Comedy Rewind

What, ho! It's Jeeves And Wooster

Jeeves And Wooster. Image shows from L to R: Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie), Jeeves (Stephen Fry)

Could you name a more quintessentially British duo than Jeeves and Wooster? P.G. Wodehouse wrote more than ninety books in his lifetime, but it was his mostly-short stories starring the doltish young Londoner, Bertie Wooster and his judicious valet, Jeeves that caught the public's imagination in the early 20th Century.

Wodehouse became known as the master of humorous storytelling. His skill for constructing a biting comedic sentence was unrivalled; he could turn any phrase on its head to create a uniquely daft, yet vastly intelligent piece of writing, such as in 1938's The Code Of The Woosters, where he wrote of a character: "He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled."

He was also a prolific inventor of words and modern phrases. Not many realise that he is the first person credited with the use of the word 'cuppa' - "Come and have a cuppa coffee," he proposed in 1925's Sam The Sudden. "What the Hell" is another unlikely everyday expression that Wodehouse coined; 'zing' is yet another.

Wodehouse's influence has become almost the very foundation of British comedy and can be seen in many modern classics. It is particularly evident in 1987's Blackadder The Third, where the dynamic between Blackadder and his new master took a very 'Wodehousian' turn. Writers Ben Elton and Richard Curtis were doubtless inspired by Jeeves and Wooster's relationship, although Blackadder's intentions were far more nefarious than the honest and true Jeeves (who is a valet, not a butler as he is commonly mislabelled - albeit that Bertie attests he can 'buttle with the best of them').

Blackadder. Image shows from L to R: Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie), Mr. Edmund Blackadder, Esquire (Rowan Atkinson)

Hugh Laurie's unforgettable performance as the barmy Prince Regent could comfortably be likened to the similarly feather-brained Bertie - an affluent young man at a total loss without his valet. It follows that Blackadder The Third may very well have played a part in inspiring the big budget adaptation of Jeeves And Wooster for ITV that debuted in 1990; it just seemed to fit. After all, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were ridiculously prefect for the roles, and they showcased it before our very eyes.

Being hailed as ideal casting choices was actually something that disconcerted the double act. Fry and Laurie were at the height of their fame as a duo in the late eighties, having just landed their big sketch show, A Bit Of Fry & Laurie. They had fast risen through the ranks of comedy fame and were concerned about taking on something as sacred as Wodehouse's creation.

Previous adaptations of the beloved characters' adventures include several little-known films in the 1930s (one stars David Niven as Bertie). And, much later, the 1960s saw the BBC bring Jeeves and Wooster to the small screen for several series starring Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price entitled, The World Of Wooster. Only two episodes survive, but it has been commented that these adaptations had sadly lost much of Wodehouse's prose.

PG Wodehouse

The all-important narration and clever word-play of Wodehouse is so full of character that it is almost a character in itself. Of course, nobody had thought to go the whole hog and make a book's monologue itself into a character until the late seventies when the heavily Wodehouse-inspired Douglas Adams created his masterpiece, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. But that's another story. What Adams's idea did guarantee though, was that the writer's voice was not lost. Anybody adapting Wodehouse could face no greater challenge and perhaps this was something that Fry and Laurie themselves feared when they hesitated in taking on the roles.

In the end though, a big budget adaptation of Wodehouse's stories was too good an opportunity to miss for Stephen and Hugh, and, unable to bear seeing anybody else perform the roles in their steed, they agreed to take the series on.

The first thing that Fry and Laurie focused on was the pace of delivery. "It's got to speed up." Fry recalled on seeing back early unedited footage, 'We got the clapper loader on the set to write the word 'Pace' on the back of his clapboard, so that it would remind us at the beginning of every shot,' he told the LA Times back in 1993.

Jeeves And Wooster. Image shows from L to R: Jeeves (Stephen Fry), Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie). Copyright: Picture Partnership Productions

Hugh Laurie added, 'Because of the language. Of course, Jeeves and Wooster in the books are fabulous characters, but they're characters in a fairly superficial sense. The real star of the thing is the language, and the beauty of it is the way the language just sort of skates, almost as if it were verse. You can't afford to take too much time about naturalism, really. The sentences are so beautifully constructed you want to hear them ping through in one go, without someone breaking it and doing a naturalistic "um" and an "er" and staring at the ceiling.'

Many of Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories were told from the perspective of Bertie, and as a result much of the humour comes from us laughing at his naivety as we slowly catch onto what might actually be happening, rather than what he is proposing is happening. This writing mechanic also makes Jeeves a particularly enigmatic character: Bertie is clearly completely enamoured with him, and is utterly convinced that he can sort out any problem - which of course he can. However, we are left in the dark as to who he is? Or, where he comes from? Or, how he can be so perfect?

As 1990's Jeeves And Wooster begins, after an inspired jazzy theme tune (composed especially for the series), we see Bertie Wooster hauled up before the courts for the crime of stealing a policeman's helmet. Almost paralytic, he is unable to speak and his lack of articulation continues until a mystifying individual in a bowler hat persistently rings his doorbell.

I was sent by the agency Sir; I was given to understand that you required a valet?

The said individual then whips up his very own hangover cure, which serves as a kind of magic potion to get Bertie up and talking again. 'I say!' he cries after being revived from his stupor, 'You're engaged!' and thus their partnership is sealed.

