What is it with all these talented people named Hugh running around? Well, not that there are all that many Hughs (Hughes?) but it seems like the percentage of talented Hughs among the greater Hugh population is higher than, say, the percentage of Johns in their respective population. If you're very lucky the John you happen to meet might turn out to be talented, but with Hughs it seems like a safer bet. At least if they are named Huey Lewis. And Hugh Laurie, whom this post is about.
It is being made partly in contrition. A few years ago I tried saying nice things about him and ended up insulting projects he'd worked hard on, like House and Stuart Little. And I'm embarrassed. I'm particularly embarrassed that I misspelled Stuart Little... (For the record, in case I edit it, I misspelled the "Stuart" part. I'm happy to say I at least had the "Little" part down.) I suppose I really had no reason to censure it, given that I've never seen it... For all I know, and from what I hear, it was a perfectly fine movie. But my reflex to dismiss it stems partly from my distaste of the Hollywood line of thinking that says, "Hey, if it was a good book I bet it will be an even better movie!" In certain instances such movies can be fine. My favorite movie, for example, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, is an adaptation of a book I've never read and probably never will (I find the movie so perfect I've been hesitant to disturb my impression of it). But particularly for children's books, we want children to learn how to paint their own imagery with their imaginations. Every scene does not have to be acted out for them in order to enjoy the tale. Just enjoying the book should be a vivid enough experience. In fact, for a good book it may even be more of one than any movie could provide.
The other reason for my skepticism of the movie is that I just felt like Hugh Laurie was too talented for such a film. And I'm still unrepentant in that view.
As I noted the last time, I've been familiar with his work for many years. Lots and lots of Americans know (and justly admire) him for his portrayal of Dr. House on the like-named FOX series. But those of us who watch public television more than network television have long been aware of the impressive body of work he's done in England. Over the last 10-15 years I've seen all sorts of excellent British productions he worked on, including such shows as Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie, the box set of which, as I mentioned, I recently decided to treat myself to as a "getting on with my life" present. It was a very good present, full of hours and hours of giggling. Which then inspired me to see what else he'd done.
The answer is "a lot." Since leaving Cambridge University, where his performing career began with the Footlights Club, he's been extremely prolific. Thanks to the wonder of the Internet I've been able to see a lot of the sketch comedy he'd done pre- and post-A Bit of Fry and Laurie (about 3:22 into this video is one of my favorite early sketches) as well as some of his dramatic work. I don't think there's been a sour note comedically, although some of his dramatic catalog did give me pause. Stuart Little aside, there also was All or Nothing at All, a brilliantly-cast production saddled by a completely illogical plot. (Hugh's character gets in over his head with gambling, but the whole set of circumstances from which this problem arose seems entirely too flimsy to have realistically motivated his behavior.) And then of course there's House, which regularly gives me conniptions, but I'll save my comments on that show for a separate post. Except to say here that I have no quarrel with any aspect to his performance, which really is excellent.
However, even in the productions I fear are weaker his dramatic performance alone is always worth the price of admission, so to speak. He's a terrific physical actor, able to use his entire body to emote dramatically or react comedically. It's more than just his impeccable timing, tremendous coordination, or sense of character - it's also his ability to commit to the portrayal so thoroughly and unselfconsciously. (See, e.g., any episode of House. Or Girl from Rio, a lightweight but enjoyable movie where he expertly plays an expert samba dancer.)
I think it's fair to say he's one of the best actors I've ever seen, but what makes him particularly deserving of the praise I feel inclined to make is that he has such a long list of talents. Including what I tend to value most: the ability to write. Even if he were but an empty vessel for someone else's words he'd still be worthy of praise, but his ability to create his own sets him apart. All of his comedy sketches are as good as they are not just because of how he performed them but because of how he (with Stephen Fry) created them.
Of course, it's not just any old comedy script writer who can then sit down and muster the attention span to write a whole book. This is now one of my life goals - to write a book - and I suspect I someday will, since I tend to be good at eventually getting around to most of my life goals (e.g., becoming a swimming teacher, becoming a lawyer, jumping out of an airplane...). But in the meantime I have nothing but the most enormous respect for people who have already done so. Particularly when the books they've produced are actually good! As was Hugh's The Gun Seller.
I'm not sure on what criteria one properly evaluates literature, but I think I can safely say, "I liked it." "A page turner" I believe is the typical way of describing his plot. His characters were well-developed, and his narration sublime. Rife with pithiness and understatement it never obviously sought to be funny but nearly always was. In fact it's a bad book to read in public because of all the uncontrollable giggling it is bound to cause. But apart from that downside, if it suffers at all it's because his satire lost some of its humor the day reality caught up with it. Poor Hugh, John Malkovitch was going to turn it into what surely would have been a really excellent movie. Reading the book you can hear practically Hugh's voice through his protagonist and Stephen Fry's as a Jeeves-like character Solomon as they work their way through a geopolitical conundrum of a pre-9/11 world. Unfortunately, given Hugh's prescient plot points, you could probably also cast George W. Bush somewhere in it too. Who knew that in the few years since it was written so much would change... (Fortunately, however, even if the movie never gets made the book alone is enough to vividly entertain the imagination for hours.)
Meanwhile, there is also another area of Hugh's creative talents that has me thoroughly smitten, and that's his music. He's a phenomenally talented musician, but that's not the point I want to dwell on, which is that he's written his own songs. Funny songs, even, which I tend to think are the best kind. Like a Nick Lowe or Paul Thorn he packages up these humorous ideas and gently floats them down a musical river. And some of them are really funny - I absolutely love their bluntness. Like Nick Lowe who once dared to sing that "she was a winner, who became her doggies' dinner," my funny bone gets tickled by Hugh's odes to Steffi Graf and protest songs. They have the kind of lyrics you can't believe someone actually wrote, while at the same time feeling like they are so obvious that someone obviously had to. (And I don't just say this as someone who really does live on a houseboat in an estuary...)
So, if you are American, you've probably already heard of Hugh Laurie if you've come anywhere near a television recently. And, if you're English, if you've come anywhere near one in the last 25 years. If you are from any other country or continent, or have sadly misplaced your remote control, Internet modem, or, indeed, your library card for any of the past several decades, I can only hope you soon make up for lost time and not miss whatever he chooses to do next.