HIGH CLERE CASTLE, ENGLAND -- One is wayward, one is winsome. Laid end to end, they comprise 12 feet, 6 1/2 inches of comedic versatility.

Stephen Fry, the wayward one, and Hugh Laurie, the winsome one, are affably sharing their Marlboros and time with a stranger on the set of Granada Television's "Jeeves and Wooster" series, based on the books by P.G. Wodehouse. In Granada's recasting of what Fry calls "the sacred text," Laurie plays the perpetually addled Bertie Wooster, and Fry, his unflappable manservant, Jeeves.

Fry, a baby-faced giant in corduroys and workshirt, plays host, inquiring genially of the visitor: "And what is your brief?" Perhaps he was practicing for his debut as host of Masterpiece Theatre, beginning Sunday at 9, when PBS will begin the first of four "Jeeves and Wooster" tales.

On those evenings, Stephen Fry will do double duty, when he also takes over Alistair Cooke's spot introducing the shows -- what that gentleman once deprecatingly referred to as "performing the tasks of a headwaiter."

Though Cooke's replacement has not been publicly named, Fry seems a likely candidate, based on his cheerful assertion back in October that, "I'm going to be the Cookie Monster {a reference to the pipe-chomping 'Sesame Street' character} who's retiring or resigning or something."

The two are speaking in a trailer parked on the grounds behind this grand old country home less than two hours from London and just meters from the lunch crowd queuing at the Granada canteen.

Fry instructs the visitor: "You be the quarterback and we'll catch the ball." Then he leaps into high interview mode. "Now Hugh likes Cheerios with semi-skimmed milk and I like boiled oats with non-skimmed milk." Alarmed by a look of non-comprehension, he hastens to elaborate. "Boiled oats, porridge. It's a Scots, um, thing. Scots grow up on the stuff." He warms to his subject. "It's very, very nutritious. Very good for the colon. I like porridge." End of lesson.

"Stephen was a difficult child," Laurie says, considering his colleague. "Intelligent, precocious, wayward."

"Wayward, mmmm, an excellent word," Fry rumbles, nodding his head approvingly. He offers a couple of reasons for his waywardness: "Religion. Genes."

Sent off to boarding school at age 7 (Laurie didn't go until he was 13), Fry defends the honor of a much-pilloried institution. "Certainly the most neurotic people I know are the ones who didn't go to public {private} schools. Most people who go to public school seem to be much more at ease in the world; more poised, and much more confident. And that's what one wants one's children to be," says the man who hasn't any.

If Fry does prove to be Cooke's permanent replacement, the choice is a good one. Like his predecessor, the Cambridge-educated Fry is a man of many parts, especially for one of his relatively tender years (late 30s). As an actor, he has played generations of bombastic, bumbling Melchetts in the "Blackadder" series, a collaboration among friends, including Laurie, that takes a cockeyed, satiric view of British history. He has also played roles in drama, such as Simon Gray's "Common Pursuit," shown last month on PBS, and "Peter's Friends," a film produced by Kenneth Branagh that opened in the United States last week.

As a novelist, his first book, "Liar," published in 1991, was a British bestseller; as a comedy writer, he collaborated with Laurie on a winning sketch series called "A Bit of Fry and Laurie"; as a playwright, his first play, "Latin, or Tobacco and Boys," won the Fringe Award at Edinburgh and his revision of the book for the musical "Me and My Girl" was a West End and Broadway success; and as a fledgling screenwriter, he has a two-picture deal at Paramount. Of the latter, he will say nothing except that his ideas "are not particularly high concept," and therefore not explainable.

Laurie, 6-feet-2, fresh-faced and all kitted out in tweeds as Wooster, is almost as Renaissance a man as his companion, just less talkative. He is still shell-shocked from a recent four-hour, one-on-one interview with a reporter from British GQ from which he has taken away a significant lesson: "Say as little as possible."

Rolling those huge blue eyes that Bertie often employs to hilarious effect when he is flummoxed by events or pursued by unwanted fiancees, Laurie moans: "In four hours you can get in such a jam talking about things you really don't want to talk about. And I said some of the stupidest things. I wasn't thinking about what she would be thinking about what I said."

Hard on Fry's heels, Laurie is also writing a novel, but under an assumed name. In fact, he figures that since he plans to do it under an assumed name, he might as well say it's already done.

