Monday, November 26, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #31: Cocktail Time

I'm back after a short holiday break (hi hi hi again everyone!), and just in time to bring you...
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Jack BennyI love The Jack Benny Program—it's my favorite old time radio show. (What's this got to do with A Wodehouse a Week? Be patient, gentle reader.) Not only is Jack's comic timing on these classic shows among the finest in American comedy, he also surrounded himself with some of the best and funniest sidekick characters from Dennis Day to Phil Harris—and wasn't afraid to let his supporting cast get the laughs at his expense. One of the things I especially love about those old Jack Benny Program shows is that they were meta before meta was defined. While several of the live shows featured Jack and the gang gathered around the microphones in the studio performing a play or a variety show, many others purported to tell the story behind the show: what Jack and friends were up to in the week before the live performance, or the at home lives of the stars, or sometimes even the plot would have Jack walking out on his own show to go to a restaurant or a department store, all the while discussing what's going to happen on the "show" when it's broadcast live (it is, in fact, taking place right then). One of the classic episodes I recently listened to began with Don Wilson's announcement "Let's look in Jack's dressing room ten minutes before this show begins..." and we then have ten minutes of comedy set off stage before the "show" starts up again (with Don's truncated opening announcements). In short, it's a show called The Jack Benny Program about a show called The Jack Benny Program, and the two are not necessary the same thing. If we're listening to an episode where Jack and his writers argue about jokes for the upcoming show, then the show "in" Jack's universe must be different than the one we hear, isn't it?

It's a fine line and a sharp distinction that's a clever gimmick but tricky to pull of effectively in comedy. I'm sure there are others (tell me in the comments if you think of more), but the only other ones I can think of are The Larry Sanders Show and The Truman Show. So why am I talking about fictional versions of entertainment contained inside a real entertainment by the same title? Simple, really: because this week's Wodehouse is a novel entitled Cocktail Time (1958), all about a novel entitled Cocktail Time. Confused? You shouldn't be. Read on...

I've mentioned earlier that I've covered books featuring very nearly all of the Wodehouse starring series characters: Bertie and Jeeves, the Mulliners, Lord Emsworth and the Blanding Castle crowd, the hapless Ukridge, the Oldest Member, Galahad Threepwood, dashing Psmith and even the boys of Wrykyn and St. Austin's. But I had yet, until this week, to review a Wodehouse novel starring my very favorite recurring character: Frederick, Lord Ickenham—Pongo Twistleton's redoubtable Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred's a literary hero of mine not simply because he reminds me of my own dear beloved Uncle Fred, but because he's a man who embodies all the personality characteristics in life I'd like to be when I grow up to be a big stuffed bull: suave, debonair, unflappable, well-spoken, impeccably dressed, sympathetic, inventive, clever, and—best yet—a bit of a rogue. That last characteristic sets the whole novel in motion when Uncle Fred is challenged at the Drones Club to knock off the top hat of stuffy Sir Raymond Bastable using a slingshot and a Brazil nut. Outraged by the assault and mistaking his assailant for one of the young Drones layabouts (rather than his peer in years Ickenham), Bastable furiously pens a scandalous novel condemning the modern youth of the day, a novel entitled (you guessed it) Cocktail Time which becomes a smash bestseller after being condemned by clergymen...a sexy and satirical cross between Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies and Forever Amber. (Which I'm not allowed to read.) Naturally, the road to literary success for Bastable is far from smooth: he has political ambitions and cannot be exposed as the author of the salacious Cocktail Time, so he writes it under a pen name and, at Uncle Fred's cheerful suggestion, he convinces his nephew Cosmo Wisdom to claim credit for the authorship. Loose lips sink ships, and Cosmo blabs the truth about the true author to crooks Oily and Gertrude "Sweetie" Carlisle. The Carlisles con a signed admission from Cosmo and plan to use it to blackmail Sir Raymond Bastable. And that's where Uncle Fred comes in, and that, my friends, is where, as they say, the fun begins...

