Series of Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of PG Wodehouse stories involving an independently wealthy young gentleman of 1920s England named Bertie Wooster, and his valet, Jeeves, the quintessential "gentleman's gentleman."

Most stories involve Wooster stumbling into some sort of trouble, or accidentally getting himself engaged to some lady you wouldn't wish on your worst ememy, and Jeeves getting him out of trouble by his own wits and impeccable manners. The stories are hilarious, and the portrails of Wooster by Hugh Laurie and Jeeves by Stephen Fry are dead-on.

Also, most certainly the inspiration for Ask Jeeves, and the hostname for many majordomo servers.

Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, aka "Plum" -  wrote a prolific amount of humorous material, be it short stories, anthologies, or novels. The "Mulliner Nights" anthology revolve around a series of stories told by a certain Mr. Mulliner in a local pub.

He also wrote a series of comic stories so successful that its main character, "Jeeves" - is now the name one uses when referring to a putative butler, or needing to describe an incredibly useful human being. Jeeves' mannerisms and general character are often carbon copied to produce a butler character - making it instantly obvious what and who the character is supposed to be. The Jeeves and Wooster stories revolve around the interplay between Jeeves, who in the last story ever written is finally referred to by a first name, "Reginald" - a valet who is in the service of various upper class gentlemen, and a certain Bertram "Bertie" Wooster, who can charitably be referred to as an upper class twit.

Wooster has enough money (via an allowance, as opposed to working) that he can not only afford apartments in New York City and London, with a small grand piano in each - but the constant services of a valet (properly, Jeeves is not a butler but a valet, as he serves one person and not a household). And frankly, he needs one. When we see the two together for the first time, Wooster is hung over and has some minor legal problems from having decided as a zany jape to steal a policeman's helmet, from its wearer, while he was wearing it. Whereas Jeeves is initially very useful at providing a hangover cure, ironing the newspapers and keeping Mr. Wooster's basic needs (martinis, ironed clothes etc) fresh and ready - he becomes increasingly more valuable over time as someone intelligent enough to help Wooster get through his various problems.

Bertie Wooster is played by Hugh Laurie, best known to American audiences as Dr. House, M.D. As a joke and to help a friend pull a prank on an irascible casting director he auditioned for the role, pulling off a flawless Midwestern accent and proving to the director that he didn't need to find some guy genuinely from the Midwest to do it. Since Laurie had become typecast as an upper class British twit in every single British property he'd been in, he jumped at the chance and the increased money. Laurie really was of the upper class, having lived his life in Oxford, attending the Dragon school, and then Eton, and then Cambridge. He was however, the kind of guy who'd cheat at French exams and smoke behind the bike sheds, and as someone who hadn't clawed his way into Oxbridge from the middle classes - was far more interested in rowing and then the Cambridge Footlights drama club than social climbing.

You might think that Wooster would have no problems, being young, waited on hand and foot, and having a steady supply of money off which to live. Unfortunately, in addition to the results of his self-inflicted injuries (trying to steal policeman's hats, etc.) he also has aunts.

I'm not sure what it is about Wodehouse's psychology that made him truly scared of aunts, but they usually appear as very formidable, dominating and interfering women. They are usually widows, with control of the family money from which allowances are dispensed - and have enough free time to play chess with the people around them. Not only are they of the idea that Wooster is wasting his life sitting around, unemployed and enjoying himself - he has a duty to find a wife and get married and they know the perfect girl and WILL YOU STAND UP STRAIGHT WHEN I AM TALKING TO YOU, that sort of thing. They also embroil him quite often in their own intrigues. It's known that if people have no inherent stresses and conflicts, they invent them. In one episode he's hauled out of bed by yet another intimidating aunt to get dressed and go down and sneer at a cow-shaped cream dispenser, in order to knock down the price somewhat so that she can buy it at a discount. This seems on the surface ridiculous, until you realize that because of extended unintended consequences they get embroiled in further and further ridiculousness. For example in the above mentioned story the shop owner tells him to go outside to look at the hallmark on the item in better light, and he does so, right in front of the judge who tried his case for attempting to steal a policeman's helmet - and believes him to be shoplifting the item. And that's just how it all starts.

Jeeves is played by Stephen Fry, a young man from the middle classes with a criminal past (he financed living beyond his class in his teenage years with credit card fraud and spent time in prison) he turned his life around by being accepted to Oxford. Wearing tweed and affecting a pipe at the age of 19, he wanted to out-prep and out-Oxbridge the people who ran the place. He has since made a career of playing upper class bullies, and being on quiz shows where the points don't matter, while dispensing bon mots and pearls of wit. He's also a bit of a condescending asshole and blames his sudden outbursts against people on mental illness, sort of like a British cross between Dennis Miller, George Will, Garrison Kieler and Kanye West. Because he has a very pleasant and soft baritone he's often called upon to read books on tape, and once gave a particularly "well done, well aren't you precious" pat on the head to an author, J. K. Rowling, whose first book had done quite well, and whose subsequent works have made her the richest woman in Britain. She didn't forget his condescension, and when it turns out he can't say the word "pocketed" when it's written down, phoned her to ask if it would be alright if they changed the script of one of the sequels to say "put it in his pocket". She icily replied, "No".

