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A Bit of House and Laurie

Ah hem. Having become so accustomed during our hobnobbings of the previous day to seeing this uncle by marriage in genial and comradely mood, I had almost forgotten how like the Assyrian swooping down on the fold he could look, … Read More

By / March 7, 2007

Ah hem.

Having become so accustomed during our hobnobbings of the previous day to seeing this uncle by marriage in genial and comradely mood, I had almost forgotten how like the Assyrian swooping down on the fold he could look, when deeply stirred.

Uncle Percy had crumpled like a wet sock.

His whole attitude recalled irresistibly to the mind that of some assiduous hound who will persist in laying a dead rat on the drawing-room carpet, though repeatedly apprised by word and gesture that the market for same is sluggish or even non-existent.

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled…

Well, if I met the Mona Lisa at this moment I would shake her by the hand and assure her that I knew just how she felt. You see before you, Jeeves, a toad beneath the harrow.

First, the bad news: Much as I admire the cranial comedy of Stephen Fry, I never took to his portrayal of Jeeves in the BBC series Jeeves and Wooster, which at least got right the marquee order of personages in the Wodehouse miniverse. Those familiar with the novels and short stories about the Edwardian feudal spirit know that it was the butler what done it, saved his jelly-brained master from innumerable scrapes and social disgraces. They also know that Jeeves was older than his employer by about a generation and a half, and that the guileless narrative, with its burnished pastoral and modern metaphors (see above), are incapable of transfer to celluloid. I once asked Hitch if he'd seen Fry's adaptation of Waugh's Vile Bodies, Bright Young Things. Ice formed on the old man's upper slopes, and answer came there in the profound negative. "He knows better."

So should we, and yet… There's something enjoyable in its own right about watching the subtle subversion of the English class system, by showing that the below-the-stairs help had above-board IQs, which Wodehouse managed to show with unrivaled aplomb. His trick was to render his protagonist likable and winsome withal. No one takes issue with Bertie, not even his sage gentleman's personal gentleman, because Bertie is fundamentally a nice bloke. Lazy, entitled and boyish, but kind-hearted. Another way to put this would be to say, he's nothing at all like the characters Hugh Laurie plays best.

Who'd have thought that the ferrety wastrel being plucked out of Aunt Agatha's garden pond would go on attain TV Guide sexual charisma in the eyes of middle-aged housewives everywhere? Laurie's performance on House, easily the smartest and funniest medical "drama," is exactly what we've come not to expect from Prime Time television. He's not just haggard and tortured but really in it for the kids like Clooney. And he's certainly not empty and preening like those twits on Gray's Anatomy. House is mean. A regular stethoscope-wielding misanthrope who happens to be the ace diagnostician in the place. If his chill heart melts from time to time, you can bet it won’t be pretty, and you can also bet that it’s because Jeff Zucker at NBC decrees it. The writers of the show, with their Jeevesian intellects and shrewd talent for last-minute rescue operations, most likely do not.

The title of the show and the name of its antihero must come from a tacit irony of Laurie's ever finding himself in an urgent situation where the question, "Is there a doctor in the house?" might even be asked. He got into medicine for the gallows humor. But sure, while he’s at it, he'll perform that Bic pen tracheotomy on the sidewalk. Just give him some room to thunder and grumble about it first.

As this is the regular TV I take in anymore – Entourage back next month, thank the Lord – I thought a well-directed link to Laurie’s alter ego would be in order. Mind the plummy accent and clubland haircut. The voice has gone deeper and geographically indistinct, and the five o’clock shadow seems viral at this point.

Here's Laurie on Inside the Actor's Studio, looking like he's in on more jokes than the audience is:

Wooster and Jeeves – The Complete Series

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