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You coughed, Jeeves?

Worst to Best

Jeeves and Wooster
Ranked

 

In retrospect, it’s readily evident that Clive Exton’s adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s best-loved characters reached an early peak before slipping into the mire of a faux-30s New York and increasingly fast-and-loose, slapstick-fantasy embroidering via Exton’s own plot devices. Very occasionally, he came up with something inspired himself, but one mostly gets the sense of a hubristic desire to make his own stamp on Plum’s mastery. Consequently, there’s a fairly evident qualitive dividing line (the first two seasons and the last two), albeit the shifting sands of recasting simultaneously means there are positives later on absent from the first couple of runs. 

As for the leads, Hugh Laurie remains probably the definitive Bertie casting (certainly, there’s a very pronounced downturn in the actor’s appeal when he decided to stop playing for laughs. And, if you credit Donald Marshall’s account, at some point along the way “the actor guy House” became one of the most actively deplorable individuals walking the four corners of the Earth. Which would mean any Hugh Laurie currently doing the rounds is highly unlikely to be the original). Stephen Fry’s Jeeves meanwhile is nothing if not idiosyncratic; his take succeeds well enough because of the pair’s comic rapport, but there’s no beating Dennis Price for general comportment and minimalism. 

 


4.6: The Ties that Bind

aka The Exs are Nearly Married Off
Much Obliged, Jeeves (1963)

The last episode is the worst?  Say it ain’t so! Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect of Clive Exton’s fourth season “finessing” of perfectly decent Wodehouse tales to detrimental effect, but a revised scenario where Tuppy Glossop’s causing explosive geysers all over Totley Towers with new business line Plumbo Jumbo, Bertie is forced to trot out a desperately weak remix of the previous triumph that was “Eulalie” (courtesy of “Celia”), and there’s an end credits Benny Hill chase around the church – Spode and Madeline, then Bertie and Madeline, then Spode and Madeline again are set to be married during the course of the episode – as the collected guests take the Plumbo Jumbo catastrophe within out on Bertie (accompanied by Jeeves), is just about the final nail in a bally rum wheeze.


4.4: The Delayed Arrival

aka Arrested in a Night Club
Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954)

Remember the Wodehouse story where Jeeves puts on a skirt and poses as novelist Daphne Dolores Morehead? And enjoys the experience so much, he then persuades Bertie to don drag, taking the rap for some thievery by appearing as an up-the-duff maid at Brinkley Court. It’s a shame Exton decides to beat Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit about the head this way; after all, we’re back in England at last, there’s more welcome gnashing of teeth from the season’s most formidable antagonist D’Arcy “Stilton” Cheesewright, and Peter Howell is most amusing as his magistrate uncle. There’s also the latest, final Dahlia (Jean Heywood); she isn’t up to snuff, alas.


4.3: Bridegroom Wanted 

aka Honoria Glossop Turns Up
Jeeves and the Greasy Bird (1965, in Playboy! Chapter 1, Plum Pie)
Bingo and the Little Woman (1922, Chapter 11, The Inimitable Jeeves)

Remember the Wodehouse story when Bertie and Jeeves jump over the side of an ocean liner and subsequently spend nine months drifting across the Atlantic? No, I thought not. In addition to Exton’s flagrant disregard for the source material, this one, which includes the resolution of the Rosie M Banks saga, suffers such malaises as a return of the decidedly unsympathetic Pip Torrens Bingo – now in love with the actual Rosie M Banks – and a much-too-loveable Philip Locke recasting of Roderick Glossop. Positives include Liz Kettle’s hockey-sticks Honoria Glossop and David Healy, suitably unscrupulous and loving it as theatrical agent Jas Waterbury.


4.2: Lady Florence Craye Arrives in New York 

aka the Once and Future Ex
Joy in the Morning (1946)

Remember the Wodehouse story where Bertie climbs up the Empire State Building dressed as Abraham Lincoln and is promptly struck by lightning? Me neither, but oh, my sides. Illustrative of where Season 4 goes very wrong, not only in the irrational desire to relocate stories to NYC, but to bowdlerise good material by inserting (or concluding them on) whacky slapstick cartoon antics. PG would surely have blanched at such a prospect. There’s some good material here, not least Nicholas Palliser’s first appearance as Stilton Cheesewright and the Spinoza/Spindrift/Florence Craye entanglement. But Chichester Clam donning a gorilla costume and meeting Lord Worplesdon at the zoo? It’s the purple pim.