He tones down his personality to play Jeeves, but still has the air of someone who isn't from the upper classes but fervently believes in the importance of the upper classes sticking to tradition. Because the actor absolutely is.  Jeeves is not terribly happy with Wooster's love of things like playing the banjolele, growing a moustache, wearing an alpine hat or a straw boater or engaging in some of the erosion of social barriers that was taking place in the Roaring Twenties Jazz Age in which the series is set. Walls were coming down, people were dancing the Charleston, and modern girls were heavy petting and daring to put on makeup in public. They could not have picked a better person than tweedy would-be Oxbridge Don Mr. Fry, to play a man quietly policing people with an upraised eyebrow.

What typically happens in the story is that Wooster and his collection of friends, all of which are similarly layabout upper class twits going to the Drones club and throwing bread rolls at policemen (think a cross between Hogwarts without the magic and Animal House). One is terribly fascinated about newts, for example. Either Wooster himself is yanked into an intrigue by an aunt, or one of his circle of friends is, and Wooster tries to sort things out, and Jeeves often does. Jeeves, in return, not only gets the satisfaction of helping Wooster out of a predicament, but Wooster usually agrees to abandon whatever current inapporpriate fascination that is quietly irritating Jeeves' sensitivities.

What makes this material engaging is that it takes place in history, in a milieu most of us will never see (upper class families) and as such is like a Monty Python-esque other world. The rules of the game are wacky and alien to us, and that makes it particlarly fun...

but also unavailable to modern American audiences especially is that as a comedy of manners it's difficult to picture the people involved and understand the comedy involved unless you've actually seen these people. Wodehouse wrote in the jazz age about the jazz age, and the conflict between classes as well as the turmoil between Victorian and Edwardian values and the increasing modernity and social freedom of the 1920s. We're not so lucky to be able to read the description of an upraised eyebrow or understand what the big deal is about a cow creamer and sneering at one from the page itself.

Which is why the production of Jeeves and Wooster is so valuable, because it brings all these people and their weird habits to life. And I do mean life. Laurie is brilliant as the inept, not really quite bright Wooster who just wants to play "Minnie the Moocher" on the piano while gargling martinis, and Fry is perfect at capturing the humor of seeing Wooster in his new alpine hat, and asking politely but very sarcastically if he'd also bought the leather pants that one requires to complete the ensemble. I now get the joke where Jeeves shows up dressed as a detective inspector to prevent Wooster from being arrested for stealing a cow creamer, calling him the notorious burglar "Alpine Joe" whose obvious mental derangement is evidenced in his insistence on wearing a ludicrous alpine hat. Laurie acts out perfectly the relief at not being arrested by a real cop but also biting his tongue and choking back his obvious anger at hearing repeated insult towards a hat he's rather proud of.

Of course, the other amazing thing about the production is the lavish attention to detail. Upper class people in the Gilded Age? This calls for serious scenery porn as well as costume porn. If the Brits do anything right it's drawing on their very rich heritage from the time period in which they had tons of money and the production practically sings. If you slowly slid your hands down the waistband of your panties at The Great Gatsby the fact that Hugh Laurie is nowhere near as good looking as Leonardo DiCaprio is overshadowed by the fact that not only do you have the Gatsby era, period pitch perfect in Wooster's suits and Fry's flawless evening wear and stroller suit, but also the gorgeous garconne dresses of the young women and the Victorian elegance of various aunts and other assorted folks. A regular location for filming in the piece is the property that was also used in Downton Abbey. All cars are period perfect as well, gleaming curves and boxy roadsters. Fine bone china, silverware, ironed newspapers and the clean look of Art Deco and the elegant awesomeness of Victorian England done right.

It does suffer from two flaws - it kind of went downhill with everyone phoning it in in Series 4, and because of the fact that they could not really commit some of the actors to a series, they had to recast certain secondary characters in subsequent series, with some people not liking the recasting at all. Actor availability is a problem when you have people in bit parts.

All in all though, the show is a great time capsule of certain parts of the era, and well worth watching. Wodehouse, it turns out, is quite funny - and I am glad of Mr. Laurie and Mr. Fry for working on the TV adaptation.  Later in the books, it turns out that Jeeves, who is a member of the butler and valet's "Ganymede" club, are required to write notes (that are kept in confidence) about their employers - as a warning to future staff and/or helpful info. Usually a paragraph, maybe three - but Wooster's entry is eighteen pages. Jeeves takes the liberty of removing them all later in the book series, as he cannot imagine ever working for anyone else, and the deep friendship between both men is mutual. Given that Mr. Laurie and Mr. Fry met in the early 80s as part of a comedy act together and have been very good friends and dear friends ever since - there couldn't be two better men on earth to bring it all to life.

 

 

 

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