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Q&A WITH STEPHEN FRY & HUGH LAURIE : From Cambridge Cutups to 'Jeeves & Wooster' Stars

January 14, 1993|CHRIS WILLMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The term "Renaissance man" gets tossed around too casually to say often without choking, but there are still Brits of accomplishment who can try it on--and it seems a good fit for Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, who separately and together are men of tremendously versatile comedic letters.

In America as well as on their native shores, Fry and Laurie are best known for their starring roles in the often hilariously silly "Jeeves & Wooster," a TV adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's dryly slapstick '30s tales featuring a zesty young aristocrat and his all-knowing manservant. Some of the segments done for British TV air here as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre," with the last scheduled new episode Sunday night on KCET and Tuesday night on KOCE.

Both actors can also be seen in the current comedy "Peter's Friends," in which they co-star with their old Cambridge cohort Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, who also directed .

In England, they first came to mutual prominence with their irregular self-penned sketch series for the BBC, "A Bit of Fry and Laurie," which occasionally airs on cable's Bravo channel.

Individually they've made names for themselves as writers: Fry's acclaimed first novel, "The Liar," went to the top of the British bestseller charts . He wrote the book for the Broadway musical "Me and My Girl . " And he's currently writing a screenplay set in America for Paramount. Laurie, meanwhile, has written a script of "Shadowlands" that Sir Richard Attenborough is set to direct.

Amazingly, Fry and Laurie hold court with the same sort of motor-mouthed erudition as they do in the warp-speed "Jeeves & Wooster." "As soon as you're done with us, we won't say another word for the rest of the day," Fry mockingly promised, a most unnecessary pledge.

Question: Initially you were reluctant to play Jeeves and Wooster for TV because the original stories are considered "sacred text" in England. But once you did start into it, did the rhythm of the series--which basically seems to be as fast as possible--immediately suggest itself? Or did it take a while to find the right tempo?

Fry: We watched the dailies, and from the first moment we were saying to ourselves "It's got to speed up." We got the clapper loader on the set to write the word PACE on the back of his clapboard, so that it would remind us at the beginning of every shot . . .

Laurie: . . . Because of the language. Of course Jeeves and Wooster in the books are fabulous characters, but they're characters in a fairly superficial sense. The real star of the thing is the language, and the beauty of it is the way the language just sort of skates , almost as if it were verse. You can't afford to take too much time about naturalism, really. The sentences are so beautifully constructed you want to hear them ping through in one go, without someone breaking it and doing a naturalistic "um" and an "er" and staring at the ceiling.

Q: That's part of what makes the lines so funny, that they're tossed off in the most casual and rapid-fire blase manner, not slowing or straining to point out the pithiness.

Fry: We're very conscious of trying to be fast, because one of the problems with most costume things is how immensely slow they've become . . .

Laurie: . . . My theory is that it's because in those (older) days the actors were wearing more or less contemporary clothes, and that if you put actors in period clothes now, they talk slower maybe because they feel less comfortable and more awkward. You put modern women in big hats and fur coats and broaches and gloves and handbags and all this gear, and therefore they feel more self-conscious and more obliged to give a stately sort of reading.

Fry: Whereas with comedy of this kind, one thinks of (recapturing the pacing of) those great movies of the '30s and '40s, the Capras and the Preston Sturgeses and the speed of Cary Grant going rat-a-tat-tat. . . . A '30s screenplay would probably be twice as many pages as a '90s screenplay. They just go at it at a heck of a lick.

Q: Is it safe to assume that the British are pretty depressed about their film industry, or the current lack thereof?

Laurie: People in the film business are immensely depressed. But the British people generally I don't think miss it. I'm afraid to say it's got to the point now where English audiences, when they go to see a film, expect it to be American. If they go and see an English film, they treat it like a foreign-language film. It's their own language, but they treat it like it ought to have subtitles. . . . But the British do rejoice in period things.

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