The label “Renaissance man” is one that is sometimes bandied about too freely when speaking of those in the public sphere. But when referring to Hugh Laurie (House, MD on the critically acclaimed FOX show of the same name), the title is completely appropriate. And there is no question that right now, Laurie is at the very top of his game. With three plus seasons of House behind him, he has received both popular and critical acclaim for his nuanced and complex characterization of the intense and troubled diagnostic genius.
During the course of the last 20 years, Mr. Laurie has assembled an impressive professional resume as comedic and dramatic actor (on stage and screens large and small), director, writer (of both sketch comedy and novel), musician (on several instruments), composer, and athlete.
Anyway, with the Writers Guild strike still ongoing and winter House hiatus upon us (even if the writers’ strike is settled tomorrow), I thought I might assemble a little guide to Hugh Laurie’s other available works; some are hard to find, others less so. Any would make a perfect holiday or birthday gift for that Hugh Laurie fan on your list (or for yourself). Just one word of warning: this list is not intended to be comprehensive, nor objective. So enjoy your Hugh Laurie fix and let me know what I’ve left out below in that little comment box.
Blackadder (1983-1989) Blackadder was created by the very talented Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean). The entire series presents British history coupled with biting social commentary through a very comic lens. Laurie appears in the final two episodes of season two, before creating the rather iconic fop George, Prince Regent of Regency-era England. In powdered wig, satin clothing, and pop-eyed innocence, Laurie plays the idiot Prince George for broad comic effect. It is one of his most beloved early roles, and in it, he could not be farther removed from Gregory House. In season four, Laurie returned to play Lieutenant George, an equally daft (but slightly less over the top) Oxbridge educated young officer in the trenches under the World War I command of Atkinson’s Blackadder. There are some touching and deeply chilling moments (particularly in the final episode) of the clearly anti-war Blackadder Goes Forth fourth season. The four seasons of Blackadder plus a one-episode Blackadder V, and some one-off sketches are all available individually (except the one-offs) or in collector box sets (that include the one-offs).
A Bit of Fry and Laurie (1987-1995) Smart wordplay, quick repartee, silliness, and satire characterized the four seasons of this BBC sketch comedy series. Sometimes the sketches ran a bit long, but more often, they showcased the amazing physical grace, sly comic acting, and musical talents of Mr. Laurie, not to mention the fabulous writing talents of Stephen Fry and Laurie, who wrote and performed each sketch. Many of the sketches are as timely now as they were when they first aired. My favorites include the Tony of Plymouth sketch that ends season one and features the two engaging in swordplay on the stage; and nearly all of the original satirical musical numbers that came from the pen (and the guitar and piano) of multi-talented Laurie. The most ironic (if not iconic) of sketches is from the fourth season in a great parody of It’s a Wonderful Life, skewering Rupert Murdoch (a favorite target of the show), who, of course owns FOX, the network on which Laurie now stars! My favorite musical numbers include: "Mystery," "Kickin’ Ass" and "The Protest Song." Okay, and the Steffi Graf song. Soupy twist! (Hey, if you don’t know that particular term, Google it!)
Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993) When Fry and Laurie weren’t engaged writing or performing ABOFL, they were playing Bertie Wooster (best described, by Laurie as a sort of male flapper) and his faithful valet Jeeves. Although the Wodehouse novels have been brought to the small screen by other actors, no one will dispute that the two were perfectly cast in their roles. Laurie imbues his indelible Bertie Wooster with a kindness of heart that offsets his inherent goofiness. He isn’t a blithering idiot, as he is so often characterized. (No one who uses language like Bertie does can be considered stupid.) But Bertie is rather disorganized and feckless, often getting into trouble trying to aid his friends who are even more incompetent than he is. Good thing Jeeves is around to help him out of hot spots. We are again treated to Laurie's wonderful piano playing in many of the episodes. One of my favorite moments: Bertie trying to make sense of singing the syncopated “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” at the piano. And Jeeves and Wooster singing "Minnie the Moocher!" (I’ve heard Laurie sing "Minnie" more recently and comparing the two renderings of the Cab Calloway classic as sung by Hugh Laurie is a great study in stylistic contrasts).
All or Nothing at All (1993) Now out on DVD in the US, the series stars Laurie as a charming con man. I recently reviewed this series for Blogcritics.
Spooks/MI5 (2002) Laurie appeared in two episodes of season one of this popular British series starring Matthew MacFayden (Pride and Prejudice). He played the director of MI6 Jools Siviter, a smart, tough, and icily charming man dripping with disdain for the mere mortals of MI5.
Fortysomething (2003) Just before he did House, Laurie starred in this multi-part British series. The show was received with mixed reviews by the critics, but stands as a lovely showcase for him, playing the perpetually bewildered Dr. Paul Slippery. I loved watching Him in this show. Not available yet, it is scheduled for DVD release in the US for April or May 2008.
