Hugh Laurie. Some thoughts on the cult of celebrity.

Hugh Laurie

I heard the click from somewhere behind me, followed by Hugh Laurie suddenly looking a bit pale and sick, “Oh god, don’t open the door! Don’t open the door!”

He looked at me, I turned toward the source of the click and realised that one of the theatre staff had opened the stage door to the street.

“Please don’t open the door,” he whispered, looking past me at the door, then back at me.

Hugh Laurie is a tall man and therefore perhaps looks more like a startled deer than a rabbit in the headlights.

Realising that what Laurie desperately did not want just at that moment was to face a few dozen post-show stage door fans, I took a small step to my right to block the view from the fans in the street to the actor.

He looked at me quizzically.

“Well, I’m broad enough!”, I smiled confidently.

And in that moment, Hugh Laurie coughed a small laugh at my little offer to be his human shield, relaxed a few inches, grinned and said, “Not quite!”

Another click, and the theatre’s stage door was closed.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Hugh Laurie – actor, comedian, writer, and now blues musician (although he’s been musical forever). I wonder just how normal your life can be when you’ve been working in the public eye for most of your life. He’s most certainly not unfriendly!

When you’ve created some of the most-loved television comedy series with your best friends from your university days.

When at one point you’ve been the highest-paid person on television earning a rumoured $400,000 per episode … I imagine that changes your life a bit.

Earlier in the week I’d had the opportunity to interview Sir Tony Robinson who was visiting the city as part of a forthcoming television series. Tony Robinson was one of that group of early-career friends who, with Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson and Stephen Fry, found early fame in the BBC sitcom, Blackadder.

If personal knowledge of these careers escapes you, a quick online search will reveal a rich tapestry of some of the finest, funniest, and most successful work in television, film and theatre to come out of Britain over the last 35 years. Their friendships have been one common thread; I suspect another is incredible hard work.

I’ve been fortunate enough to interview Tony Robinson on one of his previous visits to the city. He’s warm, funny, and even if he is telling you a story he’s told one hundred times before – it still sounds as if he’s enjoying sharing a few minutes with you.

He arrived late for the interview as a long day of filming had run over time, leaving him arriving at the radio station around 5pm, ready for another quick chat. I know he’s already been filming for weeks and ask if he’s tired?

“This is the seventh town that we’ve been to, so we’re getting a little bit knackered. Maybe just a little. We’ve been to Launceston, working our way north, over to Auckland and Dunedin, up to Darwin – covering a huge amount of ground! I’ve been filming since 7.45am.”

He also hadn’t had anything to eat, as became apparent when I offered him a lift back to his hotel and he jumped in to the front seat of my car and promptly raided a shopping bag for a snack. He was obviously tired but never complained, never grizzled.

Tony Robinson

I’ve worked in music, entertainment and radio all my life. I’ve met and worked with some of the biggest names in Australian and international entertainment, and over the years some of them have become good friends. I’ve done thousands of interviews, and I’ve heard people laugh, I’ve heard them cry.

Reality check: Sir Tony Robinson is sitting in my car, feeding me and my two sons rice crackers. I am actually more surprised that there was no-one accompanying him than I was finding myself being hand-fed by the man known to at least a generation as ‘Baldrick’. (My kids, however, think of him as an archaeologist thanks to years of watching Time Team.)

Perhaps it’s my status as ‘Mum’ but I was concerned that we get Sir Tony to his hotel so he could have a warm shower, something to eat, and get his pyjamas on. (Probably pyjamas with puppies on them.)

The day after recording the interview with Tony Robinson, I was offered a rare interview with Hugh Laurie. This was his first trip to Australia for over 30 years – the 1981 visit included Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson.

[You can hear my full interview with Hugh Laurie here.]

Whilst I enjoy the work that Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, et al, have done over the years, I wouldn’t describe myself as a dedicated fan; I like their stuff, always happy to see it, that’s about as complex as it gets. I was fairly dedicated to the first series of House but dropped in and out over the following seven seasons. Having small children will do that to you.

Thanks to a kind and generous regular guest on my radio program, I’ve been exposed to some of the most wonderful blues and jazz music to come out of New Orleans. It is music with a rich and sometimes dark history of storytelling, based perhaps in poverty and slavery, but shared from person-to-person and family-to-family over more than a century and infused with love and joy and celebration. Even when there was nothing much to celebrate.

Hugh Laurie was visiting the city on his first live tour as a blues musician, enjoying the release of his second album and testing the waters to see just how a huge international fan-base would respond to his rather stark career change.

