December 27, 2004

Yet Another Wodehouse Update

Robert's on the verge of despair with my view of Ring for Jeeves.

The hallmark of the Bertie and Jeeves stories is the fact that they're told as first person narratives - as related by Bertie. (Ring for Jeeves and one short story are the sole exceptions.) The joy of the writing is the way in which Plum unfolds the plots in Bertie's particular jargon, which is a collection of half-remembered quotes from school, advertising jingles, news headlines, catch-phrases and slang, and also the way in which he manages to maintain Bertie's half-witted but sympathetic point of view. Jeeves, bless him, is a prop, not a character, whose chief function, aside from serving as the deus ex machina of the plot, is to provide a linguistic foil to Bertie's blather.

The other thing to bear in mind is that Wodehouse's work is light comedy fluff. Exquisitely crafted fluff, but fluff nonetheless, a kind of musical without the music. Searching too deeply for meaning or motive, or trying to judge any of the characters in real world terms, is the equivalent of poking holes in a souffle to find out what's inside. Poof!

(The business about the language, by the way, is why I dislike the Jeeves and Wooster tee-vee series so much. It is impossible to translate a written first person narrative to the screen, especially one in which the way the story is told is often funnier than the actual story itself.)

Have no fear, Robbo. I'm not giving up. I've requested that, in addition to the other novels, that The Code of the Woosters and Right Ho, Jeeves be delivered as well. I think a first-person narrative would serve to put Jeeves in the proper light and I look forward to hearing from Bertie. Hopefully I won't find these storylines to be as boring and predictable as Ring for Jeeves. Anyone who can craft prose as cleverly as Wodehouse surely cannot be lacking in the plot department all the blasted time.

At least, that would be my hope.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see if anyone else had blasphemed Wodehouse like myself. I'm always looking for like-minded people. Yet, while I came up short on the blasphemy (What? Am I the only one to think this way? Good Grief! My one original thought and it disses a much-beloved author? I'm going straight to hell!) what should I come across when I Googled? An article, written by the estimable Hugh Laurie, who played Bertie in the TV series (and who also plays this guy! He's everywhere! Aieeee!) and who, it appears, actually agrees with Robbo about the TV series:

{...}A man came to us - to me and to my comedy partner, Stephen Fry - with a proposition. He asked me if I would like to play Bertram W. Wooster in 23 hours of televised drama, opposite the internationally tall Fry in the role of Jeeves.

"Fiddle," one of us said. I forget which.

"Sticks," said the other. "Wodehouse on television? It's lunacy. A disaster in kit form. Get a grip, man."

The man, a television producer, pressed home his argument with skill and determination.

"All right," he said, shrugging on his coat. "I'll ask someone else."

"Whoa, hold up," said one of us, shooting a startled look at the other.

"Steady," said the other, returning the S. L. with top-spin.

There was a pause.

"You'll never get a cab in this weather," we said, in unison.

And so it was that, a few months later, I found myself slipping into a double-breasted suit in a Prince of Wales check while my colleague made himself at home inside an enormous bowler hat, and the two of us embarked on our separate disciplines. Him for the noiseless opening of decanters, me for the twirling of the whangee.

So the great P. G. was making his presence felt in my life once more. And I soon learnt that I still had much to learn. How to smoke plain cigarettes, how to drive a 1927 Aston Martin, how to mix a Martini with five parts water and one part water (for filming purposes only), how to attach a pair of spats in less than a day and a half, and so on.

But the thing that really worried us, that had us saying "crikey" for weeks on end, was this business of The Words. Let me give you an example. Bertie is leaving in a huff: " 'Tinkerty tonk,' I said, and I meant it to sting." I ask you: how is one to do justice of even the roughest sort to a line like that? How can any human actor, with his clumsily attached ears, and his irritating voice, and his completely misguided hair, hope to deliver a line as pure as that? It cannot be done. You begin with a diamond on the page, and you end up with a blob of Pritt, The Non-Sticky Sticky Stuff, on the screen.

Wodehouse on the page can be taken in the reader's own time; on the screen, the beautiful sentence often seems to whip by, like an attractive member of the opposite sex glimpsed from the back of a cab. You, as the viewer, try desperately to fix the image in your mind - but it is too late, because suddenly you're into a commercial break and someone is telling you how your home may be at risk if you eat the wrong breakast cereal.

Naturally, one hopes there were compensations in watching Wodehouse on the screen - pleasant scenery, amusing clothes, a particular actor's eyebrows - but it can never replicate the experience of reading him. If I may go slightly culinary for a moment: a dish of foie gras nestling on a bed of truffles, with a side-order of lobster and caviar may provide you with a wonderful sensation; but no matter how wonderful, you simply don't want to be spoon-fed the stuff by a perfect stranger. You need to hold the spoon, and decide for yourself when to wolf and when to nibble. {...}

While I'm a ways off from watching the TV series (Whenever something like this hits the small or silver screen, I like to have read the source material beforehand. This way I can slam it with an unholy glee if I find it lacking. Good fun all around!), I find it interesting that the man who played Bertie is enough of a Wodehouse fan that he doesn't think he did a good enough job, and, in his view, that no one ever could.

Posted by Kathy at December 27, 2004 03:11 PM
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