As our political season winds down, we can settle back and watch a different one.
This one is fictional … and British … and sometimes rather subtle.
“We are a more restrained country, in many ways,” Hugh Laurie (shown here) said in a virtual session with the Television Critics Association. “I think the fun for an actor is to allow the audience an opportunity to decipher things, rather than simply present them in bold captions.”
He does that in “Roadkill,” a “Masterpiece” drama starting at 9 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 1) on PBS. Throughout the four episodes, we’re not sure what to think of Peter Laurence, the politician he plays. He’s a member of the Conservative Party, which has ruled England for 45 years – lately, with people from upscale backgrounds.
The country, screenwriter David Hare said, “has been ruled for the last 10 years by (people) from a very privileged background, went to Oxford University. These are people who come from the elite.”
Laurence is a Conservative, Hare said, but “from a working-class background. He’s self-made. He used to be a furniture salesman. He’s charismatic; he’s highly intelligent.”
Viewers will want to like him, but it’s not easy. He cheats on his wife, has strained relations with his daughters and is surrounded by sneaks and schemers. He has just successfully sued a newspaper for accusing him of wrongdoing … but we soon get signs that the accusations were correct.
Shocked voters might have run him out of office … except it’s become harder to shock them.
“There is a sort of shamelessness,” Hare said. “We have a prime minister who has been sacked twice for lying, yet he’s the prime minister. His principal advisor … has consistently lied about breaking the lockdown …. Your president said if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, nobody would be much concerned …. There used to be something called disgrace.”
So far, Laurence has eluded disgrace. The twists that follow will keep viewers surprised.
As it happens, Laurie has all of his character’s charisma and none of his blue-collar roots. His father was a doctor, a Cambridge grad and an Olympic gold-medalist in rowing. Laurie went to a top prep school and then to Cambridge, where he won a national rowing championship.
But a medical problem ended his rowing and he found another diversion. By his senior year, he was president of the theater group and then-girlfriend Emma Thompson was vice-president. They linked with Stephen Fry to win a comedy award and get their own TV show.
The years that followed brought more comedy, from “Blackadder” to “A Bit of Fry & Laurie” and the “Jeeves and Wooster” movies. Then came the 180-degree shift to drama.
“Serious people can be funny and comic people can be serious,” Laurie said. “There are great truths in comedy and there are jokes – intended or otherwise – in great tragedy.”
Laurie drew six straight best-actor Emmy nominations (and two Golden Globe wins) for “House.” As the series was ending, he was stepping into another passion, as a blues musician.
“I made a record toward the end of ‘House,’” he said, and launched two world tours. “I don’t mean ‘’world tours’ in the sense of you meaning the ‘World Series.’ I mean really world tours – like Russia and Mexico and Argentina and Poland and all the rest. It was a wonderful … almost-three-year escape from acting.”
And then he was back to drama. There was another Emmy nomination (and Golden Globe win) as a vile arms dealer in “The Night Manager.” And now, in “Roadkill,” he’s a politician who’s maybe crooked, maybe earnest, but always interesting.