4.5: Trouble at Totleigh Towers

aka Totleigh Towers
Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963)

Remember the Wodehouse story with Bertie puts on black face – no, not because “Boggie be about” – and poses as the Umgali people’s chief so as to reclaim an apparently hexed statue? I didn’t think you would. Excise all that regrettableness and you’re left with an entirely serviceable plot and performances, but it remains difficult to see your way past. There’s an enviable complement of now-established players in familiar parts, in the forms of Madeline, Spode, Sir Watkyn, Stinker Pinker and Stiffy Byng, with only the “he’ll do” second-gen Gussie to slightly dilute the mix. Norman Rodaway also makes a first-rate Major Plank (the eventual salvation of Stinker and Stiffy’s marriage plans). 


3.1: Bertie Sets Sail 

aka Safety in New York
Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest (1916, Chapter 3, Carry On, Jeeves)

I know Wodehouse went to live there, and I know any number of stories were set there (although, the way Seasons 3 and 4 go, you’d think it was most of them), but if you can’t afford the trappings (and the accents), you should probably think twice about the inclination to dabble, rather than doubling down. Here we have Tuppy besotted with Pauline Stoker so rather hastily agreeing to buy four dozen cars from her father, Bertie trying to enjoy a country retreat but failing to make allowances for wet poet Rockmetteller Todd, and one of those run-riot characters who plague Bertie’s life at intervals (Wilmot “Motty” Lord Pershore). It’s resolutely unremarkable, but that’s a godsend compared to Season Four’s New York ker-raziness.


3.2: The Full House

aka Bertie Ensures Bicky Can Continue to Live in Manhattan
Jeeves and the Hard-Boiled Egg (1917, Chapter 4, Carry On, Jeeves)
The Aunt and the Sluggard (1916, Chapter 5, Carry On, Jeeves)

Another Rockmetteller “Rocky” Todd episode, which is two too many. On the plus side, we’re treated to Jeeves writing to his aunt, informing her of the vibrant New York nightlife he’s experiencing on Todd’s  behalf (it’s the last thing Rocky wishes to indulge); she’s so impressed she wishes to partake herself. The Bicky Bickersteff sequence is less satisfying, however (in which he attempts to persuade dad John Savident to front his chicken farm business venture).


2.3: Pearls Mean Tears 

aka The Con
Aunt Agatha Takes the Count (1922, Chapters 3 & 4 The Inimitable Jeeves) 
The Rummy Affair of Old Biffy (1924, Chapter 6, Carry On, Jeeves)

A rare episode from the first two seasons that isn’t quite up to snuff. Aunt Agatha attempts to steer Bertie in the conjugal direction of Aline Hemingway, “sister” of Soapy Sid (posing as a vicar; he’s actually after Agatha’s pearls). That part’s fine, but the Biffy Biffen plotline – he’s engaged to Honoria Glossop – is something of a damp squib. This involves another disastrous dinner with Sir Roderick Glossop (not as funny as the Season 1 incident) and a performance of “Woof Woof”.


1.3: The Purity of the Turf

aka The Village Sports Day at Twing aka The Gambling Event
Indian Summer of an Uncle (1930, Chapter 10, Very Good, Jeeves)
The Purity of the Turf (1922, Chapter 14, The Inimitable Jeeves)

A slightly lesser Season 1 effort, although Richard Braine is a much better fit for sneaky betting syndicate mastermind Rupert Steggles than he would be as a replacement Gussie Fink-Nottle. That’s the better part of the episode (the second, set at a village fete). The first half is of the class-divide ilk that would later reap dividends in 2.6. Also worth mentioning, since this is his first appearance in the Worst to Best, is Michael Siberry’s Bingo, altogether more affable than the later Pip Torrens showing.


