Tom Lappin talks to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as they hit the screens with the resurrectedJeeves
LISTINGS: WEEK ONE 71 WEEK TWO 72
P.G. Wodehouse‘s lethargic duo. Jeeves and Wooster, are back in the guise of Fry and Laurie. Top-hole? Too bad? Tom Lappin asks how you can convert a crisp simile into a bally TV series.
It‘s a calmer. saner world. A world where the most vexing question of the day is whether the cravat goes with the golfing ensemble. a world where the most threatening event on the horizon is the imminent arrival ofa formidable aunt hell-bent on matchmaking. where everyone has a name like Bingo Little. Gussie Fink-Nottle or Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced Fungy-Phipps). It‘s the world ofJeeves and Wooster. PG. Wodehouse‘s characters making a long-overdue return to the TV screen in a new five-part series for ITV.
The relationship between the upper-crust hedonist and his superhuman manservant first went into print 71 years ago. Admirers ofthe stories included Asquith. Kipling and Wells at the time. and countless others since. Wodehouse‘s lightness of touch and sheer delight in the twists and turns of the English language have ensured that the stories remain as hilarious as ever. Criticisms on the grounds of their unashamed Englishness (despite the fact that their writer spent most of his time in the USA) have not prevented them gaining a world-wide following. even becoming bestsellers in China and Japan. Besides. as Punch pointed out. bashing Wodehouse is ‘like taking a spade to a soufﬂe‘.
Discounting sherry ads. it‘s been more than twenty years since Jeeves and Wooster graced the small screen. The (ills series featured Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael in a sitcom-type treatment of the stories with internal sets and a studio audience. The Wodehouse Playhouse series of the 70s (with John Alderton and Pauline Collins. whatever became of them?) adopted the same technique.
The new series. produced by Picture Partnership for (iranada. takes a different approach. Iiach hour-long episode has been filmed on location in London and the Home Counties. giving them a more naturalistic and atmospheric feel. Producer Brian Eastman (whose previous credits include Wilt. Whoops
Apocalypse and Porterhouse Blue) was keen to
exploit all aspects of the Wodehouse stories. ‘For me. the Wodehouse books have a much greater depth and vision to them. which lends itself nowadays to a proper film interpretation.‘ he says. ‘I think what we have managed to get. is not only all the humour and characterisation, but all the spectacle as well.‘
lnevitably most of the programme‘s publicity will be concentrated on its stars. Stephen Fry (as Jeeves) and Hugh Laurie (as Wooster). The obvious danger is that. with the actors having worked closely together before. from Cambridge Footlights to their own BBC? series and those Alliance and Leicester commercials. Jeeves and Wooster could be seen as the latest Fry and Laurie project. rather than a series in its own right. "That was a danger we were aware of to begin with.‘ admits Eastman. ‘but they really learnt how to be Jeeves and Wooster. In the end we benefited from their previous relationship. because it gave them the strength they put into their acting. and we had a good master/servant relationship as a result.‘
The stars themselves were not without their
qualms about doing the series. ‘It was particularly
worrying to be asked to do it.‘ says Laurie. ‘because you know what Wodehouse adorers are like. They all have this image ofJeeves and Wooster‘s world in their heads. and anyone who plays them might ruin that image. We were both very sceptical until we saw Clive Exton‘s scripts.‘ ‘Those scripts were like an anti-sceptic cream.‘ says Fry with his own brand of Wodehousian imagery. ‘They were so gracefully done and captured all of Bertie‘s enchanting language. It‘s a wonderful world that one just wants to dive into. like diving into a souffle. Nothing more disastrous ever happens than losing a girlfriend or
a golftournament. and the worst kind of language one hears is Bertie saying something like “Bally”. “Dash lt“. or “Great Scott“.‘
Both actors are keen on the format ofthe programme. believing it gives a more rounded view ofthe Wodehouse milieu than previous treatments. ‘The emphasis has been changed to suit today‘s television audiences.‘ says Fry. ‘There‘s a much gentler rhythm to it. which not only enhances the wit. humour and sophistication ofthe Wodehouse stories themselves. but helps to capture the atmosphere of the times in which the stories are set.‘
Fry and Laurie‘s involvement is a deliberate move to attract a young audience for a series that could. erroneously. be seen as an exercise in nostalgia. Filming five hours ofdrama on location does not come cheap. and Jeeves and Wooster needs healthy viewing figures. Eastman is confident they can do it. ‘I don‘t believe that to reach a wide audience. you have to sink to the lowest common denominator. I would like to believe that what we do demonstrates that there is a much higher common denominator that will still attract a wide audience.‘
Language and all its peculiarities and delights are at the heart of Wodehouse‘s appeal. The real test of the series is whether the scripts can convey it convincingly. Brian Eastman has faith in his writer: ‘Clive Exton is a master at encapsulating Wodehouse‘s style in presentable dialogue.‘ he says. lfso. Jeeves and Wooster will be a welcome addition to the ever dwindling ranks of. . . er dash it. what‘s the phrase Jeeves? ‘Quality productions sir'." That‘s the blighter! (Tom Lappin)
Jeeves And Wooster: Scottish Television 51012.? Apr, 8.45pm.
70 The List 20 April — 3 May 1990