No actor is more lovably trustworthy than Hugh Laurie. He’s Bertie Wooster, for heaven’s sake. He’s infallible medic Dr Gregory House. He’s dim-but-noble Lieutenant George in Blackadder.
Even when he’s being an international villain in John le Carre’s The Night Manager, you couldn’t imagine buying a bazooka from a nicer arms dealer.
Thus Hugh is an inspired choice to play corrupt government minister Peter Laurence in Sir David Hare’s four-part political drama Roadkill.
This is the Beeb, and Hare is an avowed middle-class socialist, so of course Laurence is a Conservative who is secretly planning to sell off the NHS.
We should be grateful that Sir David is so restrained – he probably believes Tory politicians eat roasted puppies served by slaves wearing garlands and loincloths at their private drinking clubs.
With any actor less likeable than Hugh, this story would be unbearably cynical.
With any actor less likeable than Hugh Laurie, this story would be unbearably cynical, writes Christopher Stevens as he reviews the pilot episode of the BBC’s political drama Roadkill
Everyone lies, everyone betrays each other. The Westminster plotters are venal, the journalists are cut-throats and the rest are trading secrets like street-corner drug dealers. Ruin for any marriage or career is just a phone call away.
Laurence himself spends the first episode lying in court to win a libel trial, sleeping with his mistress (we haven’t met his wife yet, because he never bothers to call her) and burying evidence of an unknown love child.
As part of the cover-up, he visits a women’s prison to negotiate with a potential blackmailer. When he hears later that riots have broken out at the jail, he mutters:
‘Let’s hope there are injuries. Better still, fatalities.’
Such pathological nastiness can never be forgivable, and it’s inevitable that Laurence will be destroyed.
This isn’t one of those political soap operas, like House Of Cards, where we love to see the villain rewarded for his wickedness. The minister is destined to be, in his own words, ‘roadkill’ – scraped off the tarmac and devoured with a garnish by his enemies.
But until his inevitable demise, we’ll watch and even sympathise, because Sir David expertly shows us the man’s charming facade as well as his cold, hard core.
Peter Laurence possesses the knack of making himself liked with a couple of words. He has the common touch.
When his ministerial car is restored to him following his court case, we guess how much it means to him, since he despises taxis. But it’s the chauffeur, not the limo, that he greets with a delighted cry, like an alcoholic spying a fridge full of Stella in the desert – ‘I’ve got Sydney back. Everything’s well with the world.’
Helen McCrory, pictured, is at her best playing PM Dawn Ellison as part Margaret Thatcher
That’s what is meant by ‘populism’: the ability to make people want to please you.
He could have slid silently into the back seat, luxuriating in the leather upholstery, and everyone would have hated him.
Instead, he recognises faces, remembers names. He even thanks the star-struck tourists who beg him to pose for a selfie in the streets. One clever sequence showed us exactly what the public love about
Laurence, as he fielded questions on his night-time talk radio slot.
In reality, Cabinet ministers don’t have radio shows – that’s a privilege reserved for maverick backbenchers and government rebels. But it isn’t too much of a stretch, and it gives us a chance to see the schmoozer in action, fending off compliments and skewering critics.
Charm won’t save him from his past. When Laurence learns he might have a child by a mother he doesn’t even remember, he isn’t surprised. He was young and rich in the Nineties, after all.
That airy attitude doesn’t help in the 2020s. ‘In your days sex was liberation,’ warns his assistant darkly. ‘Now it’s exploitation.’
His colleagues don’t trust him, because Laurence is a self-made man. The Prime Minister read his file like a woman scanning the list of poisonous side-effects from a new coronavirus wonder-drug, shuddering: ‘Retail… retail… property…’
It recalled the way that patrician politician Alan Clark dismissed another self-made Tory, Michael Heseltine, as ‘a man who has had to buy all his own furniture’.
Episode 2 of Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie (pictured) will air at 9pm next Sunday evening
Helen McCrory is at her best playing PM Dawn Ellison as part Margaret Thatcher, part Peaky Blinder. She takes a sadistic pleasure in dangling the Foreign Secretary’s job in front of Laurence’s nose, then packing him off to the Ministry of Justice.
‘Oh, that was good fun,’ she tells her silent assistant Julia (Olivia Vinall), who hover s beside her like a witch’s familiar.
Julia is having a breathless affair with Laurence’s fixer-in-chief, Duncan – played by Iain De Caestecker, who is making Sunday nights on BBC1 his own, after four weeks as Tom Hollander’s younger self in the family drama, Us.
Naturally, Julia and Duncan intend to squish Laurence flatter than a frog run over by a Range Rover.
Perhaps they’re scheming to do the same to the Prime Minister too. With those two in cahoots, no one stands as much chance as a hedgehog crossing Spaghetti Junction.