When you were a child, what was your favorite television program?
Well, Dr. Who, then moving on to Mission Impossible. And in my psychedelic years, The Prisoner—probably the greatest television show ever made. I find it absolutely delicious. Self-indulgent, of course, and self-conscious, I suppose, at times, but done with such terrific élan.
Is self-consciousness is a virtue or a flaw in a TV show?
I waver on that question. Pauline Kael wrote a book once in which she described Cary Grant as the greatest film star, and the reason she gave was that he always looked aware of the fact that he was in a film. He was amused by his predicament: not the predicament of the character, but the predicament of Cary Grant in a film. And I could never decide whether that was a great thing, or whether actually James Stewart was the greater film star because he never gave that away.
What’s the difference between working for the BBC and working for an American network?
Quantity. This is a big country. Everything’s big here. The steaks are enormous and would feed nine people back in England, and the TV shows are bigger. The great delight for me is the quality of the scripts we get to do. I find it endlessly amazing, it staggers me to see what these guys are able to do every eight days. But the big drawback for them and for me is the quantity. It wears down writers and it wears down crew and it wears down actors. That’s the big difference. For the BBC—Fawlty Towers, one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, they did 12 shows, and that took them two years. That’s unimaginable over here. You guys haven’t even gotten warmed up by then.
What do you know now that you didn’t when the show started?
Right at this minute, absolutely nothing. I know there have been moments along the way when I’ve known things. The problem is I then forget them the next day. Because one of the problems about generating the quantity of stuff I have to do day in and day out, you have to develop a pretty capacious short-term memory, and I’m afraid one’s long-term memory suffers as a result. So I can remember great sheafs of dialogue for about twelve hours, and the next day it’s gone. So every interesting medical snippet or philosophical perception that strikes me on a particular day is gone 24 hours later. It’s actually affected my ability to read. I can’t read a novel now; I have to go back four pages to remind myself that the novel’s set in the 18th century, that Michelle is a woman, not a man, and it’s absolutely terrible, and I only advance by about a half-page a day. I may never finish a novel again.
When you meet people, do they expect you to be as withering as House?
I have had a bit of that, yes. They say they expect that, and apparently they rather look forward to it, but of course, you can tell straight away that if you did, they wouldn’t like it at all, because House is a character to be contained within a small television set. He would not be a pleasant proposition in real life. And luckily, that’s not a problem for me. I don’t share his social courage; I’m much too eager to please and much too timid to break free of social conventions the way he does.
What do you think is good and bad about American television?
Well, right now, I would say the drama on American television is of a phenomenally high standard. I think the time may come when people look back on this—I’m not saying that I’m contributing to it in any way, I’m just looking at the landscape—I think people will say this was a bit of a golden age, where three, four, five nights a week you can see things that are of an extremely high standard. Thought-provoking, well-performed, well-written: I would say, and this could be a great heresy, on an average night, if you took a chance between a TV drama that you didn’t know that well and a movie coming out that you didn’t know that well, you’d have a better chance on TV. You’d have a better chance of something thought-provoking and interesting on TV, or at least as good, anyway. So I think drama is incredibly strong. Sitcoms everyone is saying are going through the doldrums at the moment. That’ll change. People get tired of the form for a while, and they need a break. You need a rest, and then somebody will come back and do the conventional thing with the sofa and a couple of chairs and off we go again.
Is it more difficult to memorize swaths of medical dialogue?
Um, not really, no. I don’t find the medical stuff that hard. My big problem when it comes to the dialogue is maintaining the accent. I’ll have a day when I just can’t say the word “boy.” And I’ll see that today the word “boy” appears four times, and I’ll just know I’m going to have a horrible day. That’s my big problem, that’s a bigger problem than medical jargon. You just have to put it in there and hope that it sticks for long enough. But as I said, the next day it’s all gone. I couldn’t tell you a single thing. I can barely spell the word “headache.”
What are you good at that has nothing to do with acting?
That’s a tricky one. I’m so tempted just to make something up. I’m an absolute devil with watercolors, or I cook like an angel. I would say nothing. I’ve always felt that I’m a jack of all trades, really. I can turn my hand to most things and do them to a reasonable level, but excel at nothing.
Is that how you think of your acting ability?
It is, actually. I’ve tried several different things: writing and directing and playing musical instruments and so on, and I can probably play the piano better than Kenneth Branagh can, and I can act better than Dr. John can, but I’m always hitting them with my third strength. And yes, I have thought that about my acting, but I do what I can.
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a substantially shorter form) in Rolling Stone 1009 (September 21, 2006).