Jeeves and the King of Clubs review: pale imitation
Ben Schott creats some laughs in his homage but falls short of Wodehouse’s brilliance
Matthew Macfadyen and Stephen Mangan portray Jeeves and Wooster in “Perfect Nonsense” in a 2013 stage production. Photograph: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images
Jeeves and the King of Clubs
It is a truth universally acknowledged that when the creator of a famous character or characters hands in the dinner pail, up pop other scribes eager to cash in on sequels featuring said creations. No sooner had the pen fallen from Ian Fleming’s nerveless hand than Kingsley Amis, John Gardener and Sebastian Faulks began rehewing Bond from the living cardboard. And in 2013 Faulks indulged in another bit of literary resurrectionism with Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, an effort scoring nine out of 10 with myself, and other fans I quizzed at the time.
Now Ben Schott of Miscellany fame has bunged his fedora in the ring with Jeeves and the King of Clubs: “Storm clouds loom over Europe. Treason is afoot in the highest social circles. The very security of the nation is in peril. Jeeves, we discover, has long been an agent of British Intelligence, but now his Majesty’s Government must turn to the one man who can help . . . Bertie Wooster.”
The plot, let it be said, is of an intricacy worthy of the master. The odious R Spode, and his black shorts, get their comeuppance. Bertie does a preux chevalier star-crossed lovers repair job and finds romance with one Iona daughter of spymaster Lord Mac Auslan. Old favourites Madeline Basset, Florence Craye, Percy Gorringe, and the fifth Baron Chuffnell make their appearances as do various “Dronesman” (a coinage I didn’t much care for). Bertie’s garish dress slippers get on Jeeves’ optic nerves. So far, so formulaic, though a sub-plot involving Aunt Dahlia’s attempts to out Lea Perrin by concocting Brinkley sauce leaves a curious aftertaste.
Where Mr Schott falls down is in dealing with what Jeeves refers to as ‘The psychology of the individual’ or, as Bertie has it “what they’re like”. Wodehouse one feels would not have Bertie say: “I stalked out of the bank in mid-dudgeon with the firm intention of forsaking Trollope’s for the more accommodating embrace of a Hoare.” Nor (Bertie is rebuking an acquaintance) “You may stick your three jobs Montague where the monkey hides the nuts. Tinkerty tonk.” Vulgarity is not Bertie’s style.
On occasion Schott gets it very nearly right: “To say that money was close to Uncle Tom’s heart was to misapprehend how much the old chap valued blood. I have often thought that a stage manager, struggling to provide suitably dramatic sound effects for the eye-gouging scene in King Lear, need do nothing more than whisper ‘supertax’ into Uncle Tom’s lughole and stand well back.” His own ear should tell him that “Lughole” is not Bertie.
Nor, I think, is this Aunt Dahlia: “Really Bertie I wish you wouldn’t quote Oscar Wilde. In case you haven’t noticed there’s a clergyman present and the Reverend Prebendary David Miller does not take kindly to anti-scriptural innuendo.” (Especially as there hasn’t been any for him to take unkindly to.)
Where Wodehouse’s Jeeves’ dissertations on cultured pearls or silversmith’s terminology occur naturally in context, Schott’s Jeeves seems as fond of gratuitous trivia as Schott himself. Here he is correcting Bertie’s contention that the words clump and clank are interchangeable: “clump is a sound made by non metallic articles, heavy boots perhaps, or boxing gloves. Metals clink, clank, or periodically clunk.” In another hundred words he explicates thud, ring, clang, tinkle and chime.
This ventriloquism also affects Bertie who explains to Iona that the adjective for Aunts is “Materteral”. Periodically clunking too is Schott’s use of English. A long silence is “protracted”. Long things tend to be . . . but I don’t suppose Wodehouse, whom Belloc famously called ‘The best living writer of English’, would have bothered pointing it out. But back to Bertie as trivia expert. When he notices, for instance, that despite his Scottish accent Lord Mac Auslan gives “the distasteful E in whiskey a distinctly Dublinesque twang” he is not the Bertram we know.
Who is he then? Sometimes Stephen Fry: “same again” I instructed, “and one for m’colleague.” And then Terry Thomas. Spode is an “absolute shower”. One would imagine a scenario featuring Bertie temporarily in charge of Eulalie Soeurs, Spode’s lingerie outlet, would be impossible not to milk for laughs. But Schott manages it. The difference between this well-meaning homage and a real Jeeves novel is the same as that between seeing a couple of nice old Americans dressing up and pretending to be Laurel and Hardy and watching a screening of The Music Box.
There are laughs and admirable ingenuity in Schott’s confection. But laughter is not joy nor admiration love. Materteral is a good adjective. Wodehouse has a good adjective for his famous gentleman’s gentleman too. He called him “The Inimitable Jeeves.”