When the pair were first offered the parts of Jeeves and Wooster, Laurie says, "Actually, we nearly turned it down." He thought for a moment. "We sort of did turn it down, because we thought it was an impossible thing to achieve. Among a certain class of British life, it's a, a sacred ..."

"Hmm, a sacred text," Fry finishes.

Laurie continues: "Yes, and if you muck it up, you really are in such trouble.

"But then I read the scripts straight through at one sitting, which I don't normally do, since scripts are generally such dull things to read, and I just laughed. There was some really great stuff and so I rang up Stephen and said, 'Wait, don't, don't say no yet.'"

Fry picks up the narrative: "Part of the reason we thought we could say no is that the books are written by Bertie, as it were, in the first person. And he describes Jeeves, for instance, as, y'know, his feet don't touch the floor, he shimmers into rooms, he oozes out of rooms. He seems to flicker and then he isn't there. He coughs and it's like a sheep clearing its throat of a blade of grass on a distant hillside or something."

Fry laughs. "I've got real feet. I'm very physical."

Undeniably, and yet well into a fourth round of the series, Fry has managed to flicker and shimmer with a skill that even Jeeves' progenitor would approve. Laurie's Wooster is no less an accomplishment as anyone knows who has ever seen his peeled eyeball look of appalled concentration as he listens to a plan his Mensa-caliber manservant has hatched to keep him out of harm's way.

As Bertie has a propensity for getting in harm's way, so does the actor who portrays him have a bent for physically expressive comedy. In "Blackadder III," Laurie played another rubber-faced peanut-brain as the highly rouged, good-natured, good-time Prince of Wales.

Laurie can be charmingly addled in real time, too. An assistant director, poking her head in the door of the trailer, sings out, "Jeeves, five to 10." Puzzled, Fry asks: "She said five to 10? We're on at five minutes to 10 o'clock?" (It was early afternoon.) The AD says patiently, "Five to 10 minutes, on the set." "Oh, right," Laurie says, against a background of Fry's low-register chortles.

"I've got to go slip into my togs," Fry says and oozes, Jeeves-like, into a room at the back of the trailer. Donning Jeeves' working black in less time than it takes to shuck a half dozen oysters, Fry reappears, the corduroys and workshirt in a puddle on the floor.

Glancing at the transformed Fry, a trace of pathos etching his voice, Laurie says: "He gets to stay in the same clothes. I have to change clothes about eight times a day. The boiled shirt I had on this morning could have stopped a .38 {caliber bullet}. It really could."

Since their Cambridge days, where Fry and Laurie met in 1981, introduced by actress Emma Thompson -- "No, I never dated her," Fry says imperturbably; Laurie blushes -- the two seem to have been joined at the hip. They met because Laurie was looking for someone to help him write and perform in Cambridge's big end-of-the-year production, "Cambridge Footlights Revue."

"I mean, he's about a foot taller than anyone else and had a very deep voice and looks about 30 years older than everyone else," says Laurie. An indulgent smile flickers across Fry's face through the smoke of his cigarette.

Tall and deep-voiced, granted. But old-looking? With that baby face?

"Well, he's got a baby face now. He's got younger as he got older," Laurie says. "He'll be in short trousers in about 10 years' time."

But about that Emma question. "We, we were very good friends," Laurie says with that melting expression halfway between terror and exasperation with which Bertie often faces the wrathful Aunt Agatha.

Pressed for an explanation, he protests weakly: "Ah, well, I don't want to bandy names about. I, I don't feel I can say. She might be horrified and embarrassed by being linked with me." He throws a mute glance of desperate appeal to Fry.

Moving smoothly into the breach, Fry says helpfully in that voice that could lull a lion to sleep: "Oh, they went to the cinema once, that sort of thing."

Aside from dating Emma Thompson, since married to actor/director/producer Branagh, is there anything that the two of them don't do together? His smooth face aglow with innocence, Fry offers: "Ahh, Hugh has a family with two children that I have had nothing to do with." Pause. "So far as Hugh knows."

The two are often found at one another's houses in North London, especially when they are working on "A Bit of Fry and Laurie." "Even if we're not writing the same thing together, we can be in the same room writing separate things together so we can kind of pull out of the atmosphere of despair," Fry says.

And does Laurie's wife run from the house screaming when she sees bachelor Fry strolling up the garden path yet again? "No, no, no. She's very fond of him, fonder of him than I am, actually," says Laurie.

Now that's a tough sell.