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Too many imponderables.

Jeeves and Wooster
(1990-1993)

Successfully adapting PG Wodehouse may look easy – as a read he flows so, so why shouldn’t it be – but anyone who has seen the recent, horrific BBC Blandings will surely attest otherwise (the Beeb’s 1995 one-off with Peter O’Toole as Lord Emsworth is how Blandings should be done). The radio has generally been a more fruitful adaptive home, probably because it is more reliant on the joy of language that makes Wodehouse’s work so beloved. But it’s perhaps surprising that, for such a well-known character, there haven’t been more versions of Jeeves and Wooster than there have. For a generation the combination of Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price as a decidedly middle-aged duo in the mid-1960s’ The World of Wooster was perfect. Then came Radio 4’s (very good) What Ho, Jeeves! with Richard Briers and Michael Horden in the 1970s. It wouldn’t be until 1990 that another series was made, and it’s probably safe to say this has become the definitive version.


That might explain why it’s almost at the point of it’s 25thanniversary, with all the QIs and Houses that have come in between, and no one has dared attempt to rival it with a new version. If you hit near to perfection – or at least resoundingly iconic – casting, it can be an intimidating prospect (Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes and Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple are other ready examples from the same period). Laurie and Fry weren’t exactly sure things, and their comedy double act lit up as a warning sign of jolly japesters coming in and messing things up; people who liked the idea of Wodehouse, but didn’t really get him (witness the recent Blandings, or better still don’t). So the surprise was how wholly respectful the production was, and also how unmoved (largely) by the needs-must of altering pace and tone to make it blend in with modern product.


Television old hand Clive Exton (who also provided screenplays for films as disparate as 10 Rillington Place, Red Sonja and The Awakening) absconded for an unappetising stint in Hollywood before returning to British TV, where his endeavours proved much more satisfying and included this and Poirot. He hews close to the original material for inspiration – more so at the beginning admittedly – and crucially draws on the language too. It’s the rhythm of Wodehouse’s prose that delights, and this TV concoction goes someway to approximating that.


The jaunty art deco titles and jazzy theme tune inform us that this is classical, but not staid. That liveliness extends to the directors, who shoot formally but in so doing enable the comedy to spring forth unfettered. Simon Langton, who directed the second season, handled Smiley’s People and later the BBC’s best loved Pride and Prejudice while the first run’s Robert Young worked on Robin of Sherwood, and G.B.H. (as well as Vampire Circus and the ill-fated Fierce Creatures for the big screen).


The series probably lasted just the right length of time. There were occasions towards the end of the run where the liberties taken didn’t seem quite what one would have expected from the author himself (Jeeves disguised as a lady may invoke the fine British drag tradition, but I can’t see the novels’ manservant following suit).


Apparently Fry and Laurie were (wisely – and indicative of their respect) reluctant to take the roles on at first but then decided no one else could do them justice. I’ll readily admit to regarding Laurie (who most definitely is the better actor of the duo) as a note perfect Wooster.  He plays baffled and wilful, inept and guileless to a tee and one of his innovations – Wooster’s piano playing – seems like a natural extension of his carefree silly arse-ness. That it takes a skill set one wouldn’t really expect of Bertie is a minor infringement (although it’s also to be remembered that the Wodehouse Wooster stories are mostly told in the first person, so all that wonderful wordplay is effectively out of the mouth of Wooster).


Fry doesn’t have the natural impassivity of Jeeves; it’s a character that calls on maximum restraint, and seeing Laurie playing to the opposite extreme must have been difficult. While Fry gets the tone of Jeeves (you can quite believe in his superiority, problem-solving and general fish-eating) I’m never quite so convinced he has that magical ability to shimmer into the room. Fry isn’t light on his feet, nor is he gainly of poise. But whatever slight drawbacks there are more than made up for by the unerring chemistry between the duo. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can pay the series is that it reproduces the wonderfully light, silly and incredibly witty experience of reading the novels. Well, almost. It’s the next best thing.

