Hugh can sing splendidly, and play any musical instrument you throw at him, the son of a son of a son of a son of son of a bitch.
Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot (1997).
(James) Hugh Calum Laurie, OBE, is one of those people whose manifold accomplishments would otherwise constitute a super-storm of insufferability if he wasn’t so very diffident and self-deprecating. Indeed, Laurie has always seemed both apprehensive and rather startled by his escalating fame, plagued by pessimism, abashed and flustered in endearingly equal measure.
He has often cited his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing as a factor in his inability to trust or necessarily enjoy his success, “Ever since I was a boy, I never was someone who was at ease with happiness. Too often I embrace introspection and self-doubt. I wish I could embrace the good things”.
Despite his misgivings, in recent years Laurie has been both the highest paid actor in a dramatic series, and the world’s most watched leading man on television, tallying 81.8 million viewers in sixty-six countries, according to the 2011 Guinness Book of Records. As one of the few men living whose face is actually improved by stubble, American TV Guide magazine anointed Laurie as one of ‘TV’s Sexiest Men’ in 2005, much to his dismay. “What I am – and I’m sure everybody knows this – is a profoundly unsexy person playing a sexy character. I’m actually crap in bed”, he moped. Nonetheless, he went on to serve as a L’Oréal brand ambassador in 2011, a decision that seemed rather incongruous considering his deep ambivalence towards his own celebrity. “They call you up and say, ‘do you want to do this thing?’ I say, ‘no, you’re out of your mind.’ Then they say a sum of money, and it’s huge. I mean, it’s verging on the wicked, really”, Laurie explained. “But for that money I could build a school in Sierra Leone. Once that thought enters your head, you cannot turn away from it. Because if you do, what you’re really saying is that my pose, the way I present myself, is more important than kids getting an education in Sierra Leone. Who could do that?” (Laurie donated his modelling fee to a fund administered by Comic Relief. Because he’s worth it, duh).
Laurie met his frequent collaborator Stephen Fry at Cambridge University where they were both members of the renowned Footlights Club (est. 1883). Laurie would serve as President (1980-81) with Emma Thompson as Vice-President, “A tall young man with big blue eyes, triangular flush marks on his cheeks and an apologetic presence that was at once appallingly funny and quite inexplicably magnetic”, Fry remembers. Laurie and Fry co-wrote much of the material for the 1981 Footlights revue The Cellar Tapes, which won the inaugural Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Both starred in the iconic BBC series Blackadder, Laurie initially appearing as ‘Prince Ludwig’ and ‘Simon Partridge’ in Blackadder II (1986). It was his stupendously arch and grotesque interpretation of George, the Prince Regent (later George IV, 1762-1830), in Blackadder the Third (1987), followed by the gormless ‘Lt. Hon. George Colthurst St. Barleigh’ in Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), that saw him rather corner the market on upper-class twits, buffoons and foppish dandies. “I think I’ve always felt a strong affinity with stupidity. I simply find it easy to play stupid people. That can only be because I am myself stupid and I am baffled by the world. I find the world incomprehensible and can’t make sense of it”, Laurie has declared. “My most common, most predominant emotion is one of bafflement and that’s what comes out in that kind of character. Just playing the fool…I actually feel stupider and less experienced with every year that goes by”.
The duo enjoyed great popularity in the adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster (1990-93), and A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-95). They were co-stars in the films Peter’s Friends (1992) and the lumpen Spice Girls vehicle Spice World (1997). As a supporting actor, Laurie was a compelling presence in films such as Sense and Sensibility (1995), 101 Dalmatians (1996), Cousin Bette, The Man In the Iron Mask (both 1998), Flight of the Phoenix (2004) and Street Kings (2008). More observant viewers might have spotted him in various music videos over the years; as a government scientist involved in a military research project that goes awry in Kate Bush’s Experiment IV (1986), and reprising his ‘Prince George’ persona in Annie Lennox’s Regency-themed clip for Walking On Broken Glass (1992). He completed his début novel in 1996, a spy spoof called The Gun Seller, which follows the (mis) adventures of Thomas Lang, a whisky-swilling retired Scots Guards officer. It achieved considerable success at the time, and proved a sensation in France when it was translated and published in 2009 as Tout est sous contrôle (Everything’s Under Control).
Best known in America for the Stuart Little films (1999, 2002) at that stage, it was Laurie’s career-defining tour de force role as the drug addled, irascible, truculent, emotionally damaged and physically crippled diagnostician Dr. Gregory House in House, M.D (2004-12) which turned him into an unlikely global star. Revealing his tremendous range and versatility, Laurie embodied House’s sarcasm and eviscerating wit, tactlessness and lack of empathy, puerile behaviour, neediness and refusal to abide by social norms in a manner that saw the damaged anti-hero embraced by audiences worldwide. Outrageous, curmudgeonly, embittered and with a pronounced contempt for authority, House is at odds with his colleagues, and disdains his patients (beyond their intriguing afflictions). Although his ‘bedside manner’ merely extends to snark-with-a-cane, Laurie imbued House with such vulnerability and pathos that he never loses our sympathy, even when he’s being a complete prick (which is often, thankfully).
