An all-star cast heads up BBC One’s brand new period comedy series, based on PG Wodehouse’s celebrated stories

Interview with Timothy Spall

What drew you to this project?

It's a brilliant evocation of a certain type of aristocratic, dysfunctional lunacy. The scripts made me laugh out loud. They are genuinely bottom-achingly funny. They also imbued with a humanity that goes right to their core.

Why has Wodehouse's writing endured so well?

Because, apart from the baddies, all his characters are incredibly warm. Evelyn Waugh writes brilliantly about the aristocracy, but he revels in their cruelty. He pricks every snob. Wodehouse, on the other hand, revels in their goodness and eccentricity and hilarity. Like Charles Dickens, one of my greatest heroes, Wodehouse has the ability simultaneously to make you laugh out loud at the ludicrousness of aristocrats and celebrate the goodness of people. His characters have to go through the mill, but in the end their dysfunctional esprit de corps triumphs.

Could you please describe your character Clarence to us?

He's beguilingly innocent, like a knowing idiot. Nowadays he'd be diagnosed with some kind of condition, but he uses that as a tool for avoiding things he doesn't want to do. He's Lord Emsworth, but all he really cares about are his roses and his pig. However, a menagerie of forces keeps stopping him getting to his roses and talking to his pig.

He's also very forgetful, isn't he?

Yes. He manifests utter eccentric daftness and hilarious amnesia. He loves to forget that tonight is the Shropshire Show and he has to give a speech at it. He has 28 nieces and he doesn't know any of their names! But he is actually a very kind man. It's not just noblesse oblige. Underneath the aristocratic facade beats a heart of great kindness.

How would you characterise his relationship with his sister Connie?

He's terrified of her. She is massively responsible and incredibly domineering. She says to his face that the place is in chaos because he's in charge. Were it not for primogeniture, she would be running the place. Connie holds the ships together, making Clarence stick to his responsibilities. But as far as he's concerned, she is a complete pain in the neck.

Why does he let himself be bossed about by her?

Because Connie gets things done and that allows him to slip away and be with The Empress. It's a tacit game between them, a waltz. All the same, sometimes he quite enjoys the battle. He bends it to his advantage by using his natural amnesia. But underneath it all, he has a roguish glint in his eye.

How have you found it working with Jennifer Saunders?

Delightful. I was so pleased when they told me Jennifer had agreed to play Connie. I really, really rate her as an actress. She's a real comedian. She's got an innate intelligence and a great understanding of what's funny. She's wonderful.

Finally, tell us about Clarence's beloved pig, The Empress.

She is like an oracle to Clarence. He goes to her whenever he's in distress. Either there or to the boot room. He hides in the boot room and pretends to be incredibly interested in the servants' footwear. He is constantly being caught there and coming up with preposterous excuses for being there. You might accuse him of being a shirker…