Wednesday, March 23, 2011

House and Wooster and Income Disparity

House is a soap opera.  Of course it's not really an "opera" in the musical sense nor is it sponsored by a soap company.  It is an episodic weekly television drama which details the continuing experiences of a group of characters as their lives constantly evolve and revolve.  Each episode hangs on some inexplicable medical mystery which, inevitably, gets explicated.

The title character, the drug-addled miscreant genius Dr. House, is played by Hugh Laurie.  Dr. House the character is an American but Hugh Laurie the actor is English.  You'd never know it from watching the show.  Laurie's ability to imitate American speech is, at least for me, the most interesting aspect of the show.  (Okay, you figured it out - I don't particularly like House.)   

Over the last few months, several times a week, Leslie and I have spent some of our quality time watching the series Jeeves and Wooster, an English television production from the early 90s based on the characters and stories of P.G. Wodehouse.  Jeeves, the talented, discreet Gentleman's Gentleman, is played by actor Stephen Fry.  (When I first saw Fry as Jeeves I thought he was too young.  Now I'm 15 years older and he seems just the right age.)  Bertie Wooster, the young, carefree, rich, puffin-headed bachelor, is played by Doctor House, I mean by Hugh Laurie, using his own genuine English accent.


Leslie and I both adore Jeeves and Wooster.  We regret they only made 23 episodes.  The action happens in the 1930's, mostly in England, occasionally in New York City.  There's a steady stream of gorgeous architecture, lavish apartments and hotel-size estates.  There's another steady stream of gorgeous vintage automobiles.  The costumes, especially the men who run around about half the time in tuxedos, are also, well, gorgeous.  Nice theme music too.

As adapted by Clive Exton, P.G. Wodehouse's plots are no less predictable than contemporary television, but they are much funnier.  Most revolve around someone wanting to or not wanting to get married, pretending to be someone else, breaking and entering in order to steal some insignificant object, or attempting a hare-brained scheme for getting rich or out of debt.   All of them involve Bertie bumbling his way into embarrassing social difficulties from which he is, in the end, coolly extricated by Jeeves.

Wodehouse's characters fall into clear categories.  The upper-class women include Bertie's domineering Aunts and domineering marriageable women friends and even a few school girls in training to be domineering.  The upper-class men include a host of Bertie's ineffectual neer-do-well friends (who repeatedly say things like "Isn't she the most beautiful woman you've ever seen, Bertie?"), a few crusty older men who repeatedly threaten Bertie with bodily harm and even a few schoolboys who repeatedly cause mischief.  The lower class characters include waitresses, constables, butlers and other valets, con artists and rich American businessmen. 

These parts are brought to life by some fine English actors.  It's disconcerting when certain continuing roles are played by different actors in different seasons.  And not one of them comes close to the quality of the American speaking accent which Hugh Laurie does in House.  Probably English television audiences don't notice the difference.

Of course, the real weight of every episode is carried by the two principal actors, Fry and Laurie.  Their marvelous performances consistently convey the ridiculous in the most sublime fashion.  Here's a great example of the two of them together.  In this clip Bertie tries to sing a current popular tune (which you'll recognize) but typically must rely on the help of his ever-so-tactful valet to finish the job.


Did the world of Jeeves and Wooster ever really exist?  Most doubtful. I think Wodehouse was doing a fine job of writing parody. These days it's impossible to judge what bits of this television series might fairly represent those historical times. Two things come through from the scripts, however. First, there were distinct differences between English social classes.  There was also a great inequality in the distribution of wealth; certain people were fantastically wealthy. According to this, in 1936 53% of the total wealth of England was held by just 1% of the population.

Today, in the U.S. during the time of House, we strenuously deny that class differences exist.  We're told that anyone can get filthy rich if they're talented and driven and lucky enough.  To prove this, the media shows us a handful of super-wealthy people (think Oprah) who serve as inspirations to the hundreds of millions who will, most likely, never get rich.   However, like Bertie's England, America does have an incredible inequality in the distribution of wealth.  According to this, in 2007, 43% of total wealth in the United States was held by just 1% of the population.   (For more on America's financial inequalities check this out. Or this.)

While the upper-class wealth of Bertie Wooster's time would eventually decline over much of the 20th century, the wealth of the American elite today is climbing steadily.  Maybe that's why we perceive the English wealthy as idle slackers and the American wealthy as greedy over achievers.  It's not just a saying these days that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer".  Today it's more like an actual law.

I think that the U.S. of 2011 needs our own P.G. Wodehouse.  We need an author or television producer who can parody the amusing day to day lives of super-rich people.  Why shouldn't there be a television show to make it clear how people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett who have billions of dollars aren't close to being capable of muddling through their own lives, or even to mixing their own martinis, without the help of a faithful, discrete, patient, intelligent servant such as Reginald Jeeves?  I propose that such a show would make many less-than-wealthy Americans more accepting of the obscene disparities of wealth in our country and of their own place in the financial hierarchy.

You know, if we can't do anything else about the problem of the ultra-wealthy, at least we should be able to have a good laugh at their expense.

Wealthy Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .

1 comment:

Scott said...

While wishing to become familiar with Wodehouse for many decades (he was a distant relative on my mother's side,) I've never gotten around to it, but your description of the usual plot material sounds to me to have been lifted in its entirety from Wilde's "The Importance Of Being Ernest", minus the part about the butler.
Medical dramas get rather more than equal time around here, (with an ongoing stream of spousal comments about the utter lack of RNs available to do most of the mundane chores of hospital life.) Thus 'House' is of the more regularly viewed fare around here. I haven't followed Laurie's other performances but I must say his American accent is absolutely pitch perfect.
You'd probably hate 'Grey's Anatomy'.

Scott Fraser