ROADKILL is a four-part British drama, premiering on PBS Masterpiece Sunday, November 1. Hugh Laurie (HOUSE M.D., THE NIGHT MANAGER) stars as English politician Peter Laurence, who is trying outmaneuver a scandal without any regret or remorse. ROADKILL is created and written by David Hare, an Oscar nominee for his screenplays for THE READER and THE HOURS.
Both Hare and Laurie take part in a virtual Q&A as part of PBS’s portion of the Summer 2020 Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour. This article is derived from that session.
What motivated Hare to write ROADKILL?
“Oh, golly, that’s such a difficult question,” says Hare. “I feel very strongly about the prisons and the prison systems. I think it is an absolute scandal that 3,500 women are in prisons now in Britain. 7,000 women have passed through the prison system. Our problem with incarceration is not nearly as systematic or great as yours in the United States, but we still lock up more people than anybody in Europe. The British are the European champions at incarceration, and it is somehow in our character, this idea of punishing people. I wrote about the prison system in a play called MURMURING JUDGES in 1992. I always wanted to write about it again, because I just find the tragedy of the wasted lives of people who are just put in prison and thrown away, that motivates me very strongly.”
Hare continues, “Somehow, someone like Peter Laurence, who had to face an intimate relationship, an intimate contact with someone who was actually involved in the prison system, that’s where it came from, the sort of Dickensian lust to be allowed to go from the very top of society to the very bottom, the way Dickens used to do, and passing through all classes and all sectors of society in between. That’s the kind of show that personally I love watching on television. So that’s the kind of zestful kind of series that I wanted to write.”
ROADKILL deals with both politicians and the press behaving badly. Did Hare want to write something that speaks to the moment that we’re in right now, or does he feel that ROADKILL could have been set at any time in the past century?
“In my country,” says Hare, referring to his native England, “we have lived probably twenty-five years [under] Labour, and forty-five years under the Conservatives yet nobody writes about why, what the fascination of conservatism is, and why it is so attractive and why Conservatives win the election all the time. There’s very little fiction about it. I was looking to look at conservatism now. I think there’s something new in the twenty-first century, which is that there is a shamelessness in it. [Boris Johnson] has been sacked twice for lying, yet he’s the Prime Minister. His principal advisor is Dominic Cummings, who has consistently lied about breaking the lockdown. Nobody’s really worried about that. And the idea of shame has disappeared from politics.
“Your president said if he shot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, nobody would be much concerned. But this is new. There used to be something called disgrace, and when a politician did something wrong and was caught out, there was usually meant to be calamity, something was meant to follow. And now nothing follows. In the twenty-first century, getting caught out doing bad things doesn’t have the effect that it used to have. So, I wanted to write about that, the change in politics whereby it’s okay to do things and you have a fair chance of getting away with them on the likelihood that you resemble the people who vote for you. Sort of, ‘We are all human and we all make mistakes’ has become the twenty-first-century way of approaching politics. That seemed to be rather exciting and new thing to write about, because I don’t think anyone else has addressed it in fiction.”
Laurie’s ROADKILL character has a lot going on, but keeps a cool façade. What’s it like to play someone who tries to keep his true feelings from showing?
Laurie replies, “Well, that, I think, is always the challenge, to let an audience find something, rather than present it to them on a plate. I feel some sympathy for American politicians who are going through a television meat grinder on a daily basis, and at least at one time appearing in front of vast rallies where a more operatic style is called for. We are a smaller country in many, many ways, in many dimensions. We are a more restrained country in many ways. I think the fun for an actor is to allow the audience an opportunity to decipher things rather than simply presenting it to them in bold captions, which is, by the way, my instinct. I am doing it now. I am talking very too loudly and gesturing far too much, and I will probably lose my British passport for that because it is un-English. I am not supposed to do it.”
Having played the character of Gregory House over eight seasons, does Laurie find it easier or more difficult to play a character like Laurence over four episodes?
