Jeeves: A Meeting With A Living Legend (1996)

This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn for the programme for the world premiere of By Jeeves at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1996.

In October 1974, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn drove out to Long Island in the company of a representative from producer Robert Stigwood's New York office for a meeting with the 93 year old P.G. Wodehouse. This, very very vaguely, is what occurred.

The Composer and I were picked up from our New York hotel by this cove from Robert Stigwood's office. Stigwood was the show's producer who favoured the distant school of doing things. For arm's length read barge pole. Consequently, I'd never met the chap but the Composer who'd once steered a motorised go-cart into the fellow's swimming pool vouched for him and that was good enough for me.
On this particular sunny lunchtime we were off to meet P. G. (Plum) Wodehouse at his home on Long Island for a few quick publicity shots and in order to play the old boy highlights from the newly completed Jeeves score. I hailed the Composer as he spilt out of the hotel elevator clutching a couple of loose leaf folders the size of the Manhattan phone book. "The score", he explained. "Aha," I said enigmatically, brandishing my own rather more modest offering, namely the libretto. A mere Domesday Book by comparison. 'We may have a slight problem with the show," said the composer, viewing my tome. "As regards time."
"Indeed," I retorted, meeting his gaze coolly, for I could sense the chap's drift a mile off. "Then they'll just have to sing it a bit faster, won't they?" He eyed me rather beadily, I thought. Not, you might think, the most auspicious of starts to the day.
Fortunately at this moment enter the Stigwood Cove, full of the joys of s. and obviously looking forward to his trip in the company of up and coming young calibre artistes such as we. He had arrived in a stretch limousine which was currently stretched for several blocks along 5th roughly between 76th and 80th. We nodded to the driver and, as we strolled the few hundred yards to the passenger door, the Stigwood Cove explained to us that time was of the essence. Our visit had to be precisely timed in order to fit in with Plum's current TV viewing habits. Apparently the old prune was addicted to several daytime soaps and couldn't possibly miss a single episode of any of them. Luckily for us on this particular day Plum had a window, as the Stigwood Cove termed it, between episodes.
As we bowled along in our mobile bowling alley straddling a few of the million potholes that give New York streets their unique charm and New York cabs their dented roofs courtesy of passengers' heads, the Stigwood Cove slipped into his in-flight steward's guise offering us the vehicle's complete range of on-board facilities including radio, TV and cocktail bar. It crossed my mind that it might have been diplomatic to glimpse one of Plum's daytime television soaps; a sure-fire icebreaker if we could crack it. But with thirty-six channels screening simultaneous identical garbage the idea was fraught with imponderables.
I was aware, for the first time, of a certain tension in the air. The Composer was beginning to look decidedly shifty. I think the prospect of auditioning the score was beginning to get to him. We had had words about this earlier when the notion of playing through the songs to Plum was first mooted. “When I worked with Tim,” the Composer had said pointedly, I played the piano and Tim sang the words. "Good for talented Tim," I said, rather savagely for me, I thought. 'Well, personally, I don't sing."
"Neither do I," replied the Composer..
"Oh yes, you do. Well, you sing far better than I do, anyway. And even if you can't sing that well," I added, playing my master card, "at least you know what it ought to sound like. And before you ask, no, I don’t play the piano either, so there." Harsh words, I know, but a chap has to acknowledge his limitations.
This two-day old exchange still appeared to be rankling the air. Silence descended. The Stigwood Cove curtailed his travelogue, sensing that the creative men had entered an introspective mood. Through the limousine's smoked glass windows even the weather seemed to have taken a turn for the worse. The Composer had started to hum former triumphs under his breath. Always a bad sign.
Mercifully, suddenly we struck countryside. Or more accurately, Godalming with much, much more money. This was my first glimpse of Long Island. The limousine had respectfully slowed to a modest sixty-five m.p.h. I sensed the driver to be less certain of his bearings now skyscrapers were replaced by hedges. 'Straight on," yelled the Stigwood Cove," His voice easily reaching to the far end of the car. "Next left and second right." Here clearly was a man with Long Island at his fingertips. A sign protruding incongruously above a hedge, The Bide-a-Wee Cats and Dogs Home, confirmed we were truly in the heart of Wodehouse country.
"Ethel's place," explained the Stigwood Cove. I looked puzzled.
“Plum's wife" said the Composer who seemed to be cheering up a bit.
"She's very fond of animals," the Stigwood Cove went on, welcoming the chance to impart a bit of information. "So she opened this home for strays. The Americans think she's completely barking."
We reached the house. It was Ethel who opened the door to us. She eyed us with a look obviously reserved for convicted cat frighteners or dog stranglers. She was clutching a row of freshly roasted chickens, feet uppermost on a tin tray. Her concern for animal welfare evidently stopped a good way short of poultry. "Smells good," observed the Stigwood Cove, chattily. "Yum! Yum!" "For the cats," said Ethel rather tartly. "Plum's through there, in the garden. You'll find him pottering aimlessly somewhere. I'll be with you in a minute."
