The wit of P.G. Wodehouse, at once elegant and farcical, is on display for five weeks as PBS' Masterpiece Theater presents "Jeeves and Wooster" beginning Sunday night at 9 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67.
Bertie Wooster is a member of the idle upper class, young, wealthy and undirected. Jeeves is his valet.
When you first meet Wooster, he is trying unsuccessfully to regain his equilibrium after a night of drink.
Jeeves, answering an advertisement, comes to the door, mixes a special concoction that instantly cures the hangover and straightens out the chaotic flat in seconds. He is hired and Wodehouse is off and running with the quintessential commentary on this ironic relationship between master and servant.
As is pointed out in the nice introduction by Alistair Cooke, who knew Wodehouse, these stories, written from 1918 to the 1960s, were so popular and such a part of the common lore that Jeeves became a generic name for a manservant.
The plots, perhaps like the lives of these members of this youthful upper crust, are relatively trifling. In each -- all of the episodes stand by themselves, by the way -- Jeeves is able to recognize what is best for his master and use his uncommonly supple intellect to insure the proper outcome, often over the objections of Wooster, whose bulb glows much more dimly.
The real humor and insight comes in the brief, pithy comments of Jeeves as he does his best to keep Wooster from making a total idiot of himself.
This is a full-time job as Bertie is a complete flake, but a very wealthy one, and surrounds himself with similar individuals. One glimpse at the silliness that goes on at his club gives you the idea. These are the guys who would be inhabiting Animal House 50 years later, but they all know how to use the right forks at dinner.
Though obviously lighthearted, these stories contain commentary that is quite pointed. The upper classes who think they are the keepers of all that is near and dear to Britain are shown as nothing more than a superfluous icing on the substantial cake made up of the hard-working lower classes.
Jeeves and Wooster are played by the popular British comedy team of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Fry is brilliant as the understated valet, while Laurie seems to go a bit too far in the other direction, overplaying Wooster, though eventually you get used to his childish antics.
With his combination of hard-hitting parody and complete farce, Wodehouse not only was following in the footsteps of the great English satirists such as Swift and Pope, but also laying the foundation for comedians like Monty Python.
"Jeeves and Wooster" is a delight.
"Jeeves and Wooster"
*** A five-part Masterpiece Theater based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse about a bumbling young rich man and his intelligent valet.
CAST: Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie
TIME: Sundays at 9 o'clock
CHANNEL: PBS channels 22 and 67