“I never felt it was my sole responsibility. It is something you do in concert with obviously David Hare, the writer and conceiver of the story, but also the director, Michael Keillor, who is an immensely refined and subtle thinker. And so, whenever I was inclined to stray into something perhaps too demonstrative, David and Michael were there to, you know, fire some volts through the dog collar and I would just get a slight twitch and I would calm down. But I think it may actually be in my nature anyways not to reveal too much too soon. I think it has become a sort of necessity nowadays, not just in the telling of a story, but in the selling of a story, that you have to declare to the audience what your story’s going to be. Sometimes in the form of a trailer, you have to say good guy, bad guy, traitor, existential threat, whatever it is. And each one gets three seconds, and you have to lay out your wares, so to speak, very quickly. It was both a challenge but also a luxury to have the four hours, the sort of two features’ worth in which to gradually reveal all of these characters. I think it is an amazing cast, and it was wonderful to watch all of them, under Michael’s direction and with David’s wonderful script, reveal themselves piece by piece, rather than coming in with a trombone announcing themselves from the start.
Does Laurie ever worry that new characters may remind people of Gregory House?
He responds, “There are some things I can’t do anything about. I am the same height as Gregory House, and I am a little bit older, but you know, not by much, so there are some constraints. There are going to be moments or expressions or certain inflections that will possibly cause someone to remember something. But every actor goes through that. That’s the nature of the thing. Personally, I feel like I have been incredibly lucky to play the variety of characters that I have been allowed to play, I think a broader set of opportunities than some actors, who were just cast in a heroic mold will only get to do that one thing, and some who are cast in a villainous mold will only get to do that one thing. I feel as if I have had the opportunity to play what is to me a wonderful range of characters, all of whom I like and enjoy. But that could be just the little bubble that I am now living in. Maybe I need to be shaken awake and told that I am just exactly the same in everything I do. That’s possibly true.
Does Laurie have to get into different mindsets for comedy and drama?
“I would say no. I would say it is all one thing, inasmuch as human beings are all one thing. Serious people can be funny, and comic people can be serious. There are great truths in comedy, and there are jokes, intended or otherwise, in great tragedy. In order to be simply believable, one must encompass both. If I see a character, if I see a story in which a character appears to have absolutely no semblance of a sense of humor, I am much less inclined to believe that character is real or thought through or felt or three-dimensional. Because people are funny. They are. Life is funny. It is also tragic, and people are serious and committed, but that doesn’t mean to say they are not capable of seeing the funny side of everything. We are all everything, to a degree. So, I think of it as one assignment. There are, I suppose, slight differences of style and tempo and the general tenor of the thing that you’re doing and how far can you push the envelope of believability, but generally speaking, I think of it as being all one thing.
Did Hare have particular real-life politician in mind when he was writing the character of Peter Laurence?
“No,” says Hare. “Peter Laurence is from a working-class background. He’s self-made. He used to be a furniture salesman. He’s charismatic. He’s highly intelligent. And I took it on the basis of hey, what if somebody came along who really was formidable and brilliant and embodied conservatism, and it is not, therefore, based on anyone we know. Britain, as you know, has been ruled for the last ten years by Old Britannians, who are people who come from a very privileged background, went to Oxford University. These are people who come from the elite. Peter Laurence doesn’t come from the elite, so no, he’s not based on anyone in real life.
Hare continues, “But beyond that, I wanted to write about freedom. The great idea of conservatism is freedom. This is meant to be the supreme virtue in life. I wanted to write about, if you really do believe that freedom is the most important thing for human beings, what are the conclusions of that? Where does it lead to in your private life? What is it like for your relationships with the people around you? Here is Peter, real, sincere, gifted, and way beyond the standard intelligence of a politician right off the top of the hat, and he truly believes in freedom. I wanted to follow that through four episodes and see where that took me. As I say, there’s been very little fiction. People wrote about Margaret Thatcher as a character because she was such a fascinating woman, and had such an extraordinary effect on this country [Great Britain]. But there’s been very, very little written about conservatism, which in my lifetime has been the dominant political philosophy by which the British have lived.
In terms of research, Hare adds, “I did talk to a few people at the top of the Conservative Party. It is really important that this is not a series that is where people are, in quotes, meant to be other people. Also, we are losing the idea of fiction at the moment. Everything is meant to be based on something. People watch SUCCESSION, and they say, ‘Is that meant to be Rupert Murdoch? Is that meant to be Elisabeth Murdoch? Is that meant to be So and So?’ Fiction is being taken to be a kind of code that is really a dramatized documentary, I think to its detriment. In other words, I am fighting for the right to write fiction.
“There are no references to Brexit in my series. There’s no reference to COVID-19, which happened immediately after my series. This is my right to write about a fictional world, but a world in which ideas, people and characters are all invented. And, you know, sometimes it feels as if the struggle to allow fiction now and to make room for fiction in a medium that is dominated, sometimes brilliantly [by fact-based drama]. Something like CHERNOBYL I think is completely wonderful, but there also has to be room on television for things that are, hey, made up.