Actors becoming singers is a well-trod path, and not usually terribly well-received. Only a few have managed to re-invent themselves as a true musician, many more have endured ridicule and sacrificed both careers being seen as indulgent and selfish.

A life-long love of blues music would seem to have ensured a solid foundation for Hugh Laurie’s second career – he’s a very good musician. But will anybody buy it? Will they come?

“I’ve had this amazing opportunity to re-immerse myself in the music that I loved when I was very young, and I’ve seized it with both hands because this is the greatest adventure of my life. It’s the greatest thrill and also honour to be able to present these songs that I’ve loved all my life to audiences around the world.”

To state that this new career as a working bluesman is the ‘greatest adventure of my life’ is quite a statement given that Hugh Laurie’s career to date has seen him garlanded with the world’s most prestigious awards and undoubtedly made him an incredibly wealthy man.

“I don’t dismiss those things, at all. I’m very proud of some of the things, not all, but some of the things I’ve done, and I hope I always will be, but this is a whole new level of visceral pleasure that I get from music. I think because I’m quite a self-conscious actor, when I’m acting almost everything I do is a technical problem to solve, what’s the best way of doing it. I’m watching myself all the time. But music it’s almost the reverse; I just close my eyes and I get lost in these wonderful sounds that the band is making.”

Hugh Laurie in concert

To read any interview with Hugh Laurie is to read of a man who is ‘self-deprecating’, ‘self-effacing’, even ‘shy’. In a 2006 interview, he is quoted as referring to life with his parents as ‘Presbyterian’, “Pleasure was something that was treated with great suspicion, pleasure was something that … I was going to say it had to be earned but even the earning of it didn’t really work. It was something to this day, I mean, I carry that with me. I find pleasure a difficult thing; I don’t know what you do with it, I don’t know where to put it.”

On reading this, the mother in me starts to chew her nails. I’d seen a hint of this in a Twitter exchange I’d had with him prior to his arriving in the city in which I’d teased him about getting my name wrong in a previous tweet after we had recorded our interview. Some months earlier I had offered the inducement of a cake should he agree to an interview with me. Now, for calling me ‘Carol Donovan’, there was to be no cake.

‘I love cake!’, he tweeted, ‘The only thing I love more is the feeling that I deserve cake. Harder to come by.’

Two fingernails down by this stage, I wonder why one of the most famous actors on the planet would be even slightly perturbed about whether or not I’m disappointed that he got my name wrong. Neither Hugh Laurie nor Tony Robinson need to be interviewed by me; their success in no way depends on having a presence with my small audience. Hugh Laurie could have referred to me as the ‘She-Beast of Newcastle’ for all I’d care.

But there’s a work ethic in both of these men that perhaps demands of them far more than I dare demand of myself. Which is why the world knows their names.

An arse in sorry trousers

My mother-brain decides there needs to be cake, and lo! A dozen beautiful cupcakes for Hugh and The Copper Bottom Band were magically left backstage. It didn’t matter to me if the crew or staff ate them – it was a simple human gesture to the man who lurks behind that name.

The concert was wonderful – a true feast of wonderful songs and magical musicians, all of whom appeared to still be enjoying having performed this show on well over 100 nights in different cities around the world. Joy is infectious and can only be treated by sharing.

Meanwhile, it’s OK for my mother-brain to worry that Tony Robinson needs a shower and a feed and that Hugh Laurie needs to stop beating himself up about being successful – my journalist-brain has a very good portion of the Blackadder cast in the one city for just a few short hours. If you watched television in the 1980s, you’ll be wanting me to acknowledge this. Somehow.

Doing this, however, can be a bit like asking a woman with a teeny, tiny tummy, ‘When are you due?’ Only to find out she’s not actually pregnant.

A 2009 interview I’d read with Tony Robinson hinted that maybe relationships between the cast members were strained, “Being an actor who out of survival had been taught to doff the cap, I had a completely different mindset from these astonishingly talented but very arrogant young men … Hugh makes me look cheerful.” Tony Robinson is more than a decade older than his Blackadder castmates, and from a distinctly working-class background. Laurie is the Cambridge-educated son of a Cambridge-educated doctor, “The impression you got was that they slid off the silver spoon straight into the rehearsal room at BBC TV Centre”, said Robinson.

At the time I spoke with Tony, I had no idea that the interview with Hugh Laurie would come up. During the half-hour that I spoke with Laurie, the voice in my head flailed about insisting that I refer to Blackadder and promptly shouting the idea down because if there’s bad blood between them, I don’t want to be the one who gives Hugh Laurie the shits.