I’m using the US DVD collection titles, for the sake of easy identification.


1.1: Jeeves Takes Charge

The 50-minute format might not seem like the ideal length for Wodehouse, with the half hours of the Briers and Carmichael versions a better fit. Certainly, at times you can really feel the attempts to back different short stories into each other come what may, with scant regard for connective tissue. But the upside of this is there’s time to play, to emphasise the trials and tribulations of Wooster, and indulge in the activities of his chums that might otherwise be given short shrift.


Bertie: I don’t want to be moulded. I’m not a jelly.
Aunt Agatha: That is a matter of opinion.

Episode One plunders no less than five short stories for material (this wouldn’t be equalled again until the season two finale). That’s actually not such a stretch as, with the notable exception of Jeeves Takes Charge itself, these all come from The Inimitable Jeeves, which interconnected characters and plotlines. Exton wisely picks a typical Bertie plotline to kick things off; he is instructed to marry by one of his aunts. In this case the aunt is Agatha and the intended is Honoria Glossop.


Jeeves Takes Charge, the short story, details the first engagement of Bertie’s trusted manservant but that’s about all that is utilised by Exton. Bertie is engaged to Florence Worplesdon, who embroils Bertie in a plan to steal his uncle’s scandalous memoirs. In both, Jeeves is formerly of the employment of Lord Worplesdon and Meadows is mentioned as Bertie’s former valet (as Fry noted on a recent QI, Jeeves should not be mistaken for a butler, the head of household staff, although, should the call come “He can butle with the best of them”).


Also in both, Bertie is nursing a hangover when he first meets Jeeves. However, Exton hits on the winner of having Bertie so much the worse for wear that he cannot even speak until Jeeves has administered his trademark pick-me-up. It gives Laurie the chance to indulge in some effective physical comedy (his tongue-tied behaviour in the dock) and the anticipation and pay-off that occurs when he has been invigorated (“I say!”).


Bertie’s fashion sense is of less significance than in the short story (which culminates in Jeeves giving a checked suit away to the gardener) but does see Jeeves dictate appropriate train-wear to his new master. And, as is par for the course, both feature Jeeves enacting a plan that culminates in Bertie being blamed/maligned, and so become irked with Jeeves only for him to rethink matters when he sees that his gentleman’s gentleman has actually left him significantly better off (in both cases this means not being engaged to someone unsuitable).


The famous theft of a policeman’s helmet – as referenced in The Code of the Woosters and subsequently but never seen – is the incident that finds Bertie before Sir Watkyn Bassett (John Woodnutt) and fined five pounds. It’s Sir Watkyn’s only appearance in the first season, but Woodnutt furnishes him such an imperious presence, the effect is indelible (particularly with Bertie before him, dazed and gulping like a goldfish).


Bingo: A tender goddess.
Bertie: Big girl, sporty?

Aunt Agatha, who splits Bertie-harassing duties (“I find it difficult to envisage” she comments of the suggestion that Bertie is so sweet and funny) with Dahlia in the first run, is played by Mary Wimbush (replaced by Elizabeth Spriggs in the final season). While the supporting cast was wont to vary over the seasons, Elizabeth Kettle played Honoria in all three of her appearances. Michael Siberry only essays Bingo Little in the first two seasons but he’s a fine fit for the ever-falling-in-love sap. Despite being big and sporty, Kettle plays up the jolliness of Honoria. Her reaction to the news that Bertie has arrived at Ditterage Hall at Aunt Agatha’s behest is particularly choice (“I hope she didn’t send him down as a present!”)


The Ditterage episode encompasses chapters five and six of The Inimitable Jeeves (The Pride of the Woosters is Wounded and The Hero’s Reward), with some relatively seamless adjustments to accommodate Agatha sending Bertie there (in the story Bertie arrives at Bingo’s request, here he just happens upon his chum).