We passed through a cosy sitting room and out into a green sheltered garden complete with lawn and herbaceous borders. We could so easily have been in Surrey except that we weren't. We spotted the old boy who was indeed pottering aimlessly, very much as previously described by Ethel. A lean, fit looking nonagenarian in a light coloured cap and an alpaca jacket, he was currently prodding at the flower beds with his stick. Around his neck hung a sizeable contraption connected to a wire running up to one ear, declaring that this was a man with Occasional Difficulty in Hearing You. As it turned out, occasional was the operative word as there were certain remarks, people or subjects which reached Plum as clear as a whistle. And others, including many voiced by Ethel, which didn't. Plum greeted us cheerily with all the bonhomie of a man who hadn't the faintest idea who we were. Though he was clearly beside himself over the plight of some current soap heroine to whom he'd taken rather a shine. “I hope they don't let her die," he said somewhat glumly. "She's the best thing in it." We assured him that in our experience of TV soaps, companies usually kill off their lame ducks, rarely their golden geese.
We chatted for a time. The Composer was beginning to look troubled again, waving his score rather noisily, anxious to have the performance over and done with. It was then that the Stigwood Cove bowled the first googly of the day announcing that we were moving on. Plum, being strictly a words man like yours truly, had no piano to hand. We were off to someone who had.
We drove, the length of Long Island if not the breadth, leaving mid-Surrey behind us and entering instead upper America. We drew up at a place approximately the size of the White House. Our hosts were young and clean cut with a glowing beauty achieved only by the extremely rich or the very, very debauched. "Drugs," murmured the Stigwood Cove. "They've only just come back. They've both been ... away" He winked.
"Prison?" I enquired.
"A clinic. He composes. Very seriously avant garde.”
I felt the Composer nervously shuffle his score. We entered their sitting room and in the far distance sighted a white piano. “It's tuned regularly," our Dorian Gray-like host reassured us. "Not that I ever play it. I hate the things."
"He's strictly electronic these days," whispered our hostess. "He makes the most remarkable, exciting sounds."
Along one wall were arranged a series of white clothed tables proclaiming that at some point food would be served. Plum who had recently been demonstrating all the signs of a man who no longer had the faintest idea where he was going or what he was doing, brightened up. "Ah, tea!" he declared, well pleased at the turn of things. "Later, Plum, later," bellowed Ethel bustling him past such temptation. "We have to listen to this first."
Through one of the floor-to-ceiling windows I caught sight of a man, lying on the garden flagstones outside. He was pointing a zoom-lensed camera very approximately in our direction.
"The photographer," hissed the Stigwood Cove, somewhat unnecessarily. "Allegedly a former friend of Jackie Kennedy." He winked again.
We gathered near the piano. It was decided that I would sit with Plum and, in case of sudden deafness, help him to follow the words on the page whilst the Composer played and sang. Ethel settling for the back seat driver's option, placed herself immediately behind us. The Composer laid out his score and prepared to kick off. Outside I observed Jackie's former buddy attempting to capture the essence of the occasion from upside down up a tree.
The Composer played a rousing chord, took a breath, looked up, surveyed the room and instead of singing emitted a falsetto squeak like a startled gerbil. I turned to see what had disturbed his musical equilibrium. Silently and unbeknownst to us the room had filled with a sizeable crowd. The Society for the Very Seriously Avant Garde had turned out in strength. The place was awash with beards, beads and butter muslin.
The Composer gave me one final nasty look and plunged in, a musical lemming with nothing further to lose. "Banjo Boy," he warbled. “
Frightfully good," said Plum, rather prematurely. And applauded.
"Banjo Boy-"
"Who wrote these words, then?" thundered Plum.
"Play a number for me..."
"He's sitting next to you," yelled Ethel.
"Won't you play that melody ... ?"
"Who?" enquired Plum. "Who did you say?"
"He's sitting right next to you, Plum!"
Veins were beginning to stand out on the Composer's forehead as he struggled to top the rival side-show developing inches from his right hand. To his credit, his grip on the tune remained unwavering. His grasp of the words though became altogether vaguer as the pressure began to get to him. I was aware that for Plum's benefit I was running my finger under lines of a lyric which increasingly had little or no relationship to what was being sung, I sensed in the ranks of the Alternative Music Society a growing bewilderment. Having flocked to hear Wodehouse they were apparently being fobbed off with sub-Lewis Carroll. Plum, too, began to show signs of restlessness. His attention had strayed away from the lyrics and towards the tea table.
Meanwhile, out in the garden, the world was more that of Henry James as our photographer contorted his face at the window like Quint from The Turn of the Screw.
At length, the last song hove into view. In the silence that preceded it - for the polite ripple of applause which had started proceedings had long since evaporated - the Composer sensing the finish line, drew breath. Ethel chose this moment to lean and tap me on the shoulder.
"Plum," she boomed, never a mincer of words, "wrote very good lyrics indeed."
"Jolly good," said Plum, who could resist the lure of the table no longer. "Tea!"
From all directions maids appeared, damp cloths were removed, revealing what can best be described as English tea a la Texas; sandwiches piled like the Appalachians, cakes the size of cartwheels. I felt Plum quiver.
"Splendid," he declared. "Oh, how simply splendid!"
Ethel had other ideas. She took him firmly by the elbow. "No, home, Plum. This has all taken far too long, It's very late. You don't want to miss your programme, do you?"
My last sight of him was being propelled through the door, his eyes still longingly fixed on the tea table.
"Cheerio," he called wistfully back to the sandwiches and then was gone for ever.
I turned to the Composer whose features were beginning to resume a normal colour.
"Tea?" I suggested.
He eyed the table with some distaste. "No chance of a drink, is there?"
"Good idea," I said.
After all, it's not every day you get to meet living legends.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without the permission of the copyright holder.