Wodehouse saved my life
With today's reissue of P. G. Wodehouse's books,
Hugh Laurie tells how the comic genius made him
clean up his 'squalid' existence
To be able to write about P. G. Wodehouse is the sort of honour that comes
rarely in any man's life, let alone mine. This is rarity of a rare order.
Halley's comet seems like a blasted nuisance in comparison.
If you'd knocked on my head 20 years ago and told me that a time would come
when I, Hugh Laurie - scraper-through of O-levels, mover of lips (own)
while reading, loafer, scrounger, pettifogger and general berk of this
parish - would be able to carve my initials in the broad bark of the
Master's oak, I'm pretty certain that I would have said "garn", or
something like it.
I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a bookery
nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in
French vocabulary tests. I wore platform boots with a brass skull and
crossbones over the ankle, my hair was disgraceful, and I somehow contrived
to pull off the gruesome trick of being both fat and thin at the same time.
If you had passed me in the street during those pimply years, I am
confident that you would, at the very least, have quickened your pace.
You think I exaggerate? I do not. Glancing over my school reports from the
year 1972, I observe that the words "ghastly" and "desperate" feature
strongly, while "no", "not", "never" and "again" also crop up more often
than one would expect in a random sample. My history teacher's report
actually took the form of a postcard from Vancouver.
But this, you will be nauseated to learn, is a tale of redemption. In about
my 13th year, it so happened that a copy of Galahad at Blandings by P. G.
Wodehouse entered my squalid universe, and things quickly began to change.
From the very first sentence of my very first Wodehouse story, life
appeared to grow somehow larger. There had always been height, depth, width
and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled, cursed,
and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the
discovery seemed to make me gentler every day. By the middle of the fifth
chapter I was able to use a knife and fork, and I like to think that I have
made reasonable strides since.
I spent the following couple of years meandering happily back and forth
through Blandings Castle and its environs - learning how often the trains
ran, at what times the post was collected, how one could tell if the
Empress was off-colour, why the Emsworth Arms was preferable to the Blue
Boar - until the time came for me to roll up the map of adolescence and set
forth into my first Jeeves novel. It was The Code of the Woosters, and
things, as they used to say, would never be the same again.
The facts in this case, ladies and gentlemen, are simple. The first thing
you should know, and probably the last, too, is that P. G. Wodehouse is
still the funniest writer ever to have put words on paper. Fact number two:
with the Jeeves stories, Wodehouse created the best of the best. I speak as
one whose first love was Blandings, and who later took immense pleasure
from Psmith, but Jeeves is the jewel, and anyone who tries to tell you
different can be shown the door, the mini-cab, the train station, and
Terminal 4 at Heathrow with a clear conscience. The world of Jeeves is
complete and integral, every bit as structured, layered, ordered, complex
and self-contained as King Lear, and considerably funnier.
Now let the pages of the calendar tumble as autumn leaves, until 10 years
are understood to have passed. A man came to us - to me and to my comedy
partner, Stephen Fry - with a proposition. He asked me if I would like to
play Bertram W. Wooster in 23 hours of televised drama, opposite the
internationally tall Fry in the role of Jeeves.
"Fiddle," one of us said. I forget which.
"Sticks," said the other. "Wodehouse on television? It's lunacy. A disaster
in kit form. Get a grip, man."
The man, a television producer, pressed home his argument with skill and
"All right," he said, shrugging on his coat. "I'll ask someone else."
"Whoa, hold up," said one of us, shooting a startled look at the other.
"Steady," said the other, returning the S. L. with top-spin.
There was a pause.
"You'll never get a cab in this weather," we said, in unison.
And so it was that, a few months later, I found myself slipping into a
double-breasted suit in a Prince of Wales check while my colleague made
himself at home inside an enormous bowler hat, and the two of us embarked
on our separate disciplines. Him for the noiseless opening of decanters, me
for the twirling of the whangee.
So the great P. G. was making his presence felt in my life once more. And I
soon learnt that I still had much to learn. How to smoke plain cigarettes,
how to drive a 1927 Aston Martin, how to mix a Martini with five parts
water and one part water (for filming purposes only), how to attach a pair
of spats in less than a day and a half, and so on.
But the thing that really worried us, that had us saying "crikey" for weeks
on end, was this business of The Words. Let me give you an example. Bertie
is leaving in a huff: " 'Tinkerty tonk,' I said, and I meant it to sting."
I ask you: how is one to do justice of even the roughest sort to a line
like that? How can any human actor, with his clumsily attached ears, and
his irritating voice, and his completely misguided hair, hope to deliver a
line as pure as that? It cannot be done. You begin with a diamond on the
page, and you end up with a blob of Pritt, The Non-Sticky Sticky Stuff, on
Wodehouse on the page can be taken in the reader's own time; on the screen,
the beautiful sentence often seems to whip by, like an attractive member of
the opposite sex glimpsed from the back of a cab. You, as the viewer, try
desperately to fix the image in your mind - but it is too late, because
suddenly you're into a commercial break and someone is telling you how your
home may be at risk if you eat the wrong breakast cereal.
Naturally, one hopes there were compensations in watching Wodehouse on the
screen - pleasant scenery, amusing clothes, a particular actor's eyebrows -
but it can never replicate the experience of reading him. If I may go
slightly culinary for a moment: a dish of foie gras nestling on a bed of
truffles, with a side-order of lobster and caviar may provide you with a
wonderful sensation; but no matter how wonderful, you simply don't want to
be spoon-fed the stuff by a perfect stranger. You need to hold the spoon,
and decide for yourself when to wolf and when to nibble.
And so I am back to reading, rather than playing Jeeves. And my Wodehousian
redemption is, I hope, complete. Indeed, there is nothing left for me to
say, except to wish, as I fold away my penknife and gaze up at the huge oak
towering overhead, that my history teacher could see me now.