What ho, Jeeves… we’re back!

As Jeeves and Wooster take to the stage, Michael Simkins celebrates hapless toffs, frightful pickles – and very overbearing aunts
The news that Stephen Mangan and Matthew Macfadyen are to portray PG Wodehouse’s very own Jeeves and Wooster on the West End stage this autumn will already have theatregoers (and the  ctional habitués of the Drones Club) raising a glass or two in anticipation.

Wodehouse is an outstanding example of the tradition of great humorous English writing, stretching from Charles Dickens and Jerome K Jerome through to Tom Sharpe, Michael Frayn and beyond.

Described by no less a personage than Auberon Waugh as ‘the master of the great English joke’, his books (all 96 of them) are still well-loved. Shortly before he died in 1975, aged 93, he was able to declare in a BBC interview that, having had a wax effigy of himself fashioned in Madame Tussauds, he had ‘no further ambitions left’.

The world he described, and of which Jeeves and Wooster were its most famous inhabitants, was an idelised interwar period, one in which hapless young to“ffs got into frightful pickles at the hands of feckless friends, overbearing aunts and terrifying ingénues.

Whatever the hero’s predicament, salvation invariably lay in the quiet sagacity of their manservants, omniscient individuals who rescued their employers from emotional, physical or financial calamity with little more than a deft raising of an eyebrow or a discreet word in one ear.

My own introduction to Wodehouse was back in the mid-1960s, when I watched the BBC adaptations of the Jeeves and Wooster novels on television. Were there ever two actors who so precisely caught the spirit of the originals as well as Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price? Carmichael was well-meaning, bewildered, and (as Woodhouse himself described the character) ‘mentally negligible’, while Price, an individual who specialised throughout his career in playing men who knew a great deal more than they were letting on, captured the eponymous butler to a tee – the fact that the actor was himself christened Dennistoun Franklyn John Rose-Price would in itself, I suspect, have had the author purring with pleasure.

Subsequent incarnations have proved just as successful. For a later generation it must have seemed as if Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie had been put on this earth solely to reinterpret the famous comic duo, so seamless were their portrayals. The ITV series in which they starred ran for four years in the early 1990s, and introduced Wodehouse’s comic confections to a whole new legion of fans. Yet it’s only by reading Wodehouse’s books that you can fully grasp the author’s true genius: for here was a supreme writer of prose at work. How could someone chronicling such an exclusive and rare ed world, one so innately daft and beyond the daily experience of most people, have caught our collective imagination and held it for nearly 80 years?

The answer, of course, is in his glorious imagery, his peerless plotting, and his innate bonhomie and joie de vivre. In the world of Wodehouse the sun is always shining, the hero is always in a scrape, and however mischievously his characters might behave, there is never any real malice. If only the real world was always so convivial.

Above all, there was his use of language. All Wodehouse fans will have their favourite quotation, but there is none better than his description of one fictional heroine: ‘Her face was shining like the seat of a bus driver’s trousers’. Or this, from his novel Mr Mulliner Speaking: ‘The drowsy stillness of the afternoon was shattered by what sounded to his strained senses like GK Chesterton falling on a sheet of tin.’ Bliss.

This latest stage version, Perfect Nonsense, will be one of the very few occasions in which Jeeves and Wooster will have been portrayed in a straight play, and Mangan and Macfadyen will need no reminding of the author’s own pronouncement on the fickleness of reviewers. ‘Has anybody ever seen a drama critic in the daytime?’ he once wrote. ‘Of course not. They come out after dark, up to no good!’

But with every word of the forthcoming production being garnered from Wodehouse’s original dialogue, theatreland, I predict, is in for a treat. What ho, Jeeves!

Perfect Nonsense starts its run at the Duke of York’s Theatre later this year: 0844-871 3051, www.jeevesandwoosterplay.com

Bertie Wooster at The Lady

It was Bertie Wooster’s only proper job – penning an article called What The Well-Dressed Man Is Wearing, for his Aunt Dahlia’s magazine, Milady’s Boudoir. Situated on ‘one of those rummy streets in the Covent Garden neighbourhood’, and accessed by ‘wading through a deep top-dressing of old cabbages and tomatoes’ – Covent Garden, of course, used to be a vegetable market – the publication was, at least according to PG Wodehouse’s biographer, inspired by The Lady. You can read more about Bertie’s career as one of the ‘boys of the press’ in Carry On, Jeeves.