Influence on Film and Television of the Late Twentieth Century
In 1917, P. G. Wodehouse first introduced the characters of Bertie Wooster, the young, rich, and endearing English nitwit, and Jeeves, his cool and ingenious butler. More than 70 years later, the critical and popular success of the early 1990s British television series, Jeeves and Wooster, clearly demonstrates the enduring influence of Wodehouse’s fiction on popular culture. Wodehouse’s ‘‘Jeeves and Wooster’’ stories have been adapted many times for the stage and screen through the years, perhaps most regrettably for a pair of ‘‘Jeeves’’ movies starring Arthur Treacher in the 1930s. (These films had no trace of Wodehouse’s actual stories; Jeeves is portrayed as an idiot and, unbelievably, there is no Bertie Wooster character!) However, the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster television series benefited from faithfulness to the original stories, sharp writing, and brilliant characterizations by Stephen Fry (Jeeves) and Hugh Laurie (Wooster). A frequent criticism of Wodehouse is that his fiction has always been oblivious to contemporary culture; although he wrote ‘‘Jeeves and Wooster’’ stories for over 50 years, the characters seem to be in a time-warp, circa Edwardian England. In another wise favorable essay published in the 1958 annual edition of New World Writing, John Aldridge writes:
One does have to suspend one’s sense of the contemporary world, either through physical isolation or an act of the imagination, while reading Wodehouse, for he belongs exclusively to Edwardian times and has apparently chosen to remain unaware of just about every important development which has occurred in the world since those times. All efforts, including his own, to up-date his work must end in failure: his characters, even when they strike out with brave allusions to Clark Gable and Gatsby, betray in their every gesture, action, and assumption their helpless allegiance to the past.
Grumpier critics, such as the solemn Edmund Morris, found this type of fiction superficial and tedious. But as Aldridge explains in his essay, Wodehouse was simply a product of his era. Wodehouse’s fiction was no doubt formulaic; but what an ingenious and effective formula! The familiarity of the characters and settings somehow facilitates a variety of situations in Wodehouse’s stories. Thus, the Jeeves and Wooster television series is an almost perfect situation comedy. Here it is seen just how much Wodehouse’s admittedly light, yet influential, fiction has permeated even today’s culture. Perhaps the person who coined the television word ‘‘sit-com’’ never read Wodehouse’s stories, but there is a Wodehousian element to the term nonetheless.
Wodehouse had great early success writing lyrics for the musical theater. His collaborations with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton revolutionized American musical comedy. Today, the plots of these plays resemble those of television situation comedy. He later commented that his fiction was musical comedy without the music. He created two vibrant characters in Jeeves and Wooster and placed them in absurd situations in dozens of stories and novels. The writers of television’s comedy series do the same thing every week (and Wodehouse was almost as prolific). The 1990s television adaptation of his stories, Jeeves and Wooster, is only the most obvious evidence of the influence of his fiction on the popular media of the late twentieth century. There are several other examples.
One example of Wodehouse’s influence, as suggested above, is the very form of the television situation comedy series, which has existed since the 1950s. The ten stories in the 1957 Penguin edition of Carry On, Jeeves average 21.3...
(The entire section is 1536 words.)