4.1: Return to New York 

The Spot of Art (1929, Chapter 6, Very Good, Jeeves) 
The Delayed Exit of Claude and Eustace (1922, Chapter 10, The Inimitable Jeeves) 
Fixing it for Freddie (1911, Chapter 8, Carry on, Jeeves) 

This isn’t so much the highlight of Season 4 as the episode least guilty of egregious divergences from Plum’s plots. True, we’ve been returned to ITV-budget, period New York, Elizabeth Spriggs is no Mary Wimbush as Aunt Agatha (she’s fine, though), and Claude and Eustace are irritants (albeit intentionally so). But in terms of positives, Exton’s cartoon creations aren’t quite as outlandish as they’d be elsewhere, with silly Tuppy selling a cock-a-leekie soup recipe and Bertie’s portrait being substituted for Agatha’s in advertising it (the “W” in Gwladys is almost inspired too). The whole “Kiss Tuppy” business is, of course, highly amusing.


3.6: Comrade Bingo 

aka Aunt Dahlia, Cornelia and Madeline
Comrade Bingo (1922, Chapters 11 & 12, The Inimitable Jeeves)
Jeeves Makes an Omelette (1913, Chapter 4 of A Few Quick Ones, Chapter 33 of The World of Jeeves)

The evident popularity of John Turner’s Spode saw him inserted into plots with increasing abandon during Season 3. Some of this works (the Lord Sidcup business, thanks to his always being apoplectic towards Bertie), and some of it doesn’t (a painting for which his mother modelled and Spode “hilariously” beating up Bertie are in the latter count). Pip Torrens debuts as Bingo, less than endearing but okay in this context (hidden behind a beard and the pedestal of commie crew the Heralds of the Red Dawn, he profusely insults his uncle). Patricia Lawrence is a little lacklustre as a one-time-only Aunt Dahlia. This is really the last time you could argue Exton gets away with his excesses, as Season 4 will find him actively diminishing PG.


3.5: Hot Off the Press 

aka Sir Watkyn’s Memoirs
The Mating Season (1949)
Jeeves Takes Charge (1916, Chapter 1, Carry On, Jeeves)

The memoirs plotline is very Blandings Castle, and Exton making Sir Watkyn the writer of such tell-alls is another example of his increasing fast-and-loose approach towards the source material (this also requires Florence Craye to be refitted as Sir Watkyn’s niece and Spode to indulge a spot of safecracking). On the other hand, the Gussie “Pat and Mike” sketch, requiring him to hit Spode repeatedly with an umbrella, is comedy gold. We’re beginning to reach a point here where, if episodes prove enjoyable, it’s in spite of Exton’s interference, rather than due to his deftly whittling the original material into televisual shape.


3.4: Right Ho, Jeeves 

aka Bertie Takes Gussie’s Place at Deverill Hall
The Mating Season (1949)

As the alt “title” suggests, Bertie poses as Gussie, and Gussie poses as Bertie at Deverill Hall. Had this been the first two seasons’ Gussie rather than Richard Braine, debuting as Fink-Nottle, Right Ho, Jeeves might have been an all-timer. On the upside, Elizabeth Morton makes her first appearance, as the most extraordinarily simpering, note-perfect Madeline Basset to end all Madeline Bassets. This is the one where Bertie is caught behind her friend Hilda’s sofa with a framed picture of his sometimes-betrothed, eliciting expected classic comedy exchanges. There are also some tell-tale Exton excesses emerging, however. These include Bertie being shot at, ending up in court and using an illegal golf club. Still, they seem positively restrained set against his Season 4 liberties.


2.6: Jeeves the Matchmaker

aka Wooster with a Wife
Bertie Changes His Mind (1922, Chapter 10, Carry On, Jeeves)
Jeeves and the Kid Clementia (1930, Chapter 7, Very Good, Jeeves)
The Ordeal of Young Tuppy (1930, Chapter 11, Very Good, Jeeves)
Jeeves in the Springtime (1921, Chapters 1 & 2, The Inimitable Jeeves, 

Squeezing four stories together is asking for trouble, so it’s a wonder the Season 2 finale emerges as smoothly as it does. Bertie wants to be a dad, but fortunately, Jeeves knows better (Bertie giving a lecture to the girls is superb stuff, with Laurie on top form). There’s also Tuppy getting stuck in at rugger (trying to impress a “largish, corn-fed girl”) and emerging strangely triumphant, while Bingo (still Michael Siberry, thankfully) is reading his uncle Rosie M Banks novels in order to soften him up. This in aid of said uncle blessing Bingo’s mission to marry a waitress (Bertie must pose as Rosie as part of the plan; had this been Exton in Season 4 mode, he would doubtless been called upon to dress up as her too).


