Ring for Jeeves

P.G. Wodehouse’s comic/satire stories of the British upper classes, as personified by oblivious Bernie Wooster and his smarter, but reserved, butler Jeeves, have seen a few audio/radio versions (as well as TV). The novel Ring for Jeeves (itself I believe based on a play, Come On, Jeeves) was adapted into 2 one-hour episodes for BBC Radio in 2014. It’s a little atypical in that Jeeves has been lent out to another oblivious gentleman, Bill, so it’s not about Wooster — the only Jeeves story not involving Wooster (though Bill is essentially the same character type, so perhaps the switch was to allow more plot freedom since the status quo doesn’t have to be maintained by the end of the story).

It’s a manor house comedy full of exaggeratedly typical British gentry (tally ho!) living on the cusp of the end of the Age of Aristocracy (here the 1950s) as they are having to get real jobs and deal with dwindling fortunes. Bill is in the process of trying to sell his estate (possibly to a wealthy American woman) while also dealing with the misadventures resulting from an ill-fated foray into being a racing bookie (after he ends up owing more money to a winner than he actually has). And there is a bit of a “play” vibe to it, as most of the action takes place on the estate over just a few days.

Perhaps the curious thing about it is that some of the actors are often associated more with drama, yet the story itself is pure light-hearted farce. But that results in a mixed effect. On one hand, you could argue the characters and dialogue demand a little more camp and OTT…on the other hand, maybe it lends the characters and situations a little more grounding, so that the whole doesn’t float away on a cloud of total frivolity. By that I don’t mean that the actors aren’t playing it as comedy — they are! — it’s just the characters can still seem a bit like, well, people, too. As such, maybe not as funny as it could be, but it’s maybe more slyly amusing and engaging than you might expect it to be. And where you have to pay attention to the dialogue to get the jokes.

Martin Jarvis stars as Jeeves and Jamie Bamber as Bill, with Rufus Sewell, Joanne Whaley, and American actress Glenne Headly in the cast. It’s a good cast, with Sewell in particular delightfully atypical as an aging, oblivious, aristocrat. Of course, I can’t say I’m a devoted fan of the Wodehouse/Jeeves stories in general, but I did enjoy this as a kind of breezy, amusing romp.

The Man in the Wooden Hat

75min long BBC Radio adaptation of the novel by Jane Gardam (also presented in 5 x 15 min instalments) written by Pete Atkin and directed by Martin Jarvis. It’s a decades spanning tale beginning post WW II involving a woman (Olivia Williams) and her somewhat polite marriage to a staid English lawyer, affectionately nicknamed “Filth” (ie: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong), played by veteran actor Michael York. Their lives together taking them back and fourth between England and colonial Hong Kong (where they are both from, though they are ethnically British).

It has a good cast, including Williams and York, and with Jarvis providing the narration. But at a bit over an hour, it frankly comes across as a synopsis of a story that might have been interesting in its entirety. But here it just leaves you feeling you‘ve missed out on whatever it‘s selling. Important, motive-defining relationships are presented in just a few episodic scenes, some set years apart, and with the story relying heavily on the narration to basically just tell the story (and explain motivation) rather than because it’s conveyed in the scenes. I mean, maybe I’m just dense, or wasn’t paying attention, but the title of the story seems to refer to a supporting character who is introduced at the beginning, referenced only in passing later, and then hinted at toward the end — but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he was seen as so significant to the title!

Maybe the flaw is Gardam’s source novel (though I believe it was well regarded). For that matter, this is one of two or three interconnected novels (the previous one called Filth — the name of York’s character) which might further explain problems as perhaps you’re supposed to bring some extra understanding to it (but I’m not sure the previous novel has been dramatized). But ultimately I’m putting this mainly down to the difficulty of trying to squeeze a novel into 75 minutes. Maybe because it covers such a long period, and is deliberately episodic, it was hard for the adapters to simply pare it to the bone and figure out what to focus on. The result is the good performances and nice sense of period & place aside, it feels like it’s missing a lot of scenes that would make the existing scenes make more sense.

Air Force One

2013 one hour BBC Radio drama (though with an American cast) written by Christopher Lee (not the veteran actor) and directed by Martin Jarvis (who is the actor) about the immediate hours following the John F. Kennedy assassination, focusing on Vice President Lyndon Johnson (Stacy Keach), Jackie Kennedy (Glenne Headly), Secret Service people, etc. It‘s based, apparently, on public knowledge, unearthed inquiry reports and — of course — the writer’s speculation (allowing for a lot of deliberate ambiguity — so there are hints of some “conspiracy”…without quite pointing fingers).

Well made (with a particularly good turn from Keach) and surprisingly atmospheric and effective, maybe because despite the JFK assassination much recycled in stories, this pulls back the curtain on events not necessarily the focus of other dramatizations (or, at least, referenced but not depicted). More a taught political drama than a thriller (as mentioned, not quite committing itself to any POV, with Johnson seeming both sympathetic and self-serving). A kind of grounds eye view of events, as the characters themselves are only learning about the events as they transpire. And, despite the familiarity of the story, compelling.