Sunday 26 March 2017

How Hugh Laurie became the biggest star of US TV

From upper-class twit to grumpy doctor, he's come a long way, writes Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power

Starring Hugh Laurie and his peculiar stab at an American accent, House is surely the most unlikely TV phenomenon since Twin Peaks (which stopped being a phenomenon when everyone twigged it was being weird simply for the sake of it).

For starters, Laurie's character -- the eponymous Dr Gregory House -- is thoroughly unlikeable, an anti-hero par excellence. Grumpy and headstrong, he has all the charm of a traffic warden whose foot you've just reversed over.

This is a rather radical departure, as male TV doctors are typically dreamboats: see George Clooney's Dr Doug Ross from ER and Patrick Dempsey's Derek Shepherd from Grey's Anatomy.

Furthermore, unlike most medical dramas, House actually features a lot of, 'er, medicine.

Each week, House and his team are called on to investigate an obscure condition, the more grotesque the better. This is quite rare for hospital shows, in which the primary concern is often which members of staff are sleeping with each other and where the patients are usually glorified background props.

Some of the bizarre -- and true life -- conditions used as plot points on House include a brain tumour that causes the patient to lie habitually and the case of a CIA agent poisoning himself with Brazil nuts (he thinks he's the subject of a conspiracy).

"There seem to be no limits to the ways the human body can break down," enthused show creator David Shore, who has revealed that he modelled the main character not on any real-life doctors, but on Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes was a master crime solver. And yet he was also known to make mistakes and House certainly isn't above the occasional bad call.

One of House's goals, says Shaw, is to remind audiences that, for all their 'Master of the Universe' airs and graces, high-flying medics can mess up too.

"What House shows," Sanders says, "is that on the way to being right, we're often wrong. And that is something doctors have never been able to talk about."

However unlikely, the formula has proved remarkably successful. Aired in 66 countries, House was the most-watched TV programme in the world in 2008, with an estimated viewership of 88 million. In the United States it regularly pulls in more than 20 million per episode.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about House is that it has turned Hugh Laurie, best known in this part of the world for cornering the market in upper-class twits in Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, into one of the biggest stars on US TV.

Rumoured to be earning $400,000 an episode, Laurie has completely reinvented himself, portraying a character who couldn't be further removed from the nice-but-dim types he'd built his career upon in Britain.

Nobody, it would seem, has been more shocked by all of this than Laurie himself. After playing House for seven years, he still appears astonished to find himself living in LA and enjoying the same name recognition as Oprah Winfrey. Sometimes, he has confessed, he wonders if it isn't all a very strange dream.

"There are a lot of days when I feel as if I have been woken from a coma and told six years have gone by, and I have no awareness of it," he said in June. "Is Queen Elizabeth still on the throne? Do we still drive on the left? Do we still have pounds?"

On the other hand, he and his alter-ego do have some things in common. Beneath the gruff veneer, House is clearly of a tortured soul. Despite his background in comedy, the same might be said of Laurie, who has been seeing a therapist since he was in his 20s, has a history of antidepressant use and confesses to being often unable to enjoy his success.

"If I don't have a stone in my shoe, I'll put one in there," he said last year. "Perhaps my version of happiness consists of not being happy. That could be my comfort zone."

One thing that certainly doesn't agree with Laurie is hyper-fame. He confesses to being baffled anyone would wish to 'pap' him, was astonished to be mobbed in Spain last year and considered it beyond farcical that a French magazine should name him the world's most seductive man.

When a fan of House requested that he visit her dying mother to give her some comfort, he didn't know whether to laugh or weep.

"The woman wants to meet a fictional character, and that's an unanswerable request. It's so hard to know how to deal with it. You don't want to shatter anyone's illusions, but I'd feel so fraudulent. I might as well dress up as Jesus and do the rounds."

See House on 3e weekdays at midnight.

Irish Independent

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