Interview: The Guardian (1975)

This interview was published in The Guardian on 22 April 1975.

Wooster Source

by Tom Sutcliffe

Jeeves, poor chap, has nearly met his match. The combined and not inconsiderable talents of A. Ayckbourn, A. Lloyd Webber and E. Thompson have ruffled even his imperturbable calm. Hard on the heels of Sondneim's immaculate Night Music at the Adelphi, Jeeves has taken up residence at Her Majesty's Theatre. They've had a hell of a time in Bristol, and frankly the chaps backstage have been wondering just what kind of a rum show they're in. The question is, will Jeeves manage his usual trick ? Or to put it another way, will it be OK on the N?

Baptisms of fire are not uncommon with musical comedies.
My Fair Lady, according to Lloyd Webber, was longer than King Lear when it first got on stage. And it's hard for the British, lacking an autonomous living tradition in the genre, to create a show along well-oiled production lines.

Back in January Margaret Ramsay, who handles Ayckbourn's work, was uneasy about a project in which none of the collaborators had any prior experience. "I just hope they know what they're doing," she said. And talking to Ayckbourn last week, it was clear that they probably didn't then but also that they have a much better idea now. The team has come through the experience (which deserves the word horrifying) strengthened, and the talk is all of future plans. As for the show itself, it's come down to 2 hour, 45 minutes, three quarters of an hour less than it was in Bristol when I saw it after Betty Marsden's Aunt Dahlia had already been written out of the plot.
[1]

A crash slimming course like that doesn't exactly help the actors to establish the pacing and pointing of their parts, but. through the London previews the show has been settling down in shape and style, and tonight all the elements in the projects favour will be to the fore and the nightmarish, hectic slavery of the past two months wilt be forgotten.

After all
Jeeves is one of the favourite characters of a popular English writer of genius. Lloyd Webber is a tunesmith demonstrably in tune with popular taste. Ayckbourn is our best writer of comedies since Coward. Thompson is one of our leading directors. David Hemmings, who plavs Wooster, started his career as a singer (in Britten's Turn of the Screw) and is a popular actor - even if this has been a scary return to the stage after 10 years' filming. If Jeeves is a success it will be a very good thing for British theatre because it will confirm a new home-grown team on a course of great potential. The British musical could become a thing of the future, rather than a thing of the past.

The
Jeeves project is in origin Andrew Lloyd Webber's. He is an enthusiastic Wodehouse fan, and it was his idea to make an adaptation working with his collaborator from Jesus Christ Superstar, Tim Rice. Rice perhaps is too much of a Wodehouse fan; at any rate he came to feel that he was not going to be able to do justice to the source. Lloyd Webber, whose enthusiasm for the project has never cooled, had to look elsewhere, he initially hoped that Ayckbourn would do the book and Rice could still be persuaded to, do the lyrics, but then Rice withdrew from the project altogether.

Lloyd Webber is an admirer of Avckbourn's comedies, and he turned to him to save the project. For Ayckbourn it is a totally new departure, and a rather uncharacteristic venture.

Though his father was a fiddler in the London Symphony Orchestra, he is not particularly musical. In fact he and Lloyd Webber both find anything after Prokofiev a bit hard to take, except in the pop field, Ayckbourn's field of operations is his Scarborough
Theatre-in-the-Round where he invariably tries out his new comedies. He doesn't specially like musicals, last week he said, summing up his feelings after the harrowing work and endless rewrites in Jeeves: "I think musicals are pretty damn boring, but I hope this is a bit different."

Before Christmas he was saying that he liked good musicals, and came in on the
Jeeves project "with ideas of things I didn't want to put into the show, more than things I did want to put in. Most musicals aren't very interesting dramatically, I've tried with Jeeves at least to make it dramatically viable. I said to Andrew, 'The only thing I can do is to write a book I could put on the stage if your music didn't happen to arrive in time. I've just got to write something that will work regardless and hope the music comes as a bonus.'"

"This might be the wrong way to go about it. It may be that the music's going to unbalance it. But I've tried mentally to include the music in what I was planning so it became part of the dramatic action. It's an interesting experiment, partly because one's working with the people for the first time. I've had by force to discuss this piece. Which would have been much more difficult if I hadn't been working on someone else's material because I would have resented other people discussing my characters the way we've discussed Wodehouse's characters. But since they aren't my characters anyway, it doesn't make any difference."

Ayckbourn took on the project because although it was risky it was different. He hadn't written poetry since his schooldays, when having a mother who was a professional writer encouraged him to try his hand at all kinds of writing. Lloyd-Webber at any rate finds Ayckbourn's lyrics "simple, direct, and tremendously effective." Yet it is a fact that Ayckbourn's characteristic style is finely observed conventional speech patterns and avoids different levels of language such as one finds in Arden or even Osborne (who frequently takes off on rhetorical trips), and musical comedy's transitions from speech to song seem to call for just such mixings of level.

