British Character Actors: The Canny Dope

A common archetype in British shows, mostly in sitcoms, is the canny dope.

The canny dope is guileless, simple, yet often quite profound with a deep reservoir of insightfulness. Although sometimes the butt of jokes, the canny dope--or underdog--is just as often the producer of them.

Three come to mind:

Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings in Poirot

Hastings is possibly the dopiness of the three--the clueless friend who makes his detective friend look clever simply by being nearby. Unlike Watson, Hastings' existence works less to convince the reader that the detective (Holmes) is brilliant and more to leave the reader pondering why he and the detective are friends at all.

This possibly explains why Christie replaced Hastings with a series of clever policemen after the first few books.

In the television series, Hastings is played by the gentlemanly Hugh Fraser who, like Angela Lansbury, always wears the right clothes in the right way. The reasons for the friendship are obvious. He is friendly, kindly, compassionate, sharp enough to ask good questions, skilled with cars, patient (far more patient than Poirot realizes), and purveyor of all things English. His use to Poirot is to represent and explain common  assumptions and ideas (the kinds of assumptions that English murderers depend on to perform their murders). Consequently, it is Hastings who will, sotto voce, correct Poirot's French-to-English idioms. (This ritual was decided by Fraser and Suchet when the Poirot series began.)

Paul Chapman as Stephen Johnson in As Time Goes By

Stephen Johnson is the husband of Penny, the criticizing sister-in-law of Judi Dench's character Jean. He is typically spoken of as a ditherer and Geoffrey Palmer's Lionel finds him quite exasperating.

He is not quite as awful as his badgering wife, being kindly ("Don't you look pretty?") and well-meaning, as when he plans the semi-disastrous surprise anniversary party. He is also surprisingly wise--as when he informs Jean and Lionel that although Penny says she wants to move to Spain, she will change her mind in a few weeks; he'll keep stumm and go along with her plans until she does. Chapman manages to portray Stephen as entirely consistent all the way from his wooliness to his sensitivity to his grounded common sense.

Emma Chambers as Alice in Vicar of Dibley

Alice is the verger to Dawn French's vicar. She eventually marries Hugo. She is quite extraordinarily obtuse and if Americanized would be the cliche of the hillbilly semi-moronic product of incest in some tiny Appalachian town.

Naturally, she is also impossibly sweet, and Hugo (played by the sexy and wonderful James Fleet) adores her. Not that her sweetness negates her tough side. Her Sigourney Weaver impression from Alien is perfect.

Most importantly, she is responsible for the hilarious "I can't believe it's not butter" speech (below), which, according to legend, she delivered in one go, no retakes, after Dawn French dared her to memorize the speech over a weekend.

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