The third major British Wodehouse television series consisted of twenty stories developed to half-hour form as Wodehouse Playhouse. Most of the source material were the Mulliner stories, with a few others of Golf and the Drones club. The series was broadcast in the United States over Public Television, and subsequently syndicated to many local PBS stations well into the 1980s, before finally appearing in home video in 2003.
The television screen naturally opened up new storytelling possibilities not available in prose. For instance, "Big Business" was able to use a recording of Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" when Reginald Mulliner is supposed to have been sad enough to express it with the proper emotion, adding a new layer of comedy to what could only be hinted at in the original story. However, even when elaborating on the original, David Climie's scripts frequently used dialogue and scenes directly from the stories, and managed to create a near-seamless whole.
The first two series of Wodehouse Playhouse, of seven episodes in 1975, and another six in 1976, starred the husband-and-wife team of Pauline Collins and John Alderton, but the final series of seven episodes in 1978 featured only Alderton. Some in the British audience quibbled with the casting as reflecting the wrong accents and class sensibilities, but American audiences were oblivious to such details. There was overacting in many of the episodes, however, and Collins and especially Alderton played different types of roles, which, while commendable as an acting challenge, robbed the series of continuity in character types. His often secondary part outshined the ostensible romantic lead. While Collins's roles varied considerably, Alderton demonstrated the anthology nature of the original Wodehouse stories, with an infinite number of variations possible on the same basic character premise. (A 1981 series for Jackanory Unit Productions, Welcome to Wodehouse, presented Alderton's readings of five stories on minimally decorated sets.)
The individual episodes varied widely in quality, with the result that the series is better when blurred in memory than when reexamined episode by episode. The first series of Wodehouse Playhouse began with seven episodes in 1975, and the first two were disappointments. "The Truth about George," although amusing, had as its subject matter a stutter, a subject which evokes a certain discomfort today when used for humor. The second episode, "Romance at Droitgate Spa," was a complete mis-fire, predictable, tiresome, and unfunny. Only Raymond Huntley was appropriately cast, while the romantic lead was dreadful. However, by the third episode, "Portrait of a Disciplinarian," the writing and acting of the series began to convey the humor of the Wodehouse stories, both in dialogue and situations. "Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court," "Rodney Fails to Qualify," and "A Voice From the Past" were all of an equal calibre; only "The Rise of Minna Nordstrom" demonstrates weaknesses. However, as whole, the first series failed to convey the wit of the stories, while sometimes capturing their hilarity and slapstick.
Alderton recalled that when presented with a list of the stories intended as the source, Wodehouse excused himself from the room to re-examine them. Laughs could be heard until he re-emerged, smiling, saying "Some of them are awfully good." Although he had been exhausted by the ordeal of the 90th birthday interviews, saying he never wanted to see a camera again, he liked Wodehouse Playhouse so much that he agreed to do brief introductions that were filmed in January. He had just received his knighthood with the New Year. All this provided a further toll on his constitution, and he checked into the hospital. On Valentine's Day, 1975, he died, age 93.
The second series of Wodehouse Playhouse, in 1976, replaced producer David Askey with Michael Mills, veteran of The World of Wooster and The World of Wodehouse a decade earlier. It was a wise decision, as the series quality notably improved. "Anselm Gets His Chance" gently tackles its subject, church formalities and piety, managing to be unobjectionable without losing any of the humor or pungence, as represented by ministers who constantly sprinkle their conversation with Biblical quotations, fully cited as to source. In "Mr. Potter Takes a Rest Cure," the madcap whirl gradually widens as beautiful but manipulative Bobbie Wickham, hoping to avoid a marriage her mother is encouraging, convinces Mr. Potter that Gandle is from a family with homicidal tendencies, while telling Gandle that Potter wants to commit suicide and must be prevented. It is slapstick, and unoriginal, but could not more accurately mirror the source.
By midpoint in the season, the series fully hit its stride, with such epsodes as "Feet of Clay," "The Nodder", and "The Code of the Mulliners." The series finally conveyed the wit of the Wodehouse dialogue, the satire of the character types (such as the self-advertising adventurer Captain Jack Fosdyke and the vampish female novelist in "Feet of Clay"). Most notably, the superlative "Strychnine in the Soup" reflects the humor, satire, and manipulation of genre formula and different character types from a range of narratives. A mistaken deduction leads to the romantic conclusion while the two explorers, potential in-laws, prove to be out of their depth in a drawing room whodunit. Running through "Strychnine in the Soup" is the predicament of the lovers, united by their love of the thriller, until finally its spell wins the mother's consent for the hero to marry her daughter.
The third series of Wodehouse Playhouse, seven episodes produced in 1978 by Gareth Gwenlan, revealed Alderton's persona and the repertory casting had so evolved as to be ideal. Such episodes as "The Smile That Wins," "Tangled Hearts," and "The Luck of the Stiffhams," maintained the high standard of the second season. Even those that fail to quite match their quality, such as "Big Business," are still memorable. (That episode, particularly, uses a portion with Alderton in blackface, a situation that kept a later Jeeves and Wooster episode, "Kidnapped," from being broadcast in America.) They were uniformly well enacted, capturing the humorous nuances and situations, such as the advice-dispensing know-it-all in "Tangled Hearts" who must be humbled. On the other hand, "Trouble down at Tudsleigh" has a riotously amusing first half but sputters with the introduction of a child performer, who has much the same effect on the viewer as she is intended to have in the story and succeeds all too well in making performance and episode quickly annoying. Perhaps the pinnacle of the series was "The Editor Regrets," ideally adapted, perfectly enacted, with every pause, nuance, and line impeccably delivered. Only the Drones played by middle-aged actors was out of sync, but the situation of Bingo Little, editor of Wee Tots, the journal for the nursery, could not have been better brought to life.
The last dramatization, "Mulliner's Buck-u-Uppo," overcame the inherent narrative difficulty of visualizing a tonic that provides almost magical human strength and personal dominance, by combining a light balance between persuasive power with slow motion movements that resemble something out of the contemporary television series the Six Million Dollar Man. "Mulliner's Buck-u-Uppo" was a fitting end to an exploration of different ways of bringing various Wodehouse milieus to the screen in a range of stories, succeeding to different degrees but usually bringing his prose vividly to the screen.