Laurie has appeared in numerous film roles — small, medium, and large. The following are several that contain some of the more interesting characters he has created over the years. The films themselves have been great, fair, and not so good. Consistently, however, Laurie has created complex, multi-layered characters, often rising far above the material given him.
Peter's Friends (1992) Written by Martin Bergman and Rita Rudner, this is the tale of a group of college dramatics club mates (not unlike the Cambridge Footlights, of which Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery, Emma Thompson, and Bergman were all part) who reunite ten years later to celebrate the New Year in this drama-comedy. Laurie and Imelda Staunton play a jingle-writing couple grieving the loss of one of their infant twin sons. Their subplot packs the biggest emotional wallop of the film, portrayed with great emotional depth and nuance — to me, an even greater dramatic impact than the main reveal of the film. Once again, Laurie gets to display his substantial musical gifts as he performs on piano (the Jerome Kern standard “The Way You Look Tonight”), and on guitar. A must-see film for Laurie fans, it is not easily available, but does play on channels from time to time. Peter’s Friends is only available on DVD in a Region 2 version, but a US-playable VHS tape of the film is occasionally offered on eBay!
Sense and Sensibility (1996) With a screenplay written by his friend Emma Thompson and directed by the brilliant Ang Lee, Sense and Sensibility is a beautiful adaptation of the Jane Austen novel. Although Laurie’s role in the film is small, he makes the most of it as the dour and sardonic Mr. Palmer. Married to a vacuous and overly-gregarious woman, toward whom he shows nothing but annoyance, Mr. Palmer shows a kinder and more compassionate nature when it is required.
Cousin Bette (1998) Starring Jessica Lange, this film got very mixed reviews. However, it is a treat for Hugh Laurie fans, as he plays a character of dubious morality and great greed in this period piece set in France. Based on the Balzac novel, Laurie plays Hector Hulot with great relish. His best scenes are with Bob Hoskins, who plays Hulot’s rival.
The Young Visitors (TV film, 2003) Based on a novel by a child writer, Laurie plays Lord Bernard Clark. The film is a delight as Laurie and Jim Broadbent play rivals for the hand of a young, socially climbing Ethel. It is a fantasy, but not really a children’s movie, with a great supporting job done by Bill Nighy. Watching Laurie as the smitten Lord Bernard as he courts the pretty Ethel is a real treat.
Girl From Rio (2001) Okay. I’ll say it. This movie is pure guilty pleasure. It’s not a great film, or even a very good film, but Laurie plays a geeky and oh-so-repressed Englishman, a banking cipher (with a secret life as a samba dancer), with great charm. After learning that his boss is having an affair with his wife, he embezzles a fortune from his London bank and flees to – where else? – Rio. Laurie’s meek banker makes a pilgrimage to Rio in search of the queen of the samba, who he finds, but not before getting into an immense amount of trouble. It’s fun, and silly, but I’m a softie for romantic comedies, so… Besides, Hugh Laurie dancing? The samba? Cool.
Maybe Baby (2000) Two versions of this romantic comedy exist on DVD. The first is the original, released in Britain. It is ten minutes longer and fathoms better than the American release. It’s amazing how ten minutes of edits can substantially harm a film. I have seen both versions, and if you can get a copy of the British version (Region 2) and have access to a multi-region DVD player or software, you should get that version. Laurie and Joely Richardson play Sam and Lucy Bell, a childless yuppie couple who go through all of the machinations required when infertility issues hit. (Having gone through some of these myself, I found the film very resonant). The film is based on Ben Elton’s novel Inconceivable, and the stars do a great job as the couple. Unlike the US release, the British version of the DVD features a running commentary track by writer/director Ben Elton and Hugh Laurie (alone worth the price of the DVD). There are fun cameos by Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Dawn French, and a host of other British comedy comedy legends.
Flight of the Phoenix (2004) Not critically acclaimed, this remake of the classic film is actually not bad — and quite engaging, especially if you’d never seen the original. The movie stars Dennis Quaid and Giovanni Ribisi. In a supporting role, Hugh Laurie plays a buttoned up corporate bean counter who, of all the characters in the film, undergoes the most striking changes — physically and emotionally. This film is also noteworthy because it was during filming this movie in Namibia that Laurie was sent the original audition pages for House, MD. With the difficulty of the shoot, in harsh conditions, the scruffy, weary, and haggard looking Laurie filmed his audition tape for the House pilot sequestered in his hotel bathroom. The rest is history.
The Gun Seller. Laurie’s beautifully crafted novel is funny, dark, and chilling all at the same time. It got wonderful reviews on both sides of the pond — and for good reason. I’m a big fan of political thrillers and spy novels, as well as a fan of wry comic novels. The Gun Seller blends it all together into a tasty treat. One cannot help but hear Laurie’s own voice in the novel’s hero, Thomas Lang. Laurie has written an as yet unproduced screenplay of the novel, which lies simply in wait (I think with MGM).