The plan to push little Oswald (Alastair Haley) in the lake is thankfully played up for all its unapologetic relish. “Why don’t you shove him in? It would wake him up a bit” suggests Bertie before seizing on it as a plan whereby he falls from favour while Bingo comes to the rescue and wins the love of Honoria. Unfortunately, as these things do (“Too many imponderables” advises Jeeves, although his schemes often rely on exactly such; “No, no. Only Oswald is going to be in – pond” retorts Bertie). And, of course, Bingo has instead fallen for Honoria’s friend Daphne Braithwaite (Justine Glenton) and failed to show. Honoria assumes Bertie was trying to impress her, so the whole thing is on.


The (first) dinner with Sir Roderick Glossop (Roger Brierly in seasons one and two) “the noted nerve specialist” (or “the loony doctor” as Bertie calls him) finds Bertie advising on the theft of hats (policemen enjoy it, “like foxes”) and we establish Sir Roderick’s fear of cats (as witnessed at the later dinner at Bertie’s flat). Jane Downs’ bemused Lady Glossop is on the receiving end of some choice Bertie moments, asking him if he usually has breakfast as such a late hour; “Only if I get up early” he replies, advising about his attitude to work and observing, in particularly glorious vernacular, that the Bishop of Hackney has his “pages stuck together”.


Agatha: He just wants to satisfy himself that you’re completely normal.

Bertie’s cousins Claude (Hugo E Blick) and Eustace (Ian Jeffs) have never been the most engaging characters (even on the page), and only appear once more in J&W(played by different actors).  Introducing Claude and Eustace and Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch also go together narratively, as the efforts of Claude, Eustace and Freddie Chalk-Marshall (John Pirkis) to join a gentlemen’s club require them to secure odd items including Sir Roderick’s top hat, a fish, and “a couple of cats, of course”. Which Freddie (at Jeeves’ permission) leaves at Bertie’s address. Which Sir Roderick and his wife are visiting for lunch, in order to assess the mental health of Wooster. The details of Honoria and Agatha disliking Jeeves are omitted (it would be a bit early for that).


Naturally, Bertie puts his foot in it, and Exton follows the script of the dinner very closely. This extends to Aunt Agatha’s prior pep talk, in which she admonishes her nephew for suggesting “a dog biscuit and a glass of water” might sort out Sir Roderick’s impaired digestion; he is “a very serious-minded man”. Bertie, of course, puts his foot in it and there’s some amusing business added where he can’t decide where everyone should sit. We also hear Bertie compare the squawk of cats to taxis and Sir Roderick uses an umbrella to defend himself. Memorable too is Bertie’s comment concerning the house of a duke who thinks he’s a canary (“Or cage, as I expect he likes to call it”).


Structurally, then, Jeeves Takes Charge is a near-perfect episode with two peak Bertie-being-an-ass scenes (the pond and the dinner) and the inevitable admission that Jeeves has indeed come to the rescue. This doesn’t end in the duo heading off to New York as in the short story (there would be quite enough of that in future seasons) but it is worth mentioning the most memorable addition to the episode. Bertie instructs Jeeves to accompany him in a rendition of Minnie the Moocher, complete with Jeeves’ analysis of the lyrics and reserved delivery (“He-de-he-de-de-he, sir”). Exton hits on a rich vein of Jeeves’ unemotive manner as a source of humour; in the very next episode he is asked to read from a play with similar inhibition.


Sources:

Jeeves takes Charge (Chapter 1)
Pride of the Woosters is Wounded (Chapter 5, The Inimitable Jeeves)
The Hero’s Reward (Chapter 6, The Inimitable Jeeves)
Introducing Claude and Eustace (Chapter 7, The Inimitable Jeeves)
Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (Chapter 8, The Inimitable Jeeves)

Roll call:

Main:

Sir Roderick Glossop
Honoria Glossop
Aunt Agatha
Claude and Eustace Wooster
Bingo Little
Sir Watkyn Bassett

Brief (sighted at the Drones Club):

Barmy Fungy Phipps
Tuppy Glossop
Boko Fittleworth
Oofy Prosser


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