The book Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is one of those whose name you tend to hear bandied around when you are growing up. At least, it is when you grow up in England — I don’t know about the Commonwealth Countries and I wouldn’t care to speculate about the rest of the world.
Now that I come to think about it, I’m not sure when or where I first became aware of this tome. I think it’s almost part of the national consciousness (or subconsciousness). It’s probably one of those “national identity” things; for example, if someone from England finds themselves hanging around with two of their countryfolk — even if they are all strangers to each other — they immediately form a queue.
As an aside, you can contrast the English queuing imperative to the habits of the French who — if they are waiting for a bus, for example — make a masterful show of nonchalantly stooging around without a care in the world until the bus actually arrives at which time pandemonium ensues as they make a charge for the door thrusting all others aside — and that’s just the little old ladies (I still have the bruises).
References to Three Men in a Boat pop up in the most unlikely places. In the science fiction book Have Space Suit—Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein (1958), for example, the main character’s father is an obsessive fan of the book and spends much of his spare time repeatedly re-reading it.
I don’t know why, but for one reason or another I never got around to perusing this book myself until a couple of months ago when I ran across a paperback version on Amazon Prime for only $6.89. As soon as it arrived, I devoured it (metaphorically speaking) in a single sitting.
First published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat is an account by the English writer Jerome K. Jerome of a two-week boating holiday with a couple of his friends on the River Thames from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back to Kingston. The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide with accounts of local history along the route, but humorous elements took over. As a result, the reader spends half the time enjoying the serious and somewhat sentimental passages, while the other half is consumed by raucous laughter, sometimes with tears rolling down one’s cheeks.
The amazing thing about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to a modern audience. If you consider a lot of books or TV programs from just a few years ago, many of them make references to aspects of the day to which you no longer remember the context, and things that had you rolling on the floor with laughter just ten or so short years ago leave you saying “Ho hum” today. By comparison, even though Three Men in a Boat was written 132 years ago as I pen these words, and although some of the language is a little florid as benefits the time, the jokes and humor are as fresh and witty as if they had only recently been written.
Once I’d read the book, I started to wish that someone had made a movie of this tale. Of course, someone had. In fact, many “someones” have taken a stab over the years, including a 1920 British silent film with Lionelle Howard as J., H. Manning Haynes as Harris, and Johnny Butt as George (I’d love to see this version) and a 1956 British film with David Tomlinson as J., Jimmy Edwards as Harris, and Laurence Harvey as George. It turns out that the 1956 version is available on YouTube, but I wasn’t impressed because it tried too hard for laughs when it didn’t need to.
I was starting to feel a tad despondent when I discovered that the BBC produced a version for television in 1975. This little beauty was adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Stephen Frears, with Tim Curry as J., Michael Palin as Harris, and Stephen Moore as George. As soon as I saw these names, I had a quick Google while no one was looking and found this video on YouTube.
“Thank goodness for the BBC,” is all I can say. This video is just how I imagined the characters and the events whilst I was reading the book. Watching them on the screen was like seeing old friends.
If you’ve never read the book or seen the video, I would personally recommend reading the book first. If you decide to go the other way, however, I’d be interested to hear how you find that approach. Also, if you’ve already read the book but never seen the video above, I would love to hear your thoughts on the video.