Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Discount Bin Film Club: Jeeves & Wooster: The Complete Series.

Today, I'm going to leave my blustery, windswept, snow-buried, and frigid home and take us all on a journey to a magical place that seems perpetually in late Spring or early Summer, where all of life's problems can be solved by a very brainy butler.

I'm talking about the world of Jeeves & Wooster, the early 1990s TV series starring Stephen Fry as Jeeves the always prepared personal "gentlemen's gentleman" of Hugh Laurie's Bertie Wooster.

The characters were created by British author and playwright P.G. Wodehouse in a long running series of novels, short stories, and plays from 1915 until Wodehouse's death in 1975.

Bertram Wilberforce "Bertie" Wooster is a young aristocrat who is long on money but short on brains. He has a tendency to get himself into jams, very complicated jams, that could get himself jailed, killed, injured, or worse, married.

Luckily Bertie has Jeeves as his personal valet or "gentlemen's gentleman." He tends to Bertie's every need, and Bertie always needs some brains which Jeeves has in abundance.

Now the key to Bertie being such an endearing character instead of just annoying is that he never acts out of malice. Bertie never intends harm to anyone, in fact, he's always trying to help people, and it's these attempts to be helpful which is always getting him into jams that only Jeeves can get him out of.

The performances of Fry and Laurie are flawless. Fry plays Jeeves as if he's more than a servant to Wooster, but as Wooster's hyper-intellectual guardian with a Machiavellian streak. Hugh Laurie, who had been setting the standard for playing upper-class twits since the early 1980s, captures Bertie's seeming innocence, his desire to do good, and his lack of intellectual gravity. Only a smart actor can play so dumb and get away with it.

However, there's a third star to this series, and that's writer Clive Exton. While Exton was unable to do 100% faithful adaptations of Wodehouse's books and stories, he masterfully captured the characters, plots, and even linguistic nuances that made Wodehouse a genre onto himself.

Where the series suffers, even if only a tiny bit, is in the supporting cast, in the fact that most recurring characters end up being played by 2-4 different actors over the course of the series 4 season run.  Which can be jarring if you're binge watching the series. Some are great, like the original Gussy Fink-Nottle, and the third Madeleine Bassett, some are weak, like the second Gussy, but the rest range from adequate to very good.

The supporting cast are extremely important, because it's the impositions they constantly put on Bertie are what drives the plots. Some stand-out characters are Tuppy Glossop and his schemes to make it in business without actually working, Gussy Fink-Nottle, the newt enthusiast, his space-cadet on/off fiancee Madeleine Bassett, the sociopathic Stephanie "Stiffy" Byng, and the wannabe dictator Roderick Spode, leader of the Black Shorts.

Spode is the closest thing to an overt "political" statement in Wodehouse's work. He's a parody of British fascist leader Oswald Moseley whose blend of racist nationalism and socialism offended Wodehouse's Tory sensibilities. Wodehouse makes him a loud, obnoxious, and dimwitted bully who espouses pseudo-scientific theories ranging from the superiority of British knees, to turning over whole counties in England to the farming of turnips. His personal Kryptonite is the word "Eulalie" a secret so horrifying that it turns him into a cowering bowl of jelly at its mere mention. Wodehouse wants him to be seen as a thuggish buffoon, and Exton masterfully obliges.

Exton also captures Wodehouse's notion that the British upper class was at heart a matriarchy. Sure, primogeniture made sure that the guys with the primo-genitals inherited the titles, but all these supposedly elite men, are all operating under the power, or at the mercy of powerful women. Bertie is constantly being bullied by his Aunts Agatha and Dahlia, as well as being forced in and out of engagements and other entanglements by various young women masterfully manipulating men's emotions, and social conventions to get their way.

The big tell for this is The Drones Club, the social centre for Bertie and his upper-class chums. It's symbol/mascot is a male bee, which is fundamentally a mindless creature evolved solely for mating and serving commanding females.

Design wise the show is top notch. Bertie's London and New York apartments are elegant and tasteful art-deco fantasies. The location work is also top-notch, especially when Bertie's off to someone's "country house" for a weekend of comic hijinks, one place, called Totleigh Towers in the series may seem familiar to TV viewers.
Now the biggest criticism of the comedy is that it's considered "old fashioned" and "not edgy enough." Yet it's still funny, and one story, about Bertie being kidnapped by a vengeful American millionaire, would probably not be made today, since it involves over 20 idiots running around in blackface and a grown man punching a nine year old boy being played for laughs.

The DVDs themselves were released by A&E in 2009, and I wish that they had been remastered. The picture can be grainy at times, and the sound a tad tinny on occasion, but you get used to it very quickly. I would prefer a remastered Blu-Ray version, with loads of extra features, but when it comes to such quality entertainment I'm willing to settle.

1 comment:

  1. Great show!! Wodehouse was a British expat who lived in the US, I believe.
    The books can be a bit dry and in my experience are an acquired taste, whereas the BBC production was delightful from the get go.