Without avoiding the topic altogether, at the very end of my interview with Laurie, I casually mention that Robinson is in the city and will be through until the weekend.

“Oh my goodness! I didn’t know that! Well, we’ll have to put on our Blackadder-crested tie and have a secret handshake or whatever it is.”

And I leave it there. I have to, I only have 90 seconds of studio line left.

‘Hugh doesn’t do many interviews.’

I’d heard this quite a bit and I guess when you’re that outrageously successful – you don’t have to. I’m very grateful that I was given the chance to chat with him. I try to do interviews as off-the-script as I can. Anyone can read a press release or a bio, but digging to try to uncover some different gems is always interesting.

Hugh Laurie in concert is, indeed, a joyous event. With a band of seven sensational musicians behind him (including Latin Grammy Award-winning Gaby Moreno), he revels in the opportunity to play the music he loves, to share the stories of it with a room full of people who want to come on his journey. Some of them are fans of the music; some of them are Blackadder or House fans. But everybody in the theatre wants to see him pull it off. Even if, perhaps, he still can’t quite convince himself he should be able to dissolve into it and enjoy it.

‘Hugh doesn’t meet people. Would you like to meet him? Tony Robinson is here, too, and he knows you.’

Does a bear shit in the woods?

Backstage the instruments and set are already being packed for the next show in Sydney – the band members packing their roadcases and being told, “This is Carol. She provided the cupcakes.”

I’m not sure I’d have ever thought cupcakes would create so much excitement, so much gratitude and laughs and hugs. Perhaps, like poor Tony earlier in the week, they’d had a bit of a hungry day. They’d played Brisbane the night before, flown to Newcastle that morning, played a show that should have left them in no doubt that Australia’s sixth-largest city loved them to bits, and were now packing to travel to Sydney before getting some sleep. That’s a big day.

There was only a small handful of people backstage having a quiet chat with a hot and sweaty Laurie. One of them was Tony Robinson. I didn’t intrude on their conversation but suffice to say perhaps it was the first contact in a while. The warmth of the hug between the older Robinson and the tall, now-bluesman Laurie was one of brothers who’d shared experiences that the rest of us will never be privy to. As it should be. I have no idea if there has been any animosity between the two, but my mother-brain felt that perhaps all was now a little better in the world, or at least the world of these two.

Tony Robinson, Carol Duncan, Hugh Laurie

But Hugh ‘doesn’t meet people’. He’s ‘prickly’. And ‘a grouch’.

Well, I didn’t see any of that. I saw a man who was immensely grateful that people had given him a chance to be the man he wants to be.

And a man who very nearly fearlessly enjoyed himself.

We chatted about music and New Orleans and he thanked me for the cupcakes and for coming to his show. I thanked him for a wonderful night and for spending a few minutes with me.

As he turned to go and pack for the late-night trip to Sydney, my mother-brain chewed what surely must have been my last psychological fingernail and offered up wishes for a safe journey in the middle of a classic dark and stormy night on the F3.

And a hug which was warmly reciprocated.

I headed for the stage door – beyond which lay Hugh Laurie’s anxieties, but on the other side was a group of very happy people who just wanted to tell him how much they love him.

And maybe snap a duckface selfie.

carol hugh

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8 Replies to “Hugh Laurie. Some thoughts on the cult of celebrity.”

  1. I’ve been a fan of this whole group of talented people for years. I always think I’d love to meet them but would feel awkward gushing my admiration to complete strangers – as I’m sure they would feel being gushed at. What I really want to say is “Thank you for sharing what you love. I’m so glad you were born into a world with pianos/stages/movies/printing presses.”

    Happily, I’m going to hear Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band next week. Maybe I’ll bring cupcakes….

  2. Good morning, Wonderful article. Being blind, I learned of Hugh Laurie through audiobooks, one audiobook was “Great Expectations.” He has always been able to paint mental images with words. Honestly, he could read the phone book to me and I would be entertained. But, I attended his show in Atlanta, GA last November. As much as I wanted to, I fought the urge to go to the backstage door to meet him. I have never seen him, so it was hard to turn down that chance but, I did for the very reason your article mentions.

  3. Beautifully told Carol, it must have been an awesome, tiring, joyous week…with cake!

  4. That is a wonderful piece, a lovely insight of both men + your personality shows through. Thoroughly enjoyed.

  5. wow ,!! , what a fabulous insight , thank you so much for that , its like taking a peek backstage ourselves ,most enjoyable, he really is enjoying himself as much as the audience , I cant wait for him to do another tour in the UK x

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