Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Very good, Sir."


THE KICKER: Reginald Jeeves, seemingly omniscient valet. It is important to note the Jeeves is a valet and NOT, as many believe, a butler. He refers to himself as a “gentleman’s personal gentleman” or manservant, i.e., he serves only one person. This is what makes him a sidekick. A butler, on the other hand, serves a house. Wodehouse did write about one butler, a man called Beach. Beach was high-strung and emotional and was nobody’s sidekick except possibly Blandings Castle. Jeeves, on the other hand, is always calm and cool-headed, and is the sidekick of…

WHO THEY’RE KICKING: Bertie Wooster, the archetypical member of that most pointless of social classes, the idle rich. Picture Bruce Wayne if he was actually the way he pretends to be in public. It would be nice if he did have some crime fighting or something to occupy his time, since instead he winds up doing a great many favors for various friends and relations. Everyone comes to Bertie to help with their troubles, and due to being naturally helpful, not too bright, and sort of a doormat, he always accepts. Granted, his original ideas aren’t great - he once advised three people with separate problems to act like they weren’t hungry at dinner, and the only result was that the chef quit - he’s got a terrifically brainy fellow on staff to offer suggestions.

WHAT THEY BRING : Well, the interesting thing about what Jeeves brings is that unlike many sidekicks who assist the hero in his normal activities, Jeeves is completely essential to his kickee’s life, to the point where Bertie basically can’t function without him, not that Bertie will ever admit that. But the poor sod can't even boil water for tea, let alone fix any of his own problems. I have just finished reading “Carry on Jeeves”, a collection of short stories, and noticed that pretty much every story in the book has the same plot, which is as follows.

1 - One of Bertie’s friends, a man with a feminine name (Gussie, Biffy, Tuppy, etc), is in trouble, usually involving a woman. He comes to Bertie for help.

2 - Bertie tries to assist, and the situation gets worse.

3 - Jeeves concocts a plan, which is implemented with great success for all parties involved.

4 - The End.

What stops this admittedly formulaic plot from becoming tedious is due to two things. First is the quality of writing. Wodehouse could probably write the exact same plot twenty or thirty times and fill it with new jokes, so similar plots pose no problem. The second reason is the character of Jeeves himself. His sheer range of expertise is baffling, yet never comes across as unrealistic. And seeing as his solutions range from blackmailing a lingerie salesman to authoring a book on ornithology, that's saying a lot. He often turns events in a way that benefit himself, but he never seems manipulative or harms Bertie. And while he remains calm and unflappable at all times, which can be boring in a character, he still has a clearly defined personality. (He is afraid of dogs, for instance, and once calmly and unflappably climbed on top of a wardrobe when trapped in a room with one.)

WHERE’S THE RESPECT? : All over the dang place. While Bertie is always the main character and Jeeves hasn’t totally taken over, Wodehouse himself realized he was the main draw, and the large majority of Jeeves stories, as well as all of the story collections, have his name in the title. The FREAKING FANTASTIC early ‘90s TV series Jeeves and Wooster gave the two equal billing, and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical is titled “By Jeeves”. Also it’s Webber’s only flop. Apparently he felt so bad about cutting anything of the original Wodehouse, the original production was about four hours long. But regardless, what’s important is that whether in stage shows or radio plays, in crappy musicals or FREAKING FANTASTIC TV shows, Jeeves is rightly remembered as an essential and equal part of the story’s success. His respect levels in-story are considerable, too. At least one of Bertie's relatives has given up on the pretense of asking Bertie to solve her problems and now just asks him to make Jeeves do it. On the employment side, Bertie never mistreats him and knows exactly how important he is, and were it not for their mutual respect for the class system, they'd call each other friend.

BY THE WAY: Seriously do watch that TV series. There's very little in this world as funny as watching local politician Roderick Spode rant in perfect Hitler style and tone about piddling topics like vegetable regulation and railway expansion.