Jeeves & Wooster (ITV)
Season One, Original airdates: April 22 – May 13, 1990
Written by P.G. Wodehouse and Clive Exton
Directed by Robert Young
Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were a very well-known comedy duo in the U.K. coming out of the late 1980s. They had a top-rated skit comedy series, A Bit of Fry & Laurie, while making appearances in Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder show. When it came time to cast the iconic English valet and his buffoonish employer Fry & Laurie were hesitant to step into such significant roles. When it became apparent the show was going to be made whether they were in it or not, they took the parts believing they could do the original text justice.
The series opens with Bertie Wooster, an English gentlemen and extremely idle rich getting chastised by a magistrate about stealing a police officer’s helmet during a late drunken haze. Bertie is given a slap on the wrist and returns home to meet Jeeves, his new valet who proves to be a cunning and resourceful chap. Bertie’s Aunt Agatha orders him to court and marry Honoria Glossop, a young woman from a prominent family whom Agatha believes will straighten Bertie out. Jeeves sees this is not in his employer’s best interest and sets about helping Bertie and others get what they want in this complicated social game. This is essentially the structure of all the episodes, and the details of how Jeeves uses his wits to overcome pompous, arrogant aristocrats is hugely satisfying.
Stephen Fry had an interesting challenge in playing Jeeves. The character is not in every scene and is silent for most of his appearances. When Jeeves does speak, he does so in a measured tone, understanding that while he may vehemently disagree with Bertie, he cannot be aggressive about his opinion. Eventually, Bertie comes to know how Jeeves uses his tone to indicate disapproval and will usually capitulate. But not until the trust fund baby learns the hard way his own plans are just not cogent. Fry has to communicate so much with seemingly so little and does a masterful job of it.
Hugh Laurie has what might be considered the more fun job, playing a total buffoon. He plays Bertie as a charming young man who thinks he is smarter than he actually is. There is a lot of enjoyment when Bertie begins unfolding his own machinations only to see them go south quickly and have allies become adversaries. He is the opposite of Jeeves in that he talks incessantly but says nothing, while his valet is pointed with every word and phrase. Laurie does quite a bit of mugging as Bertie, a more reigned in Jim Carrey, silliness and slapstick without going to the point of absurdity.
The show is essentially a procedural with some recurring supporting cast members. You have Bertie’s iron-fisted aunts who threaten his life of luxury but also a litany of fellow idle rich, snobbish old money, and lovers in peril aplenty. One of my favorite episodes in the first season, which is made up of only five entries, is Episode Two, “Tuppy and the Terrier.” A subplot involves Bertie’s friend Tuppy becoming infatuated with an opera singer to the point of wanting to ask for her hand in marriage. Tuppy’s previous fiancee is upset, and Jeeves does agree that she makes a better partner to Tuppy. The valet arranges a hilarious situation to split the opera singer from her fan that involves an Al Jolson song and a group of angry commoners with some rotten produce.
Another great episode is Episode Three, “The Purity of the Turf.” Bertie visits some friends at Twing Hall, where Lady Wickhammersly has banned gambling after her husband lost the East Wing of their home in a card game. Bertie gets involved in a betting ring centered around the upcoming church fete and the accompanying races. Jeeves begins providing intel like an overweight boy who works in the kitchen being surprisingly fast and a dark horse for the young people’s dash. A syndicate forms to drain the bookie, but he fights back by ridiculous attempts to rig the games. It’s a wonderfully absurd elevating of very simple stakes. I highly recommend Jeeves & Wooster for anyone who is up for something cleverly written but still genuinely funny. Sadly, there are no streaming services in the United States that offer the show, but a quick search on YouTube turns up the entire series.