[The Earl of Ickenham—“Uncle Fred”—has not only convinced his nephew Pongo Twistleton, against his better judgement, to follow him into the suburb of his youth, but also to occupy, in an attempt to escape a downpour, a villa known as The Cedars. There, they encounter the Parkers, a middle-aged couple who are relatives of the house’s owner, and their 19-year-old daughter, whose suitor has just been persuaded by Uncle Fred to hide behind a settee. Mrs. Parker now vents to Uncle Fred—who she mistakenly believes is her cousin’s husband, Mr. Roddis—about the young man she can’t see.]
“ ‘I found to my horror that a young man of whom I knew nothing was arranging to marry my daughter. I sent for him immediately, and found him to be quite impossible. He jellies eels!"’
‘He is an assistant at a jellied eel shop.’
‘But surely,’ said Lord Ickenham, ‘that speaks well for him. The capacity to jelly an eel seems to me to argue intelligence of a high order. It isn't everybody who can do it, by any means. I know if someone came to me and said ' “Jelly this eel!” I should be nonplussed. And so, or I am very much mistaken, would Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill.’ The woman did not seem to see eye to eye.”—British humorist P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), “Uncle Fred Flits By,” in The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology (Everyman’s Library, 2007)
Though I have had this Wodehouse collection for several years, only now did I have the chance to read this story about “Uncle Fred.” It was brought to my attention this past Sunday, at a matinee of the one-man show, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. The actor—first exposed to it in childhood in a 1939 anthology edited by W. Somerset Maugham, Tellers of Tales—spotlighted “Uncle Fred” in the second act, convulsing the audience with laughter.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Uncle Fred was portrayed—first on American TV, then on the BBC—by, respectively, David Niven and Wilfrid Hyde-White. (You can see Niven’s performance, in an episode of Four-Star Playhouse, in this YouTube clip.) But, as accomplished as those actors were, it is hard to see how their performances could top Lithgow’s, who managed to conjure up all the story’s characters.
Then again, what source material he had to work with! Almost any attempt to convey the quality of Wodehouse’s inspired lunacy runs the risk of overanalyzing the ineffable. But, in remarks prepared for an 80th birthday broadcast for his friend, Evelyn Waugh—a writer of distinctly darker shadings—paid full tribute to his fellow comic master:
“Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”
(The image of Wodehouse that accompanies this post was taken around 1904.)