1.2: Tuppy and the Terrier

aka Bertie Is In Love or The Golf Tournament 
Jeeves and Yule-tide Spirit (1927, Chapter 3, Very Good Jeeves)
Episode of the Dog Macintosh (1929, Chapter 5, Very Good Jeeves)
Jeeves and the Song of Songs (1929, Chapter 4, Very Good Jeeves)

Tuppy’s first appearance proper in the series, as played throughout by the estimable Robert Daws, in which he is smitten with an opera singer. The superb and formidable Brenda Bruce as Aunt Dahlia wants the end of the dalliance, which leads, thanks to Jeeves’ connivance, to a vegetable medley hailing the singer during the church hall concert. That sequence is magnificent, the series operating all guns blazing, and the Bertie dognapping incident (MacIntosh) is no slouch either; the slight weakness is that there’s absolutely no attempt to conceal the joins of three different stories slammed together (the other features a hot water bottle incident involving Bertie, Barmy and Bobbie Wickham). 


3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical 

aka Introduction on Broadway
The Artistic Career of Corky (1916, Chapter 2, Carry On, Jeeves,)
Jeeves and the Chump Cyril (1918, Chapter 5, The Inimitable Jeeves)

By some distance the highlight of the third season, and that’s despite being NYC set. Cyril Basington-Basington is pursuing a stage career (against Aunt Agatha’s wishes). Jeeves ghost-writes an American book of birds on behalf of artist Corky Corcoran’s intention to curry favour with his uncle, a scenario that goes quite disastrously wrong. This is the “built on jute” episode (“Really? Pretty useful stuff, then”), also including Bertie’s walk-on in Ask Dad! Agatha being hosed down by the fire brigade at the denouement is regrettable, but Cyril and the Broadway Musical is otherwise a rare diamond from the last half of Jeeves and Wooster’s run.


1.1: Jeeves Takes Charge

aka Jeeves’ Arrival aka In Court after the Boat Race
Jeeves takes Charge (1916, Chapter 1, Carry On, Jeeves)
Scoring Off Jeeves (1922, Chapters 5 & 6, The Inimitable Jeeves)

Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922, Chapters 7 & 8, The Inimitable Jeeves)

Tackling three stories in a single episode wouldn’t be representative of Clive Exton’s approach (although he’d later trump that number; see the tenth spot above), but it helps considerably taking two of them from The Inimitable Jeeves, with the other representing the first encounter between the manservant and his master (the substance of that tale will be visited under 3.6). We first spy Bertie up before Sir Watkyn Bassett (for stealing a policeman’s helmet) before meeting Sir Roderick and Honoria Glossop, Aunt Agatha, Claude and Eustace (eesh), Bingo Little and a smattering of Drones Club regulars. So Jeeves Takes Charge is brimming with character and incident, which includes pushing little Oswald in the lake (there’ll be more mercilessness towards oiks in the series, but this remains the first and best) and dinner with nerve specialist Sir Roderick (Roger Brierly, peerless) and Lady Glossop (Jane Downs). Also setting the tone for the series distinctive spin is Bertie at the piano, and again one of the best; Jeeves joins in on Minnie the Moocher in the most restrained, composed and unconvinced manner.


2.4: Jeeves in the Country

aka Chuffy
Thank You, Jeeves (1934)

Bertie takes on Brinkley (Fred Evans, suitably appalling) when Jeeves resigns over his master’s insistence on playing the trumpet. He then retires to the seaside town of Chuffnell Regis to practice, to ear-shattering effect on the locals. Jeeves, meanwhile, goes to work for Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell and then J Washbourne Stoker (who is interested in buying Chufnell Hall). The latter, and his daughter Pauline, are acquainted with Bertie of old, and Chuffy’s none too chuffed that Bertie and Pauline were once engaged. Profoundly stupid policemen, annoying children (young Seabury, delivered a well-deserved kick) and over-pronounced New York accents (a test-run for the next two seasons) are all liberally stirred into the mix, but it’s Evans who steals the show. 



