Hugh Laurie on Playing a Politician ‘Immune to Shame’ in PBS Drama ‘Roadkill’
In the new PBS series “Roadkill,” Hugh Laurie plays Peter Laurence, a conservative (both with a big and small ‘c’) who fights scandal after scandal to try and remain near the top of the greasy political pole.
There have been a handful of recent series depicting right-wing demagogues (think “The Comey Rule” in the U.S. and “Years and Years” across the pond), but Peter Laurence isn’t one of those.
Instead, “Roadkill” focuses on the kind of conservatism that has been in power in the U.K. for the better part of the last 50 years, according to creator David Hare.
“The last six governments in Britain have been Conservative. England is a conservative country, we vote in Conservatives whenever we can, that’s our default position. Yet it’s extraordinary how little fiction there is about them, it’s extraordinary how almost nobody studies them seriously,” Hare says.
Plenty of series have satirized the Tories, but with “Roadkill,” Hare set out to explore the the “philosophy of personal responsibility, freedom and enterprise” which guides the lives of so many Conservatives, Peter Laurence included.
Laurie says he was immediately intrigued by playing a character whom he believes the audience will love and hate in equal measure. Viewers will be attracted to his sincerity and his seemingly genuine care for other people, he thinks, but also repulsed by his behavior (past and present) towards his family and staff.
Without giving too much away, Laurence has lived a life full of mistakes, which in decades past would have ended his political career, but now he is able to simply brush off them due to the current political climate.
“He’s a character who really feels immune to the idea of shame,” Laurie says. “David’s theory is that public disgrace no longer exists; it just seems to have vanished from the vocabulary, certainly among the political class. Politicians feel aggrieved that they don’t get treated with the deference that Churchill or FDR or Kennedy would have been treated. But at the same time they also have a much smaller burden of expectation on them, and people don’t seem to mind if they’ve been fiddling their taxes or fiddling their women or fiddling anything else. People almost seems to expect that of them.”
Hare cites John Profumo, who resigned from government when he was caught lying to the House of Commons about an affair he had with a young woman in the early 1960s, as an example of how the phenomenon of political disgrace has been thrown out of the window.
“Profumo spent the rest of his life doing genuinely good philanthropic works in the East End of London; he spent the whole of his life expiating for that offense. Now, that’s unimaginable because nobody thinks there is such a thing as disgrace anymore. Donald Trump famously said that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose any votes,” Hare says.
However, despite the obvious commentary on the current political state in the U.K. within the show, Hare says that viewers trying to identify precisely which politician Laurence is supposed to be will come away scratching their heads.
Hare’s view is that the thrill of political shows has been missing of late, partly because “an awful lot of television attributes motive in dialogue to known events.”
“So much of what we are seeing on television now is dismal and routine. I know we’re supposed to be living in a golden age, but my God it’s a derivative golden age in that most of the ideas are coming from real life,” Hare says. “This series is entirely fictional: no one is meant to be anyone, there’s no secret tunnel between the fiction and the reality. I want people to enjoy my imagination.”
In depicting Laurence and his family, “Roadkill” also introduces a discussion of the U.K. prison system and its blatant inadequacy, a topic about which both Hare and Laurie feel very strongly.
“Putting people in prison, making them suffer, doesn’t do them any good, doesn’t do society any good. It’s hugely expensive and it doesn’t work,” says Laurie. “It’s a very welcome thing to put the question in people’s head of what we’re trying to achieve with the prison system.”
Although both Laurie and Hare hope the audience derives enjoyment from the rollicking pace and political intrigue of “Roadkill,” they also want the series to ignite discussions on important issues including criminal justice and how we hold politicians accountable in today’s world.
“Politicians are the subject of derisive, cynical, critical reporting or social media every day. Because it’s so constant — there are no peaks and troughs — it just becomes a white noise of what you get if you’re a politician. People are able to shrug it off and treat it like it’s the weather, that’s what you expect,” says Laurie. “I hope this shows that we’d maybe all do better if we fired fewer shots, but aimed them straighter.”
“Roadkill” premieres Nov. 1 on PBS.