Envisaged as a loose reinterpretation of the Sherlock Holmes stories, House’s misanthropic mantra of “Everybody Lies” redefined the ‘procedural’ medical genre show, typified by the melodrama of Chicago Hope and the scoop-and-run crises of ER. In focusing on the intellectual meanderings of a thoroughly dysfunctional but ultimately brilliant doctor, House gave the television pantheon one of its more defiantly original, seductive and enigmatic characters. “One of the interesting things about doing House is that an audience of Americans who might, as we suppose, turn towards the sentimental, have actually embraced someone so starkly and brutally cynical”, Laurie mused. The series saw him showered with industry plaudits including back-to-back Television Critics Association (TCA) Awards (2005-06), Satellite Awards (2005-06), and Golden Globe Awards (2006-07). He also collected two Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards (2007, 2009), although his seven Primetime Emmy Award nominations failed to garner a win. Courtesy of a smitten American public, Laurie picked up four People’s Choice Awards (2009-11) and a Teen Choice Award (2007), which some would argue is more relevant … like, totally.
As the series progressed, the character of House adopted more of Laurie’s personal traits, from his motorcycle riding (Triumph Bonneville 790) to his pronounced musical abilities (piano, guitar). For audiences familiar with Laurie’s British television work, his periodic ivory tinkling came as little surprise. Laurie took piano lessons from the age of six with a certain Mrs. Hare, but only lasted three months, “She was a nice woman, probably, but in my childhood memory I have turned her into a sadistic bruiser who prodded me across the hot coals of do-re-mi … I think I tended to favour the piano over the guitar because it stays in one place, which is what I like to do. Guitars appeal to the footloose, the restless. I like sitting a lot”. Formal tutelage having failed, Laurie is largely self-taught, “It was actually quite a solitary thing for me, but I was rather a solitary child”, he recounts. “The piano was a place I got lost in and I would just play this for hours and hours. I just couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, and how wonderful it made me feel”.
Laurie recalls that his musical epiphany came sometime around 1971 when he was in a car with his elder brother Charles, “A song came on the radio- I’m pretty sure it was “I Can’t Quit You Baby” by Willie Dixon- and my whole life changed … Growing up on the front line in Berkshire I had no idea where blues music came from, I just knew that I didn’t want to live without it. When I first heard that sort of wailing blue note it was like a door opening onto this magical kingdom. I hear it as music of great joy, and passion, and love, and it’s funny a lot of the time. Of course it has pain and heartbreak in it too. In fact I think of all human life, all human life is in it”.
Laurie had previously been active in comedian Lenny Henry’s blues band Poor White Trash and the Little Big Horns which began in 1995 when Henry got drunk and spent two hours singing his favourite soul songs at Ben Elton’s wedding. The group later played events such as the Edinburgh Festival and Comic Relief, and featured an array of guest artists from Massive Attack (the instrumental portions of their 1998 song “Teardrop” became the theme music on House), Level 42, and The Spice Girls. House welcomed its fair share of guest stars from the music firmament during its run, including Academy Award winner Joel Grey, Dave Matthews, hip-hop artists LL Cool J (James Todd Smith) and Mos Def (Dante Terrell Smith), and Meat Loaf (Marvin Lee Aday), on whose album Hang Cool Teddy Bear (2010) Laurie played. Following an appearance in Season 2 of House, actor Greg Grunberg drafted Laurie into his project, Band From TV. The group, comprised of an array of television actors, started performing in 2006 to benefit various charitable organisations (Laurie’s is Save The Children), and released an album Hoggin’ All the Covers in 2008.
Despite his burgeoning music profile, when Warner Brothers approached Laurie with the idea of releasing an album, he was understandably concerned about the chequered history of the actor-as-musician. “I’ve broken a cardinal rule of art, music, and career paths: actors are supposed to act, and musicians are supposed to music. That’s how it works. You don’t buy fish from a dentist, or ask a plumber for financial advice, so why listen to an actor’s music?”, he reasoned. The transition from gifted dabbler to committed recording artist would inevitably be perceived in some quarters as the vanity project of a dilettante. “I know there are going to be some people who say that a middle-class, middle-aged, balding Englishman has got no business having anything to do with the blues. And I understand that argument, but at the same time I would say fuck-off”, Laurie countered. “I don’t mean to say it’s not a real argument, of course it is, but what is one supposed to do about it? How do you force people into the corrals of music they are ‘authorised’ to like? Even if you could make all white children like Chopin, and all black children like Robert Johnson, why would you?”
