Thursday, 24 November 2016

The World of Wooster (1965-67)

The World of Wooster was a BBC series adapted from the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories of P.G. Wodehouse. It was a very successful and highly acclaimed series which ran for three seasons from 1965 to 1967 so naturally the BBC destroyed every episode they could. As far as I know only one episode survives (which you can find on youtube).

I have very dim memories of seeing this series many years ago. What I do remember about it is that is was superb and very funny.

If you’re going to adapt the Jeeves stories you really need to get the casting just right and that’s exactly what the BBC did. Ian Carmichael (one of the great British comic actors of the 20th century) is the perfect Bertie Wooster. The trick with getting Bertie’s character right is that he is certainly a silly ass but he’s not a drooling halfwit. He even displays, on rare occasions, traces of what might even be taken as rudimentary signs of intelligence. His problem is not that he’s a complete idiot. He’s not terribly bright but mostly he gets into scrapes because he overestimates his ability to extricate himself from awkward situations. His schemes for getting himself out of trouble are often ingenious but they’re impractical and he tends to overlook the ways in which they’re likely to backfire. And invariably they do backfire.

Fortunately the schemes that Jeeves comes up with to rescue his amiable but accident-prone master do not suffer from these deficiencies. His plans work with the clockwork precision of well-planned military operations. 

Bertie is not a character we are supposed to regard with contempt. He’s a good-natured kindly generous soul even if he is lazy and irresponsible. We’re supposed to regard Bertie with amused affection. Ian Carmichael captures all these qualities perfectly, Carmichael made an entire career (and a very successful one) out of playing good-natured but not overly intelligent characters who somehow manage to bumble their way through life and avoid disaster. 

Other attempts to portray Bertie Wooster on television have succeeded less well because they end up pushing the character too far into the realms of mere caricature.

Dennis Price is equally good as Jeeves. Jeeves has a very low opinion of Bertie’s intelligence but he is the perfect gentleman’s gentleman. He is calm and unflappable and he is used to getting his employer out of scrapes and he has sublime confidence in his own ability to do so. It’s all part of the job. He does these things in the same way he performs his other duties, efficiently and without fuss. He is never smarmy.

The surviving episode, Jeeves and the Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace, naturally sees Bertie in hot water again but this time none of it is his fault. He is expecting his prospective father-in-law to call on him. Sir Humphrey Wardour (Clive Morton) does not drink, or smoke, or gamble. In fact he disapproves of all the things that Bertie enjoys doing. Bertie’s attempts to make a good impression might well have succeeded had it not been for the very unlucky circumstance that he has his nephews Claude and Eustace staying with him. He’s supposed to keep an eye on them until the following morning when they take ship to South Africa. Claude and Eustace make Bertie seem like a paragon of respectability and responsibility. They are being shipped off the Colonies to keep them out of further trouble. As you might expect it takes them only a few hours to manage to reduce Bertie’s life to chaos, shipwreck his impending marriage and (far more seriously) threaten his always delicate relationship with his dreaded aunts.

On this occasion Bertie doesn’t even consider trying to devise a hare-brained scheme of his own to save the situation. He realises that this is a job for a man of gigantic intellect. It is a job for Jeeves.

One of the reasons the 60s was such a golden age for British television was the wealth of truly marvellous character actors available to fill the supporting roles. In this case Clive Morton as Sir Humphrey Wardour, Fabia Drake as Aunt Agatha, Timothy Carlton as Claude and a very young Simon Ward as Eustace all give just the right performances and in the right Wodehousian spirit.

The World of Wooster is in my opinion one of the two totally successful attempts to bring the delightful works of P.G. Wodehouse to the small screen (the other successful attempt being the BBC’s 1974-78 Wodehouse Playhouse anthology series). It’s a tragedy that such a wonderful series has been almost entirely lost to us. The surviving episode at least gives us a glimpse of what we’ve lost.

No comments:

Post a Comment