Ayckbourn at any rate had no illusions about the difficulty of the project. "People have always failed to adapt Wodehouse successfully, even Wodehouse failed to do it, because he's a very evasive gentleman when you actually come down to it. Who the hell is Jeeves? I mean he's just a figure who says lines. Everyone's got an image of him, but to try to nail down the salient qualities of what he might look like, or even his age, is very difficult

"And all Wodehouse's girts are, a bit alike. Well to be fair he has two sorts - the tough ones and the silly ones. And you have to steer a delicate course between altering the characters completely - for example you cannot make Gussie Fink-Nottle a rugby Blue; he's a newt-fancier, a weed - and adding a bit of substance that will follow the right lines which are not altogether stated in the books. Wodehouse had a way of summing up a character in one sentence, which was very nice. Then for the rest of the book Gussie, for instance, just says odd lines and does silly things."

What kind of lyrics has Ayckbourn provided? Do they rhyme? "Yes, they do," he said slowly and rather doubtfully. "I bought myself a rhyming dictionary and all that bit The funny thing about lyrics is that they've got to be simple enough for people to pick them up verbally. There are two sorts of songs in musicals - some that are immediately catchable and become the hits, and some that are very much more integrated, about the action, which will never lift out. The latter sort are very easy to write because they're an extension of the dialogue.

"The difficult ones were the romantic ones. Andrew had already sewn up two very nice romantic songs when I came in on the project. But none of Wodehouse's characters is particularly romantic, although they get a bit gooey occasionally, sort of stuck on each other. Bertie's always horrified at the thought, he couldn't have any romantic numbers. He's the arch cynic, runs a mile from women. But writing these feeling numbers was very difficult, because you suddenly realised that everyone had written them already. June does in fact rhyme with moon. One suddenly realised why there were so many turtledoves around in lyrics. I managed to write a love song without the word love in it, by a sort of devious thing of my own. There's the curse of being pretentious that always seems to come over you soon as you start the old metres going; you're inclined to write 'O'er the hill.' Yet you're not even trying to write good poetry, because that demands much more careful listening."

Ayckbourn knocked out a synopsis, which was not an adaptation of any particular Jeeves book but a framework in which various characteristic incidents could be threaded together. Wooster and fellow members of the Drones Club are giving a concert with Wooster starring on the banjo, but the instrument packs up and, while Jeeves sends out for a new set of strings, Wooster tells a story to keep the audience happy. The story, in the final form that the musical has now reached, is mostly based on
The Code of the Woosters. [2]

"There are technical elements in a musical." Ayckbourn explains. "How many numbers you need in the first half and how many overall. We needed an establishing Bertie number. We needed music for our villain Roderick Spode. We knew we needed just for variety a ballad-type song of some sort, because otherwise it was getting monotonous as Bertie had a very distinct sort of rhythm which was like a very modern edition of what the twenties might have turned out.

"Later we found other songs were needed. I threw him a demand for a song; he came back with a tune; then I wrote the words. The only reason it was that way round was that, although I could write a lyric now that would stimulate a tune out of him, originally I wasn't sure what was required of me as a lyrics writer."

The first draft was twice as long as for a straight play and Ayckbourn said he'd enjoyed writing for big sets. At Scarborough his plays are done in the round without sets, which is how he envisages them. But in fact Eric Thompson's production is much flimsier and more experimental than Ayckbourn originally anticipated. "It's a purely escapist piece," he says. "going against the mainstream of what I'm doing at the moment - which is quite interesting. Like a holiday in a way to do it," although the Bristol try-out he now calls " hair-raising, and against my principles, being a provincial man myself, since I think the show you present in the regions should be the one you want, and not something totally different from what eventually turns out."

"Next time," he told me even before the catastrophic rehearsals and try-out, "I want to instigate the project, be much more in control, write the book and the songs, or where I want the songs, and then go to Andrew and chew it up from there. I started a bit late on this one. Things had already been thought of.not in definite terms. But Andrew and Tim had been thinking about it for years.

"I had so many preconditions with Wodehouse: your own chaps are much more interesting. It's a good job in a way that I haven't been able to use the musical to try out new things in. In fact
Jeeves is quite unusual, staging-wise, because it's a narrative musical " Jesus Christ Superstar of course is that too. "Since Bertie tells all the stories in the books, he's got to tell the musical story and so he's on stage almost the entire time." Which is in fact rather like Billy. "Of course Jeeves is co-narrator. Bertie tells his extremely favourable version, and then Jeeves corrects him. Bertie's always taken by surprise by the story, can't remember it really."

Website Notes:
[1]
Jeeves premiered in Bristol at the Hippodrome prior to its West End transfer. Famously the first performance ran longer than four hours and drastic cuts were ordered: Betty Marsden - one of the headline names on the show - saw her entire role of Aunt Dahlia cut amongst many other sweeping edits.
[2]
The Code Of The Woosters was P.G. Wodehouse's third novels to feature Jeeves and Wooster and is one of the most well known of the books.

Copyright: The Guardian. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.