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precarious since 1997 | by maryann johanson

Brits on American TV (and DVD): Hugh Laurie, Dominic Monaghan, Christopher Eccleston

The Mini British Invasion on TV… and DVD

It’s beyond ridiculous, I know, but I get a little thrill of happiness for Hugh Laurie when I see his face on the cover of, say, TV Guide at the supermarket checkout counter, because I’ve been a fan of his for years and I’m really delighted that he’s suddenly having so much success with Fox’s Tuesday-night smash hit House.

A fan of his for years? But didn’t he come out of nowhere to land on House? No way. He’s starred in some of the best stuff to come out of British TV in the last 20 years: he was wildly hilarious as Mad King George in 1987’s Blackadder the Third (now available on DVD); and the highbrow sketch-comedy series A Bit of Fry & Laurie, which ran intermittently between 1989 and 1995, may be the best example of the genre ever, on either side of the Atlantic. (It’s coming to DVD in August, no doubt to cash in on Laurie’s new recognizability.)
Wait, Laurie is British? You bet. House’s educated New Jersey accent aside, Laurie hails from the other side of the pond. (There’s also nothing wrong with Laurie’s leg, despite the fact that House hobbles around his Trenton hospital on a bum gam, the constant pain from which contributes to his Vicodin addiction and unending crankiness.) Not that there haven’t always been non Americans showing up on American TV — sometimes even using their own non-American accents, like Laurie’s House costar Jesse Spencer, who’s Australian-ness is the regular butt of House’s meanspirited humor — but Laurie is the most prominent at the moment, starring in an immensely popular show and garnering, for his efforts, a well-deserved Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for his portrayal of the brilliant (natch) doctor with absolutely no bedside manner whatsoever.

The really astonishing thing about House for longtime Laurie fans is that he’s so fantastic in such an intensely dramatic role, because comedy has been his forte before. If you’re loving House and want to see him at the other end of the acting spectrum, you must check out Jeeves and Wooster, the UK network ITV’s series that ran from 1990 to 1993 (all four seasons are available on DVD). Based on P.G. Wodehouse’s satirical stories about upper-class twits and the butlers who save their asses on a regular basis, Jeeves and Wooster is the kind of comedic showcase actors dream of, and Laurie is spectacular as Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, a sophisticated clown who just about recognizes his own limitations in the brain department and so readily accedes to the quick sharpness of his butler, Jeeves (played by his Fry & Laurie costar and partner in comedic crime Stephen Fry, now appearing in V for Vendetta). The 1920s London settings are beautifully depicted via the stunning production design and costuming, and Laurie gets ample opportunity to display his musical talents, too, as a pianist and singer. It’s an unqualified can’t-miss for Laurie fans.

And there are other Brits showing up on the American tube at the moment with roots in British TV that you won’t want to skip. Dominic Monaghan, for instance, is currently appearing on Lost as almost-has-been rock star Charlie Pace, of the band Driveshaft, but before Lost and before his turn as Merry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was Geoffrey Shawcross on Heddy Wainthropp Investigates, which ran from 1996 to 1998 on the BBC and later on PBS’s Mystery! (It’s available on DVD.) Definitely your grandmother’s detective show, Heddy (played by Patricia Routledge, also known to Britcom fans as Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances) makes Angela Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher look positively hardcore — the motto of Heddy’s small-town detective agency is “no sex scandals, no divorce, no drug-running, and no industrial espionage” — but there’s a real sweetness in her relationship with Geoffrey, a teenage shoplifter she takes under her wing and grooms as her investigating partner. Monaghan fans will delight in how his Geoffrey grows up onscreen, maturing from a dorky, pimply teen who worries that girls make fun of him into a confident young man with a car — the acquisition of wheels is a recurring motif through the last season — and a nice girlfriend. “Flippin’ ’eck” is about as strong as the language gets, which is just fine. (If you’re strictly a Monaghan fan, skip the 1990 British TV Heddy flick Missing Persons, which served as a pilot for the series. Monaghan’s not in it — the role he’d later play is filled by another actor, even if Netflix and Amazon say otherwise.)

Way at the other end of the true-crime continuum, though, is Cracker, which costars Christopher Eccleston, currently appearing as the Doctor in the reinvigorated Doctor Who airing — and kicking ratings ass — on the Sci-Fi Channel. Certainly, there can be little confusion as to Eccleston’s origin — his time-traveling Time Lord on the BBC series is as British as they come, at least regarding accent (humor is mined from the fact that he’s an alien who sounds “northern”; Eccleston hails from Lancashire and sports a decidedly not-posh, un-Royal Shakespeare Company British inflection, the “southern” English accent that most Americans would be familiar with). Casual fans may know him, possibly, as Nicole Kidman’s ghost husband in one scene in The Others or as the half-crazed army major in 2002’s 28 Days Later, but what made him hugely famous in Britain was his role as Detective Chief Inspector David Bilborough on Cracker (his character appeared in episodes in 1993 and 1994, and they’re available on DVD; avoid avoid avoid the dreadful American adaptation starring Robert Pastorelli). The granddaddy of all of today’s crime TV — British or American, from CSI to Law and Order: Criminal IntentCracker is about an alcoholic, hard-gambling psychologist, played by Robbie Coltrane, who works with the Manchester police to solve the toughest, most violent crimes. Visceral and cinematic — the first story is directed by innovative filmmaker Michael Winterbottom — it’s still way ahead of its time today, and Eccleston’s young senior police officer contends with the new innovations of women on the force and using the media to help solve crimes with a piercing intensity. Don’t miss the three-episode story “To Be a Somebody,” in which Eccleston earns himself a place in television history with one of the most passionate and powerful exits from a TV series ever.

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