2.5: Kidnapped! 

aka The Mysterious Stranger
Thank You, Jeeves (1934)

Following on the from 2.4, with Bertie now divested of Brinkley. Kidnapped! succeeds despite straying widely from the source material (for the rule on this, see the Season 4 episodes, which mostly go unnecessarily wrong). Much of this divergence relates to the treatment of the blackface, with Exton – ironically, given his wilful insertion of the same to dubious ends in 4.5 – turning the all-black minstrel act of the novel into Barmy and gang performing as a blackface minstrel act, so enabling Bertie to escape Stoker’s yacht with them (where he has been detained until he has married Pauline). From here, a very broad, but also very funny, “Boggy be about” plotline proceeds, in which the foolish Devonshire constabulary believe a local legend has come to life (“Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve”). Highlights along the way include Martin Clunes as Barmy, Glossop and Bertie becoming pals, and Lady Glossop’s reaction to everything.  


1.4: The Hunger Strike

aka How Does Gussie Woo Madeline?
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

The first season is generally pretty strong, but it had really found its feet by the last couple of episodes. This is the first of a two-part finale, in which Bertie has the “bright” idea of suggesting all and sundry at Brinkley Court go on hunger strike (for various reasons involving their other halves) with disastrous results: Anatole resigns at the slur on his beyond-cordon-bleu cooking. So we have, strikes first in each instance: Tuppy and Angela; Aunt Dahlia (the penultimate appearance of the fantastic Brenda Bruce) and Tom (Ralph Michael); and – let’s hear it for the sublimely dippy Richard Garnett – Gussie Fink-Nottle and Madeline (Francesca Folan, not Elizabeth Morton, but equipped with the finest of lines about “the little bunnies” and “Mr Moon”). This is the series at its zenith, and director Robert Young plays up the farce in a manner entirely in keeping with its literary source.


1.5: Brinkley Manor

aka Will Anatole Return to Brinkley Court?
Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)

The season ends on a high with Gussie’s blotto – on spiked orange juice – guest of honour handing out prizes at Brinkley School and insulting all and sundry (pupils and headmaster alike). Bertie, following the recriminations of his involvement in The Hunger Strike, is no one’s favourite article and duly becomes the object of ridicule and inspiration for reconciliation thanks to Jeeves’ manoeuvring. There’s also some amusing detail with Bertie trying (and failing) to make a cup of tea and Barmy both receiving and giving Jeeves impressions. 


2.1: Jeeves Saves the Cow-Creamer

aka The Silver Jug
The Code of the Woosters (1938)

The Spode cometh, as doeth Eulalie and a cow creamer Sir Watkyn has his eye on; the latter proceeding to secure it inspires much nefariousness by parties towards purloining it, mostly on Bertie’s reluctant part. Also on the itinerary are Gussie and Madeline’s forthcoming nuptials; they’re in danger, with Bertie’s intervention at Totleigh only making things worse. There’s the first appearances of Stiffy Byng (Charlotte Attenborough) and Stinker Pinker (Simon Treeves), the former’s objective being Sir Watkyn’s approval of the latter as her hubby-to-be, and Constable Oates (Campbell Morrison, probably the best incarnation) being attacked by the hound Bartholomew. Everything involving Spode (John Turner) is perfection of course, the only downside being Exton shoehorning him into later plots, riding the crest of his popularity. If there’s a black mark here, it’s Vivian Pickles as a subpar Aunt Agatha, alas (so as well it’s her only appearance). However, also on the recasting front, Martin Clunes makes for a supremely baffled Barmy (replacing Season 1’s Adam Blackwood).


2.2: A Plan for Gussie 

aka The Bassetts’ Fancy Dress Ball
The Code of the Woosters (1934)

Very much of-a-piece with its predecessor, mostly due to it neatly concluding the adaptation of The Code of the Woosters. Gussie’s living in fear of Spode and Bertie in fear of marriage to Madeline, the secret of Eulalie is revealed, Stiffy’s using underhand methods to get what she wants, as usual, and there’s more from Oates and Bartholomew. A lesson too in how to deliver effective fancy-dress party farce (for the contrast, witness, or rather don’t, or be warned if you do, 4.2). The run from 1.4 to 2.2 represents Jeeves and Wooster at its most sustained peak, but there’d still be a two-part jewel to come (5 & 6 above), even if was, in retrospect, the beginning of the series slip from the straight-and-narrow of (relatively) faithful Wodehouse adaptations.

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