"What ho, what ho, what ho?"
In the early ‘90s Stephen Fry (Wilde, Gormanghast, Gosford Park) and Hugh Laurie (House, Blackadder, Flight of the Phoenix) stepped away from their sketch comedy, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, to slip into the beloved comical characters of Jeeves and Wooster from the P.G. Wodehouse books. The show ran on ITV for four series between 1990 and 1993, and is now available as a complete set featuring all 23 original episodes on eight DVDs. The DVDs have only a single “bonus feature”, which is an extensive P.G. Wodehouse biography/bibliography/filmography, and the navigational inability to skip the opening credits and go right to the first scene in an episode is initially annoying, but those are the only drawbacks to this set and are soon forgotten once the brilliant comedy begins.
Jeeves & Wooster follows the misadventures of young, aristocratic and idly rich Bertram Wooster and his indispensably brilliant valet, Jeeves. When he’s not being forced into awkward, unlikely social situations by his overbearing Aunt Agatha, goaded into insane acts of petty theft in the name of family by his Aunt Dahlia, bachelor Bertie Wooster often finds himself engaged—mostly by default and rarely by design—to any number of his former flames or his friends’ fiancés. When not embroiled in engagement, however, he’s a happy chap. He always has a friendly “What Ho!” or “Toodle Pip!” for every man, woman and Spode, which, naturally, is how he finds himself so often at the center of other peoples’ mayhem. That’s where Jeeves comes in.
Actually, Jeeves comes in at many more places than that. As a “gentleman’s gentleman”, it’s his job to make tea, pour drinks, press clothes, and recommend improving books and such. As his gentleman’s gentleman, it also falls to Jeeves to obfuscate the truth to the authorities, orchestrate elaborate schemes to accomplish some of Dahlia’s demands, tolerate endless indignities with and on behalf of his employer and, generally, to extricate Wooster from the all the sticky situations his pals put him in. Essentially, Jeeves saves Bertie’s bacon, time and again, because Bertie Wooster is entirely incapable of saying “No”. He can’t seem to say it even when he does actually utter the word, which he does, repeatedly, and sometimes vehemently, especially in the later episodes.
His peers from The Drones club in London often give him the most trouble. To a man—and sometimes, woman, his humorously nicknamed chums (“Barmy” Forthingay Phipps, “Tuppy” Glossup, “Stinker” Pinker, “Bingo” Little, Stephanie “Stiffy” Byng, etc.) seem to delight in dragging Wooster into their mad schemes and romantic entanglements. He’s all too happy to help most times, that is until he finds himself accidentally affianced to the insufferably daffy Madeleine Basset (played by Diana Blackburn and Elizabeth Morton, respectively) or pinned under the watchful and wrathful eye of furious fascist, Roderick Spode (John Turner).
He’s most often reuniting wayward lovers like Tuppy and Bingo with their betrothed, or assisting the newt fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle (Richard Garnett and later, Richard Braine) with his romantic missteps, always of course, endangering himself and his freedom in the process, allowing for Jeeves to concoct ever-more-dazzling escape plans (not that Jeeves always has the answer, a favorite episode where he fails has both men jumping ship in the middle of the Atlantic. The resultant “eight months later” gag is priceless!).
Watching the third and fourth seasons, these situations and set ups begin to repeat quite a lot, but it’s owing to the irrepressible geniuses of Fry and Laurie that the settings and plots never get old. No matter the number of times our heroes are ensconced at Sir Watkyn’s country place steering afoul of Spode, or in danger of marrying Madeleine, no matter how often uninvited trouble in the form of Tuppy (the wonderful Robert Daws) pops across the pond to accost them in New York City, the verbal patter and expressive interplay between these two keeps things fresh and wickedly funny.
True, much of this dialogue comes straight from P.G. Wodehouse’s original stories, but when Fry and Laurie add their considerable comedic talents, the result is a veritable verbal masterpiece. Their combined wit and skill with rapid-fire, but still understated, delivery elevate even the less obvious lines. However it’s the more readily apparent humor that most people love about Jeeves & Wooster.
Fry and Laurie excel at that as well. Whether it’s Wooster’s wide-eyed astonishment at his predicaments or Jeeves’ disapproval of his employer’s latest hat, these two are masters of the minute intricacies of comedy facial expression. Fry particularly, as Jeeves he conveys more with his brow than most actors can express with their entire bodies! Laurie, for his part, is hilarious with the tongue-twisting witticisms and, as a special treat—though this is not in Wodehouse’s original stories—he is often at the piano so Wooster can regale or revile Jeeves with a humorous ditty.
They are a perfect pair, Jeeves & Wooster, Fry and Laurie. Nearly 20 hours of high-brow humor and low-brow pranks, subtle spit takes and silly sight gags combine with fantastic feats of linguistic dexterity to provide endless entertainment. To paraphrase Bertie Wooster, the laughs are, as always, slap on the button and leading by a length in the final furlong, Jeeves.