct. He’s the tyrant of a land of Blue Remembered Hills, and I’ve taken this interpretation back to the books, now smiling at those lines. The satire isn’t the silliness. The satire is that this man genuinely thinks he’s right over the silliest of things. And the Establishment makes these men acceptable.
There’s a tendency with live-action Wodehouse adaptations to overdo things. The silliness of the material needs to be underscored by comedy noises and simplistically grotesque performances. Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster thankfully mostly avoided this, and while its fair to say its not entirely aged well we’re definitely long overdue a restoration and a re-release. But what its leads and series regulars get right is that the actors need to play it straight. They don’t think this is a comedy world, to them this is all real. Do that, and the humour in the material will shine through. John Turner got that brilliantly. From the moment he appeared in his first episode, his Hitler moutache bristling with suppressed rage at the world and suppressed love for Madeline Bassett, all other forms of Spode in my imagination vanished. He took over the books, and he’s stayed there ever since. And I’m dashed glad he did.