Frederick, Lord Ickenham, is in many ways similar to Lord Emsworth's cunning brother Galahad Threepwood (who I talked about in A Pelican at Blandings): Gally debuted in 1929 and Uncle Fred in 1936, and their stories are chronologically intertwined through Wodehouse's career, but despite their similarities, the two characters are not identical. Uncle Fred lacks the extensive and elaborate Threepwood/Emsworth family ties of Galahad that ground him to Blandings; although he does have an elaborate network of nephews and godsons, Uncle Fred's not defined by a pig-populated estate, and so his adventures are frequently inhabited by new characters in each adventure, drawing the focus away from the series aspect of the books but still providing us with the familiar and dapper Uncle Fred at the center of all the brou-ha-ha. Rather than having the recognizable old guard of Clarence, Connie, Beach, and the Empress that surround Galahad, Uncle Fred's adventures rely on Wodehouse setting up new characters and plots. (Wodehouse does give us the best of both worlds in two other Uncle Fred adventures, Uncle Fred in the Springtime and Service with a Smile, both of which take place at Blandings). But it's in the introduction of characters and plots of Cocktail Time that Wodehouse shines, showing off his skill. Many of Wodehouse's novels are introduced with a large number of characters within the first couple chapters and he then dexterously spins them together. Cocktail Time is the seven-layer taco dip of Wodehouse novels: the first nine or ten chapters move the plot along swiftly but also serve to introduce a new character or three at a time, gently adding only a sprinkle of complications to the mix like a master baker. It's a very subtle and effective way to get us up to speed: we're introduced to Uncle Fred and Sir Raymond here, Uncle Fred's godson in another chapter, Cosmo further along, Cosmo's mother and her doting butler in yet another...before we know it we're up to speed and the pace is roaring along, and the introductions have been so gentle and gradual we haven't realized how complicated all the inter-relations and the plot twists are. It's the literary equivalent of a funfair rollercoaster: starts out slow, but watch out for the aieeeeeeeeeeeeeeee...

David NivenAs carefully planned and plotted as Cocktail Time is, of course there's still plenty of room for bon mots and sparkling dialogue (especially from the mouth of Uncle Fred). The earlier Wodehouse short story that introduced him, "Uncle Fred Flits By," was made into a short BBC television comedy film, not once but twice, and in the first version David Niven played the illustrious Fred. I've never seen this bit of celluloid, but I can't think of a more appropriate twentieth-century British actor to utter the following:
'...I am confident that the magic of Dovetail Hammer will eventually work. Give him time. It isn't easy for leopards to change their spots.'

'Do they want to?'

'I couldn't say. I know so few leopards.'
or be described in this colorful metaphorical manner:
Lord Ickenham came into the room, concern in every hair of his raised eyebrows. Many men in his place, beholding this poor bit of human wreckage, would have said to themselves 'Oh, my gosh, another toad beneath the harrow' and ducked out quickly to avoid having to listed to the hard luck story which such toads are always so ready to tell, but to the altruistic peer it never occurred to adopt such a course. His was a big heart,. And when he saw a toad not only beneath the harrow but apparently suffering from the effects of one of those gas explosions in London street which slay six, he did not remember an appointment for which he was already late but stuck around and prepared to do whatever lay in his power to alleviate the sufferer's distress.
That, to me, is the secret of Uncle Fred's success and my bullishness for him: he's a hero through and through, ever-ready to help the underdog and the lovelorn, and in the space of Cocktail Time (the P. G. Wodehouse novel, not the Raymond Bastable one) he nurtures and saves the love relationships of not one, not two, but four cooing couples, sending each of them no doubt to the Office of the Registrar immediately after book's end. I think that love connection total is a personal best for Wodehouse, but curiously this is much less a love story than many of Wodehouse's other novels, even including the slightly similar Galahad at Blandings adventures. Uncle Fred patches up spats and brings couples together, including the improbable pairing of Bastable's fifty-year old sister and the family's faithful butler, but those are all subplots, slightly in the background, definitely important but running a close second to the main story of the letter of confession that points the finger of Cocktail Time's authorship at Bastable. The letter is the novel's Silver Cow Creamer (S.C.C.), stolen and passed around like a hot potato, with a sour cream and chive clever twist of being subject to changing attitudes throughout the action. At first Bastable will do anything to prevent the letter from becoming public in order to save his political career, but when the novel's sold to Hollywood producer Ivor Llewellyn (from Bachelors Anonymous and Pearls, Girls, and Monty Bodkin) for a massive pile of cash...well, even Gordon Brown would chuck his political career and admit he wrote Belle du Jour for that. Mix in greedy crooks and the tipsy Cosmo, and clever Uncle Fred has his hands full trying to stay two steps ahead of the lot. Of course he does. Was there any doubt? As Fred himself admits 'Things have a way of getting solved when an Ickenham takes a hand in them.'