When HOUSE M.D. ended its long run, did Laurie want to do more television, or something else?
Laurie says, “More by luck than design, I was given the extraordinary opportunity for a kind of sabbatical in the form of music. I made a record towards the end of HOUSE, and almost immediately I found myself off touring around the world, Russia and Mexico and Argentina and Poland and all the rest of it. So I had this wonderful nearly three-year complete escape from the whole idea of acting, and I must say it did occur to me that I was loving it so much that it’s something I would happily have stayed in and probably will return to, but that wasn’t something I planned. It just fell out that way, but I felt incredibly lucky to have that opportunity. It was probably very good for my mental health. Not that my mental health is much to write home about, but it could be a great deal worse.”
What does Laurie find fascinating about acting? What does he think draws actors to the profession in general?
“That’s a longer question than I can probably address in this the small window we have. I’m not completely sure, and even if I had an answer for you, I am not sure it would be the same answer that every other actor would give you. I shouldn’t speak for other actors. I have a fascination with behavior and why people behave the way they do, why they make choices they make, and storytelling is a way of exploring mine and also other people’s behavior. This is the stuff of life. I mean, I love trees and I love dogs and I love country walks and all the rest of it, but people are hard to beat for just sheer entertainment and interest. So, getting inside other characters, exploring why they do what they do, is to me an endlessly fascinating exploration.”
Does Laurie think that politicians are actors in some ways?
“I suppose,” Laurie responds, “since television became the predominant instrument by which you disseminate any idea about anything, whether you’re trying to sell Coca-Cola or a presidential candidate, I suppose yes, to a degree, politicians have to be, not necessarily actors, but at least aware of the theatrical element of what it is they trying to do. There are certain skills that they have to acquire.”
Is Peter Laurence an actor? What does Laurie think is at the core of the character?
“What’s interesting to me about Peter Laurence – and I think you can see this, but David obviously is quite right to say this is not based on anybody – I can see someone who is motivated by a picture of a future rather than the past. I think probably temperamentally I spend too much time looking backwards, regretting or wondering whether I did the right thing, or could I have done it better. At the end of every working day I spend my time analyzing and recriminating because of the mistakes I made that day, rather than making decisions about the following day. I was intrigued by a character who was able to always look forward, and look forward with a glad heart, to think that tomorrow can be better than yesterday if you approach it in the right frame of mind.
“If taken to an extreme degree,” Laurie continues, “of course, that is an element of psychopathy, and generally speaking, psychopaths have no sense of the past or things they have done for which they must be held to account. And the phrase that has become so popular in the past few years, “It’s time to move on,” “We must move on,” that’s popular with psychopaths. I’m sure Ted Bundy would like to move on. But every now and then a degree of reflection and self-examination is called for. It is a dimension of a moral life to look backwards, I think, and that what’s fascinating about this character, is that I suppose he has it, but he has it in a smaller degree than in most. Part of the story, of course, is in him coming to terms with something that did happen in his life which he cannot deny and will not deny and which he takes responsibility for and embraces, but for the most part he is someone who looks forward and finds the past a hindrance. Constant regret is just not in his nature. I can’t deny, I find that an exhilarating idea. It is not something I have myself, but I find it an exhilarating thing to play, and I hope the audience will find it an enjoyable thing to watch.”
Does Hare think the news has become stranger than anything he could invent as a writer?
Hare answers, “I think it is true that satire is having a very difficult time these days, because clearly the outrageous populism of the leaders in Brazil, say, or in your country [the U.S.] or in my country, they are beyond satire. In other words, as I said earlier, it would normally be expected that by committing certain crimes against convention, you would, as it were, be expelled from society. This is no longer the case. Clearly anyone who does outrageous things is now welcomed by society and is elevated to the very top of being a convention breaker, a rule breaker, an outsider, a revolutionary. You know, you can disguise all sorts of bad behavior now as someone radical. And the very word ‘radical,’ which used to suggest an affiliation or a sense of identity with the people who are suffering most in society, radical is now taken to mean, no, not giving a damn about anyone in society. The word has been moved to the other end of the spectrum. So yeah, it’s my job, it is everybody’s job to write about those changes that are going on in public discourse. But in terms of the characters, well, as Hugh says, there’s a funny penumbra between psychopath and radical now. Of course, that’s something that’s very exciting to write about.”
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