The somewhat defensive title, Let Them Talk (2011), may have bristled, but Laurie’s fears of widespread scepticism did not transpire. Bolstered by contributions from Sir Tom Jones, influential R&B figure Allen Toussaint, the ‘Soul Queen of New Orleans’ Irma Thomas, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John (Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr), the sincerity and conviction of the endeavour banished any preconceptions, and went on to garner widespread critical and commercial acclaim. The album reached the top of the American Blues chart, #16 on the Billboard album chart, went Platinum in Argentina, France and Poland, and Gold in the UK. “I have a sort of resistance to treating any of this music as if it belongs in a museum, I don’t feel that sort of museum reverence for it, but at the same time I just feel love for it, I can’t help that. It’s not an intellectual thing, I’m just opening a door on what I do and love when I’m not doing my acting”, Laurie remarked.
The love continued with the sophomore effort Didn’t It Rain (2013), where Laurie’s musical meandering along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, pauses to dally with a spot of tango in “Kiss of Fire” derived from the Argentine “El Choclo (The Corn Cob)”, and delivers a remarkable rendition of Bobby Sharp’s “Unchain My Heart” to happily banish all memories of Joe Cocker. Working on the assumption that you are judged by the company you keep, Laurie’s musical stock is certainly high if his most recent guest collaborator is anything to go by. “Word came back that Taj Mahal [Henry Saint Clair Fredericks] would be interested in joining us in the studio, if we could find the right song. That ‘if’ seemed to rise up out of the sands of the desert until it obscured the sun. In the end, we plumped for ‘Vicksburg Blues’ and, to our relief and delight, Taj declared it to be a favourite of his”, he notes.
The current Australian tour marks Laurie’s first visit since the three months he spent here in 1981 with The Footlights revue. He brings with him the formidable and varied talents of the Copper Bottom Band: Jay Bellerose (drums, percussion), Kevin Breit (guitars), Vincent Henry (saxophones, clarinets), Greg Leisz (guitars), Robby Marshall (saxophones, clarinets), David Piltch (electric bass), Patrick Warren (accordion, organ), with Elizabeth Lea (trombone) and Larry Goldings (Hammond B3 organ). Laurie is ably supported by featured vocalists ‘Sista’ Jean McClain (aka. Pepper MaShay) and Gaby Moreno, who won a Latin Grammy Award as Best New Artist last year. With his mooch engaged and a glass in hand, Laurie disported his lanky, elongated frame (a reported 189 cm) across the stage to the strains of “Iko Iko (Jock-A-Mo)”, the much-disputed ditty full of incomprehensible Creole patois. (Given his admiration for Dr. John, we can infer Laurie is following the version on his album, Dr. John’s Gumbo (1972), which credits James ‘Sugar Boy’ Crawford).
Laurie is certainly more practised and at ease with inter-song patter than many more experienced performers, segueing into an audience-participation version of the Shirley & Lee song “Let the Good Times Roll” (1956). Far from relying solely on either album, Laurie pulled out a host of other standards including Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” (1953) popularised by Elvis Presley, “Junco Partner” first recorded by James Waynes in 1951, (Irving) Lee Dorsey’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman” (1965), and a ‘bromance’ acoustic rendition of “Lazy River” (1930) with his hombres. Laurie’s inclusion of fellow Brit Jon Cleary’s “I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get the Blues)” was one of the few concessions to a musician “still alive”, and an acknowledgement of another ‘outsider’ who has now been accepted into the blues fraternity as one of the finest exponents of the New Orleans funk style.
The show seems very much a ‘team effort’, with Laurie delighting in the talents of his band members, and often deferring to them to the extent of forgetting that he is supposed to be the headliner (a shame). The set provided many opportunities for the ladies to shine on tracks such as ‘Sister’ Rosetta Tharpe’s “My Journey to the Sky”, ‘Professor’ Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas’ “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”, and Ray Charles’ “What Kind of Man Are You?” (originally performed with his then inamorata Mary Ann Fisher). Taking some time out mid-performance for a ‘whisky hydration’, complete with anodyne ‘elevator’ backing track, Laurie informed the audience that they try this at every venue to see how long it will be tolerated (Switzerland apparently wins at forty-five minutes and two bottles).
Unlike many international acts, Laurie was mindful of the kill-joy restrictions governing most Australian concerts, “I know there are signs saying you can’t stand, can’t move, can’t dance, can’t breathe … fuck them!”, he advised. ‘Sista’ Jean exhorted a willing audience to rise to their feet throughout the evening, but the crowd needed no prompting for the rip-roaring version of Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell”, which closed the show. “I have resolved to forge on, deeper into the forest of American music that has enchanted me since I was a small boy. And the further I go, the more bewitched I become- both by the songs, and by the people I have been lucky enough to play them with”, Laurie admitted. He departed with many fellow travellers looking forward to sharing his next musical journey.
Hugh Laurie’s Australian tour continues to 5 May, 2014.
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.