The 2004 version of Piccadilly Jim is, apparently, the first big screen Wodehouse for 40 years so when the project was announced, I was quite excited. With Tom Wilkinson, Alison Janney, Geoffrey Palmer, Kevin Eldon, Brenda Blethyn and Sam Rockwell in the cast it seemed a promising prospect. But the film was a flop, never released over here and my disappointment turned to relief when the reviews, universally terrible, suggested we’d been spared an unpleasant, updated, unsympathetic and unnecessary remake (the book has been filmed twice before). But I’ve just watched it on DVD following a tip from friends that it was well worth a watch, and it was.
The book is interesting because it isn’t quite in the standard Wodehouse formula. This sequel of sorts to The Little Nugget, an oddly sentimental (though amusing) effort, has a “hero” who has ruined lives. Piccadilly Jim is a gossip columnist with a string of breach of promise cases behind him, and he has little regard for the effect he has on others – there’s no code of honour such as the usual nice-but-dim young hero in later stories would uphold. It’s not quite as serious as The Coming of Bill which (unusually for Wodehouse) deals with separation; and compared to most novels it still ranks as a novelised musical comedy, but it’s an interesting (even odd?) choice to film.
So it’s not quite typical Wodehouse, and the film’s not quite typical Wodehouse either. It is 1930s, but the caption sets out the production’s attitude with an added “-ish” as the camera pans across the first of many anachronisms; and there’s an odd but pleasing jumble of eras and styles scattered through the film. Particularly successful are the ’30s nightclub versions of Tainted Love and Love Will Tear Us Apart which have had me desparately trying to get hold of the soundtrack (coincidentally the original versions of both songs have been used in recent Doctor Who).
There was an opportunity here to take some liberties with the plot, much of which only makes sense in the novel because of the amusing anecdotal rambling of the narrative. But rather than throw out the silly scientific subplot in favour of the far more amusing kidnapping shenannigans of The Little Nuggett, writer Julian Fellowes (the feeble Gosford Park) plays it rather straight, making only minor changes, though one of these destroys the whole theme of the book and rather knocks the stuffing out of the story.
Ultimately, the film ends up relying on the pure energy of the production, which it fails to sustain for the full feature. The opening is terrific, but Sam Rockwell’s manic Jim is rather one dimensional and Frances O’Connor as crime writer Ann Chester seems frequently to be on the edge of hysteria. Still, the supporting cast (one minor member of which, briefly, served on the University of Bristol Dramsoc committee with me) are excellent, and despite its flaws I can say with confidence that it is the best big screen Wodehouse adaptation for 40 years.