The book begins
The train of events leading up to the publication of the novel Cocktail Time, a volume which, priced at twelve shillings and sixpence, was destined to create considerably more than twelve and a half bobsworth of alarm and despondency in one quarter and another, was set in motion in the smoking room of the Drones Club in the early afternoon of a Friday in July.
I didn't spend 12s 6d on any of my many copies of Cocktail Time: I've got a Penguin paperback (with a lovely Ionicus watercolor of Uncle Fred taking Brazil nut-aim at Sir Raymond's shiny topper on the cover), a UK Herbert Jenkins hardcover with a plain typography library jacket that I bought in Santa Fe in '99, (nineteen-, not eighteen-), a wonderful edition of the same Herbert Jenkins hardcover but with a trade jacket featuring a colorful illustration of the smart and stylish Uncle Fred with a girl in his drink (what's that girl doing in his drink? The backstroke?). My very good friend Constance gave me that copy (ta very much Constance!). I've also got an Everyman Wodehouse hardcover reissue edition (with dour Sir Raymond Bastable, sans top hat, on the cover), and a second printing of the US Simon & Schuster hardcover featuring a lively sketch of Fred...yes, he's once again taking aim at that top hat. I especially enjoy the tag line on the cover of the S&S edition: "A novel about a novel." Why yes, yes it is. And you shan't need to spend twelve and six to get Cocktail Time either if you click on the Amazon box to the right. Like a good cocktail itself, it's refreshing, cool, and looks very sophisticated in your hand, and even better yet, you don't have to be 21 to buy it: you just have to have good taste.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Matthew E said...

For the ultimate in metafictional levels, consider Donald E. Westlake's novel Jimmy the Kid.

It's an entry in his Dortmunder series of novels. Dortmunder is a criminal genius, a master planner who can engineer the most impossible heists... except that he has had no good luck in his entire life and so has the personality of Eeyore. Because none of his plans ever quite work. Sometimes it's his fault, sometimes it's the fault of one of his band of crooks, sometimes it's just pure dumb luck. He always gets away at the end, usually with a little bit of cash; almost never with what he set out to get.

In Jimmy the Kid, he's using a novel called Child Heist, by Richard Stark, one of Stark's series of novels about a hard-boiled crook named Parker, as a blueprint for how to run a kidnapping. But! Richard Stark is, in real life, the pseudonym under which Westlake writes the Parker novels. And there wasn't a novel called Child Heist in real life.

Anyway, the kidnapping falls apart, as we knew it would, and the kid in question, Jimmy, who's kind of a film buff, goes on to make a movie about his experience. And there's a chapter at the end of the novel where Richard Stark and his lawyers are sending each other letters speculating about the possibility of suing the kid for using the plot of Child Heist in the movie. (The lawyer says no, he can make a movie about his experiences, but Stark can try suing the crooks if he can find them.)

More layers: Jimmy the Kid actually was made into a movie, with Gary Coleman as Jimmy.
Westlake has written himself into books in other places; there's one where he appears as a guy named Eastpool.
Stephen King's novel 'The Dark Half' is about a conflict between a writer and his pseudonym. The pseudonym is named George Stark. King, of course, had his own pseudonym, Richard Bachman, and has also written himself into his Dark Tower series.

Neat, eh?

Monty Ashley said...

Uncle Fred isn't a "bit of a rogue" so much as he is a "demon in human shape". In Uncle Dynamite, he's a positive menace. I love him too.

Hey, how about The Muppet Show? It's a television show about some people (well, frogs, pigs, bears, and whatevers) putting on a show called The Muppet Show.

Bully said...

You're right, Monty: UF is a real force of nature in Uncle Dynamite. I have the BBC radio adaptation and a young Hugh Grant plays Pongo--absolutely befuddled perfection. Richard Briers plays UF, but I'm so used to him as Bertie on the BBC radio adaptations that he didn't quite work for me.

But this Uncle Fred is a bit more genteel.

The Muppet Show is a perfect example. Thanks! It occurs to me that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is another to some album of songs purportedly by and about a band by that same name.

Unknown said...

The Richard Strauss opera "Ariadne aux Naxos", the Shakespeare play "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and the Hammerstein-Kern musical (with one lyric by PGW) "Show Boat" provide three other classical or semi-classical examples.

Monty Ashley said...

I've got a couple of modern ones, too. "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" sort of qualifies, while "30 Rock" doesn't (the show-within-a-show is called "TGS" or "The Girlie Show"). "Sports Night" also works, although in these cases the show-within-a-show is clearly different. On the Jack Benny Show, the show-within-a-show is almost exactly like the actual Jack Benny Show.

The Burns and Allen TV show was also surprisingly postmodern, with George always stopping the action and talking to the audience. There should be more of that these days. Or they could just air the classics. I'd be okay with that too.

Anonymous said...

Jack Benny? Is a comedy god. That is all.

The Muppet movies are even more endearingly meta than the show.

Then there are all those YA novels I remember from my bookish youth - The Outsiders comes immediately to mind - that use the 'school assignment about [events of book]' as a framing device.

Also...I've been listening to some old mp3s of the 'Bob [Elliot] & Ray [Goulding]' radio show. It's not strictly meta by the Benny definition; but two guys huddled around a mic creating a cast, guests, serials, props, an entire studio audience PLUS a 'Great Bob & Ray Bird'...that, folks, is some prime surrealist entertainment.