Thursday, May 13, 2010

Injudicious in his choice of forks

Despite my love of most things British, I confess I've never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse. His novels and short stories are ones I can easily fake familiarity with because they are so distinctive. But I really enjoyed my visit with Wodehouse's practically trademarked upper-class twits in A Damsel in Distress, published in 1919. Through pretty much the entire seven hours, I was walking around with a grin on my face. There were so many juicy quotes, but my post title was a favorite: Advice courtesy of the family butler, Keggs, about the dangers of marrying beneath oneself .

In this ridiculous story of thwarted love and mistaken identity, a young American songwriter, George Bevan, falls instantly in love with Lady Maud after she seeks shelter from her nosy brother in George's taxicab. He finds out who she is, and follows her to her family's estate, Marshmoreton. George has had a brief dustup with Maud's brother, Percy, and so he must woo Maud incognito. He learns that Maud has declared herself in love with an American, but only later finds out that there are two Yankees in her life, and does the gentlemanly thing and bows out. All is not lost, of course. Complicating this are Maud's father, the rose-loving Earl of Marshmoreton, his officious widowed sister Lady Caroline Byng, her dim-witted stepson Reggie, Reggie's love interest (and Lord Marshmoreton's secretary) Alice, etc. That's just the upper classes: Kegg is joined below stairs by the "blighted" Albert, pageboy and lover's go-between. It's silly, fun and just delicious to listen to courtesy of the narrator, Jonathan Cecil.

Cecil (who pronounces his name Sissel on the CDs) is evidently to P.G. Wodehouse what Jim Dale is to J.K. Rowling. Although I have no evidence as to twitdom, Mr. Cecil's upper-class credentials are unimpeachable, so he is pretty much perfect for the whole cast of characters. Some highlights are the choleric Percy, the blustery Lord Marshmoreton (who falls for an American chorus girl who'd rather be puttering in a rose garden), and the clueless Reggie. Cecil has that British actor's skill of voicing all social classes and his portrayal of Kegg (who drops aitches, but then [h]aspirates them in front of words starting with a vowel) -- whose pretension is matched by that of Lady Caroline -- is masterful. Young, blighted Albert -- who aspires to be a butcher -- is pretty darn funny as well.

Now the Americans in the story, notably George Bevan, sound a little off. I can't figure out where they go wrong, but it seems that most speakers of British English can't quite produce a natural American accent -- they flatten the vowels and harden the 'r's but it must be that they try too hard (kind of like Madonna and her fake British accent). Cecil is no exception, but at the same time I enjoyed the portrayal. George has a deep, pleasant voice and his sincerity and romantic notions shine right through.

Wodehouse adapted this novel into a 1937 movie with the incomparable Fred Astaire (just so's you know, my cat is named after Fred's sister Adele) playing George Bevan -- who has become a dancer and has been inexplicably renamed Jerry Halliday. There's no Ginger, but some of the Gershwin songs are now classics: "A Foggy Day (in London Town)" and "Nice Work if You Can Get It." It's time to watch this again.

No comments: