On the face of it, Timothy Spall isn’t the actor most likely to be cast as Lord Emsworth, presiding super-toff at Blandings Castle. When it comes to playing characters from classic English literature, this son of a south London working-class family would seem more at home among the urban gargoyles of his beloved Dickens. But wait, wasn’t that him as Churchill in The King’s Speech? And wasn’t that him again at the Olympics Closing Ceremony, when Winston popped out of the top of Big Ben?
The fact is that 55-year-old Spall’s jowly charisma has, for the past 30 years, been moulded to roles at every point of the social spectrum from Don Armado in Love’s Labour’s Lost (in 2000) to Fagin in Oliver Twist (2007). When considering Clarence Threepwood, ninth Earl of Emsworth, he does so not with the deference of a pleb but with the respect of an intellectually engaged performer. In fact, since we’re talking of Shakespeare and Dickens, Spall says that “Plum” (Wodehouse’s nickname) is not incongruous in such company.
When Spall received the Blandings script (by Guy Andrews), he was in a trailer in a Leeds car park filming last year’s BBC1 series, The Syndicate. “From the first page I was enthralled,” he says. “It was like drinking a beautiful, nourishing soup — the cleverness of his language, the idiosyncratic form that it takes. Not just beautiful but ridiculous as well, in some places so much so that I laughed until I couldn’t breathe.”
As Blandings readers will know, the stories revolve around the situation of Lord Emsworth, alternately serene in his kingdom in the company of his adored Empress of Blandings (a prize pig), and beleaguered by the rage and resentment of Connie (played by Jennifer Saunders), eldest of his ten sisters.
“Here’s someone who looks like an inheritor of enormous privilege and an education way above his intelligence,” says Spall. “So yes, an aristocratic buffoon. Yet one of the most interesting things about him is that, while there may be this absent-minded lunacy, he’s still the Earl, still top of the heap, and somewhere along the line he has a gravitas that manages to prevail.”
What emerges from Spall’s study is an earl paradoxically turned into an underdog by his domestic circumstances. “I’m deeply touched by his predicament,” he says. “All sorts of people are thrust into positions they might not want to be in. Give a title to the wrong person and there’s both tragedy and comedy in it. Particularly when it’s handled by such a scintillating talent as Wodehouse. I’m not saying he has the breadth of Dickens or Shakespeare but, as a purveyor of this particular genre, no one has bettered him.”
Might Wodehouse have been offering a parallel, even unwittingly, with the monarchy? “I don’t know. What I believe these stories say is that sweetness of spirit, humanity, which Clarence has in abundance, are the most important things. He never gets beyond being a grown-up child, which leaves him with this delightful innocence.”