Jeeves And Wooster. Image shows from L to R: Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie), Jeeves (Stephen Fry)

The series is less of an out and out sitcom and more a period comedy drama. Benefitting from a slightly longer running time than your average sitcom (an hour, or 50 minutes discounting adverts), each episode was carefully adapted from Wodehouse's various original stories, often taking on multiple plots at once, faithfully weaving them around each other.

The scriptwriter of the series was Clive Exton, the screenwriter perhaps famous for adapting many of Agatha Christie's Poirot novels for the same broadcaster (ITV) and producer, Brian Eastman. He was adept at bringing a classic author's work to the small screen and has even been touted by some as the series' "real star" for being able to keep so much of Wodehouses's wordplay intact. The only real embellishment he added to the world of Jeeves and Wooster was to make Bertie something of a talented pianist, a reflection of Hugh Laurie's own well known musical talents. In many episodes Bertie attempts to get Jeeves to join in with an often-ill-fated sing-song around the piano. This leads to some very entertaining scenes that feature Fry's deadpan valet attempting to sing tunes such as Minnie the Moocher at Bertie's request: 'Hode hode hode ho, Sir,' he replies thickly.

It would be easy to overcook a character such as Jeeves, to make him too stereotypical, too cliché, but Stephen Fry pitches his performance perfectly. A good example is Jeeves's frequent questioning of Bertie's sense of fashion. A common feature of Wodehouse's stories, he isn't rude of course - this is Jeeves we're talking about, he does so only in the gentlest way possible - yet his disdain is plainly felt when Bertie emerges wearing something his man disapproves of. 'What on earth's the matter, Jeeves?' Bertie asks, dismayed when his valet starts behaving oddly around a guest.

Jeeves And Wooster. Jeeves (Stephen Fry)

'I shall be better directly,' Jeeves replies wearily, 'It's just... Mr Little's tie, sir. It has little horseshoes on it. It's sometimes difficult just to shrug these things off, sir.'

Jeeves is a nuanced character and was a beloved fixture of Wodehouse's life and work for more than sixty years, even starring in his own adventures away from Bertie Wooster's life. Fry's performance offers a window into the depth of a protagonist that evolved over so many decades; a character that is so much more than a simple parody of a butler, or indeed a late-nineties internet search engine. Similarly, Hugh Laurie gave us a Bertie that, despite possessing obvious shades of Blackadder's Prince Regent, stands as his own character with all the energy, naivety and kindness that Bertie Wooster should possess.

Jeeves And Wooster became a hit for Fry and Laurie, affirming their status as an iconic double act. The series went from strength to strength, becoming a fixture of ITV's schedule for four series, totalling 23 episodes.

Jeeves And Wooster. Image shows from L to R: Jeeves (Stephen Fry), Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie)

Stephen Fry told press as the series was winding down, 'John Cleese is convinced that we should do a movie, which I find utterly incomprehensible. But for television, anyhow, there's the limitation of the number of stories to start with - and also just a feeling, I suppose, on our part that we don't want to be too identified with those roles, and each of us is working on our own things.'

We now know that the roles didn't end up defining Fry and Laurie as they once feared, either individually or as a double act, yet the series does remain an integral part of their partnership.

Jeeves And Wooster is a rare example of a series that bravely took on adapting and in essence 'remaking' an iconic piece of popular culture that managed to defy expectations and succeed. In what has been quoted as 'the roles they were born to play' Fry and Laurie triumphed, and to this day the series holds up as one of the definitive portrayals of Wodehouse, which is no mean feat. It truly is perfect nonsense. Perhaps best enjoyed with a nice cuppa.


Where to start?

Jeeves And Wooster. Image shows from L to R: Bertie Wooster (Hugh Laurie), Jeeves (Stephen Fry)

Series 1, Episode 1

Bertie Wooster is badly in need of someone to just generally sort out his life. Who better than Jeeves? A young man keen to carry out his duties as a valet and provide the solutions to all of Bertie's continuingly occurring problems, this episode sees the pair meet for the first time and cement their allegiance, exhibiting a near-full range of their shared dynamic.

Jeeves & Wooster - The Complete Collection

Featuring the entire series of Jeeves & Wooster based on the characters created by P.G. Wodehouse. Jeeves & Wooster is one of the most delightful period comedy series on TV. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie have captured the wit and sophistication of P.G Wodehouse and manage to portray the marvellous, light hearted atmosphere in which the stories were originally set to perfection.

First released: Monday 18th July 2005

  • Distributor: ITV Studios
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 8
  • Minutes: 1,161
  • Subtitles: English
  • Catalogue: 3711534903

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  • Distributor: A&E
  • Region: 1
  • Discs: 8
  • Subtitles: English

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    • Distributor: Granada Media
    • Region: 2
    • Discs: 8
    • Minutes: 1,161
    • Subtitles: English

    Buy and sell old and new items
    Search for this product on eBay

    • Distributor: ITV Studios
    • Region: 2
    • Discs: 8
    • Minutes: 1,156
    • Subtitles: English
    • Catalogue: 3711529383

    Buy and sell old and new items
    Search for this product on eBay

    • Distributor: A&E
    • Region: 1
    • Discs: 8

    Buy and sell old and new items
    Search for this product on eBay

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