TT: Enter Bertie and Jeeves

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back one and learn why writers should be careful not to overburden their camels. Then join me and Alan as we happily chatter on about characters we both met within visual media and followed back into prose.

Wooster and Jeeves

Wooster and Jeeves

JANE: These last few weeks, Jim and I have been ending our evenings watching an episode of the “Jeeves and Wooster” stories as adapted for television. These are the ones with Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as his “man,” Jeeves. Are you familiar with them?

ALAN: Indeed I am. Though, rather foolishly, I avoided watching them for quite a long time. I was sure that they couldn’t possibly be any good. It was only when Robin bought one of the DVDs that I finally watched an episode. Needless to say, I was immediately hooked, and we quickly devoured the rest of them.

JANE: Why didn’t you want to watch them?
ALAN: In the 1960s, the BBC made a series about Jeeves and Wooster with Dennis Price as Jeeves and Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster. (You’ve probably never heard of those actors, but they were very big in England at the time). The series was a huge success – the critics raved about it and people stayed home in droves to watch it. I had such fond memories of that series that I simply couldn’t see how Fry and Laurie could possibly improve upon it. At best, I thought, they would be pale imitations of the original. I couldn’t have been more wrong, of course. I now think that Fry and Laurie are the definitive Jeeves and Wooster.

JANE: Ah… Actually, I do know who Ian Carmichael is! I became acquainted with his work via audio books. He read a good number of Dorothy Sayer’s works, if I remember correctly. Did a brilliant job. I think he might have played Peter Wimsey in a dramatized version – but there I go out on a limb.

ALAN: You are correct – he did indeed play Peter Wimsey, again for the BBC. There was a time when it seemed that Ian Carmichael had completely cornered the market in upper class chaps. Every time you turned on the TV, there he was…

JANE: Actually, I think there are similarities between the characters of Bertie Wooster and the young Peter Wimsey. The difference is that Wimsey is playing the role to conceal the fact that his experiences in the trenches of WWI have left him emotionally shattered, while Bertie… Well, Bertie is Bertie.

Have you read any of the original Jeeves and Wooster stories?

ALAN: Yes indeed. On the strength of the Carmichael and Price series, I started taking a lot of Wodehouse books out of the library. In some ways I found them to be better than the TV series – television is a very plot and character driven medium, and while Wodehouse created wonderful characters and convoluted plots that translate extremely well to the screen, he was also a master wordsmith who crafted some of the funniest and most elegant sentences I’ve ever encountered. You never see any of that aspect of his writing on the television, of course. So I love his books; they have an extra dimension to them.

JANE: Like you, I encountered the television productions first. (Although a different one.) George R.R. Martin brought over the first DVD, way back in the day when Roger was still alive. Or maybe he gave it to us for Christmas. Anyhow, we enjoyed it greatly. Eventually, I introduced Jim to the productions. When opportunity arose, we bought the whole set.

Along the way, when searching for an appealing audio book, I came across Wodehouse and decided to give him a try. I was very taken with the stories, although I noticed changes from how they had been scripted. Actually, though, overall I was happily impressed by these adaptations.

ALAN: That’s interesting. What changes did you spot?

JANE: Well, there are always changes. That’s part of a good adaptation. For example, when Bertie first tries Jeeves’ anti-hangover potion, Wodehouse’s description is brilliant and very, very funny. As you said, the writing is positively brilliant. The folks writing the script dropped all of this and let Hugh Laurie carry it all with his wonderfully mobile face.

There were a lot of changes along this order.

What I noticed – and which impressed me greatly – was how often the script writers took several stories and interwove them. This permitted an hour-long episode that moved rapidly and was full of incident, where relying on a faithful adaptation of one story would have required them to pad.

ALAN: It’s been many, many years since I read the stories and I really don’t remember any plot details from them. In my head, the stories are all a vague mishmash of country houses, terrifying aunts, inappropriate trousers of which Jeeves does not approve, marriage proposals gone wrong, and Jeeves finally sorting everything out on condition that Bertie gets rid of the trousers. Can you give me an example of what you mean?

JANE: Sure! A good example is when they combined the story about Bertie’s Uncle George and the waitress with the story of Bertie’s visit to the house of friends where, despite a moratorium on gambling, the very creepy Steggles makes book at the events at the local church fair.
Stretching either of these stories to a full hour production would have weakened their impact. Instead, the events with Uncle George are why Bertie flees to the country. A cameo with Uncle George and his bride-to-be near the end of the episode links the stories nicely.

In combining them, the scriptwriters were well within what might be called the “Wodehouse tradition,” since many – although not all – of his “novels” were actually interlinked short stories arranged as novels.

ALAN: That’s interesting. And you are right, many of Wodehouse’s novels are just short story collections. And jolly good show, I say!

JANE: Sometimes the combinations were a bit over the top, I’ll admit. In the “American” sequence, the story of Rocky Todd and his domineering aunt was combined with that of Bicky Bickerstaff and his tightwad father in a fashion that I’m still meditating over… Unlike my prior example, this combination led to more distortion of the original stories. Still… If I let myself relax, I can see there were advantages as well.

We’ve barely touched on the complex entity that is P.G. Wodehouse. I’d love to talk about pigs, but pumas are beckoning. How about next time?

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2 Responses to “TT: Enter Bertie and Jeeves”

  1. janelindskold Says:

    I’ve sometimes been asked where Edlin, in the “Wolf books” acquired some of his verbal tags… especially the repeated “What?” I suspect he was influenced by Bertie and his friends.

    “What, ho!”

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