Jeeves and Wooster: The Highbrow Valet and the Lowbrow Aristocrat

Throughout the various realms of fiction, there are many archetypes that have appeared from time to time. One such archetype is that of the skilled butler or valet. Frequently British, this character serves as assistant to a rich man or a nobleman. Often, they’ll be the picture of precision and class, though a few versions like to subvert the image with a rough brute. Not only that, but this assistant will prove to be the more level-headed compatriot to their employer. In fact, they will even be able to manipulate their employers on a certain level, using their skills to improve their employer’s situation without them even knowing it. While there are many variations of this archetype, there is one character who serves as the shining example of this trope: Jeeves. Created by author P.G. Wodehouse back in 1915, Jeeves came to embody the spirit of “the gentleman’s personal gentleman” as he served for his boss, the bumbling Bertram “Bertie” Wooster. The light and fun satirical stories have maintained their indelible mark through the years, their stories adapted to all sorts of media, from stage to screen. In fact, one such adaptation done was for the British television network ITV. This particular adaptation was a series from 1990 called Jeeves and Wooster, which starred the delightful double act of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

In the world of the upper class, Bertram “Bertie” Wooster would rather not work. In fact, he is far more content to spend his days with his friends in the Drones Club and enjoy the idle pleasure that wealth can grant. However, life is not so willing to give him an easy time. Namely, friends and family of all kinds come with all sorts of favors to ask of him. For a somewhat dim and ridiculous fellow like Bertie Wooster, this frequently means ending up in a baffling scheme or finding himself suddenly engaged to a lady withing meaning to be engaged. However, he does possess one ace up his sleeve: Jeeves. Jeeves serves as Wooster’s valet and is as brilliant and talented as Wooster is bumbling and dim-witted. Whenever Wooster finds himself in some ridiculous scheme or accidentally engaged, Jeeves is sure to find a way to manipulate the situation and play things out to Wooster’s favor. Sure, Bertie will most likely be ridiculed and humiliated as part of Jeeves’ machinations, but he will ultimately win out in the end all thanks to the genius work of his valet.

The series is a delightful adaptation of P. G. Wodehouse’s original stories. The writing is smooth and easy, capturing the tone of Wodehouse’s work. His stories, which told of the shenanigans and misunderstandings of the upper class, made for light and breezy reads thanks to the skillfully crafted humor within. While they may not be able to visualize every detail that Wodehouse put into his stories thanks to his playful narration, each episode captures the feel and flow of his tales and the dialogue maintains its farcical roots. The direction may not be flashy or pull off tons of neat tricks, but they work for this style of story and for letting the jokes unfold. The easygoing style is complimented with a jazzy score, one that also feels period-appropriate for its time period set between the two World Wars. The performances featured in the series are also strong, working well to deliver Wodehouse’s upper-class hijinx, whether it be with a stern look rooted in expected tradition or the cheekiness of youth. In fact, there are two particular actors who really shine in the series: its two lead actors, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.

Though the pair have since been known for numerous roles in successful solo careers, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie first began as a comedic double act. Stephen Fry served as the serious face of the duo, bringing a dry wit to the proceedings, while Hugh Laurie served as the more outwardly goofy half of the duo. It’s only natural that a skilled comedic pair like this would work so well with classic characters like these. Not only does their natural chemistry work for selling the interplay between Jeeves and Wooster, each actor shines with their respective character. As Jeeves, Stephen Fry brings a delicately dry but sharp wit to the valet. He hides most of his emotions aside from the occasional wry grin, instead lit up with eyes always scanning and studying. It’s clear that Jeeves is always thinking and preparing for his next skillful move to aid his employer. As Bertie Wooster, Hugh Laurie is all bumbling bravado and baffled charm. He plays Bertie as boisterous and self-assured when things are going his way, then floundering with wide-eyed puzzlement as things spin out of control. It’s just the right level of broad comedy to work for this sort of farce without being ludicrous. Thus, two wonderful comedic actors embody two classic literary characters with skill and charm to spare.

As I mentioned before, the skilled valet or butler is a classic character type that has appeared time and again in stories. P. G. Wodehouse gave the archetype its icon with Jeeves, and Stephen Fry brought it to life within the series Jeeves and Wooster. If you want to see the show for yourself, the complete series is available on DVD. As for Wodehouse’s original stories, give them a read as well. Two of the earlier short story collections, My Man Jeeves and Right Ho, Jeeves, have slipped into the public domain and thus are available to read online as part of Project Gutenberg. However, a good starting point would be The Mating Season, a novel that offers a very accessible entryway to Wodehouse’s writing style.

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