Actor punches up that old PI formula
IT’S a truism that great actors can transform leaden lines into poetry, imbue hackneyed characters with believable, individual life and make even the most transparent, fatuous plot seem Machiavellian in its intricacy. It has saved television from its innate inclination towards the dumb end of town, where the formula rules and big ratings are achieved.
Consider, for instance, Gregory House, the misanthropic, painracked, Percodan-gobbling lead character of House .
He succeeds only because he is played by Hugh Laurie, who makes an enthralling struggle out of his character’s weekly and only fitfully successful efforts to reconcile his professional obligations as a diagnostician with his loathing for most of the people he meets, and that includes his patients.
Laurie’s triumph is to make us care about House and hope that he can find some reason to love us. He doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop us hoping. And watching.
Without Laurie, House would never have gone to air. In every other respect, though, it is another formulaic hospital show, albeit with a penchant for the most arcane and gruesome diseases and syndromes.
Ray Winstone, who plays the title role in Vincent , a slick British private eye series, proved he had the same kind of right stuff when, in vintage scene-stealing form, he came up against Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast . Winstone held his own, courtesy of his ‘‘ hey, let’s chill’’ restraint that brilliantly caught the essence of his character, a retired cockney gangster living in Spain, visited by Kingsley’s meticulous and deadly character with
The right stuff: Ray Winstone in a plan for one last big job. He proves it yet again in Vincent, which is standard fare for the genre, updated to encompass the opportunities presented by modern technology: his office is no dusty, rundown affair with a half-empty bottle of bourbon on the desk, inhabited by a glum PI examining a patch of sunlight on his ankle as he waits for a blonde to walk through the door.
It may be genre TV, but Winstone makes it memorable.
Tonight sees Vincent working for free to assist a priest whose community centre is under siege from a gang of young punks. The centre is in one of those ubiquitous memorials to failed urban dreams, a crowded, crime-festering high-rise housing estate. For me the high point is when Vincent tries to interest one of the hoons in taking a few hits at the punching bag. He even gives it a few whacks, just to let them know how to do it and, of course, to demonstrate to them that he’s handy with his fists in case they want to try it on. His puzzled disappointment when they turn him down is a neat masterclass in how to underplay a scene.