18 March 2008

While the Cat's Away...

This evening, with a couple of his brilliant flatmates being away, Dublin's most incorrigible punster took advantage of the situation to treat a batch of us yp an absolute feast of chowder. It was, in a word, superb.

Having dined, and after an inappropriate joke or two -- eskimos were involved, and someday if you're good I'll tell you -- our host decided to introduce me to a pleasure that has somehow eluded me over the years, being Fry and Laurie's celebrated televisual sally at P.G. Wodehouse's peerless tales of a hapless toff and his omniscient valet.

The episode, 'Bridegroom Wanted!' came from the fourth season of Jeeves and Wooster and was basically a hybrid of two short stories, 'Jeeves and the Greasy Bird' and 'Bingo and the Little Woman'. I'm afraid I approached it with some trepidation, having in effect been warned by no less a person than Stephen Fry himself, in his introduction to What Ho! The Best of P.G. Wodehouse:
When Hugh Laurie and I had the extreme honour and terrifying responsibility of being asked to play Bertie Wooster and Jeeves in a series of television adaptations we were aware of one huge problem facing us. Wodehouse's three great achievements are Plot, Character and Language, and the greatest of these, by far, is Language. If we were reasonably competent then all of us concerned in the television version could go some way towards conveying a fair sense of the narrative of the stories and revealing too a good deal of the nature of their characters. The language however . . . we could only scratch the surface of the language. 'Scratching the surface' is a phrase often used without thought. A scratched surface, it is all to easy to forget, is a defiled surface. Wodehouse's language lives and breathes in its written, printed form. It oscillates privately between the page and the reader. The moment it is read out or interpreted it is compromised. It is, to quote Oscar Wilde on another subject, 'like a delicate exotic fruit -- touch it and the bloom is gone.' Scratch its surface, in other words, and you have done it a great disservice. Our only hope in making the television series was that the stories and the characters might provide enough pleasure on their own to inspire the viewer to pick up a book and encounter The Real Thing.

Let me use an example, taken completely at random. I flip open a book of Jeeves and Wooster short stories and happen Bertie and Jeeves discussing a young man called Cyril Bassington-Bassington . . .

'I've never heard of him, Have you ever heard of him, Jeeves?'
'I am familiar with the name Bassington-Bassington, sir. There are three branches of the Bassington-Bassington family -- the Shropshire Bassington-Bassingtons, the Hampshire Bassington-Bassingtons, and the Kent bassington-Bassingtons.'
'England seems pretty well stocked up with Bassington-Bassingtons.'
'Tolerably so, sir.'
'No chance of a sudden shortage, I mean, what?'

Well, try as hard as actors might, such an exchange will always work best on the page. It might still be amusing when delivered as dramatic dialogue, but no actors are as good as the actors we each of us carry in our head. And that is the point really, one of the gorgeous privileges of reading Wodehouse is that he makes us feel better about ourselves because we derive a sense of personal satisfaction in the laughter mutually created. The reader, by responding in his or her head to the rhythm and timing on the page, has the feeling of having made the whole thin click. Of course we yield to Wodehouse the palm of having written it, but our response is what validates the whole experience. Every comma, every 'sir' every 'what?' is something we make work in the act of reading.
I'm very grateful for having been so prepared. The show was wonderful -- sure, it wasn't quite Wodehouse, but it was never going to be and I knew that. What it was, though, was two of the greatest comic creations ever brought hilariously to life by two men who seemed born for the parts. All told, I think the adaptation was about as good as could be hoped for.

Try it, if you don't believe me.

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