For much of his acting career Hugh Laurie was typecast as an upper-class twit. It was a role he performed with distinction in the comedy series Blackadder and the television adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which he played the chinless wonder Bertie Wooster to his comedy partner Stephen Fry’s all-knowing butler.
Then came the call from the US, land of reinvention. In 2003, Laurie was picked for the lead role in a new drama series about an eccentric doctor. Over eight seasons, House became one of US network TV’s most popular shows. An audience that knew nothing of Laurie’s background in upper- class twittery fell hard for his portrayal of the prickly diagnostician Dr Gregory House, a deductive genius whose inability to suffer fools wouldn’t have augured well for dear old Bertie Wooster.
House made its final bow last year. Laurie’s next big acting project is a science-fiction film with George Clooney. This is the sort of company the former sketch-show comedian keeps these days. House’s success made him among US TV’s highest paid actors, reputedly earning $700,000 per episode in the final season. The show also turned him into a sex symbol, “le plus grand séducteur du monde” in the smitten words of a French women’s magazine.
The “grand séducteur” has been married for more than 20 years and has three grown-up children. But the sex symbol tag isn’t so incongruous when you meet him. Aged 53, he is tall and athletic-looking; at Cambridge he rowed for the university. He furls himself into a chair in a luxuriously anonymous room in the Dorchester hotel in London, crossing one long leg over the other. He has cropped greyish hair, blue eyes and a lean face; his manner is affable but careful.
He has made the journey from his home in Belsize Park in north London to the Dorchester to talk about his first love – the blues. It’s a passion that dates from the first time he heard a blues song as a boy; he thinks it might have been by Willie Dixon, playing on the car radio when he was eight or nine. The effect was “completely visceral. Hairs on the back of the neck sort of thing,” he says.
Without House, his love of the blues might have remained a hobby. But Laurie is now famous enough to realise his wildest fantasies. Thus in 2011 he joined the ranks of actors moonlighting as recording artists when he released a blues covers album, Let Them Talk.
Viewers of House will know that Laurie is an accomplished musician; scenes showing the grumpy medic playing music were a homage to the amateur violinist Sherlock Holmes. But the experience of playing in a studio with professional musicians was daunting, like “falling downstairs trying to do a Rubik’s cube”.
He claims to have been unaware of the dubious tradition of the singing actor. “I was very apprehensive,” he says, “but I might have been less apprehensive if I’d known every actor has done 19 albums and written six novels. I hadn’t realised that.”
Unlike most of those other warbling thespians, he pulled it off: Let Them Talk sold 750,000 copies. Now comes the follow-up, Didn’t It Rain, which finds Laurie once more at the piano, singing with a band and a pair of female co-vocalists. Veteran blues-rocker Taj Mahal has a guest spot. Covers range from well-known standards, such as “The St Louis Blues”, to more obscure fare: Laurie believes his version of Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Weed Smoker’s Dream” might be the first time the song has been recorded with its original lyrics since the 1930s.
He sings it, like the rest of the album, in an American accent, honed by working on House. Asked if he tried to find a different accent for the blues or if it’s the same as the one he used to play Dr House, Laurie looks surprised. “I would imagine that it must therefore be fairly similar,” he says. “But then I use the same hands to play the piano that I use to play House, so there are some constraints.”
He describes acting as “an imaginative act that involves the conjuring of some other that is a concealment of reality, a concealment of self”. Of House, he says: “I felt very affectionate towards the character, which I think is part of an actor’s job – to like the character they’re playing. I suppose there might have been some sort of psychic price to have been paid for inhabiting such a lonely and tortured figure but, nonetheless, I found the compensations of his sense of humour, his attitude to life, his problem-solving, I found them so exhilarating that they more than made up for it.”
In the past he has spoken of suffering from depression himself. “Yes,” Laurie says in a doubtful tone. “As have many, many people.” He dismisses the notion of the blues as the great music of depression. “I think that’s often fastened upon by people who don’t listen to it much. The cartoon version of the blues singer is the person wailing about how their woman done them wrong. It’s a much bigger form than that.”
Didn’t It Rain is more romantic in tone than the first album. “To me, so much of this music is female in origin,” he says. “I think of a lot of this music as being essentially lullabies, mothers comforting troubled babies. In fact, the first big stars of American popular music were women, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith. And then it was co-opted by men who strutted around with a guitar.”
The blues were created by black Americans living in abject conditions of racism and poverty. In contrast Laurie’s background – prep school, Eton, Cambridge – is one of elite English privilege. He describes himself as “very, very lucky” but doesn’t believe his gilded upbringing disqualifies him from singing the blues.
“Well, I don’t know what my alternative would be,” he says. “If that is an objection, then there are only two possible alternatives. One is that I choose a different type of music, which would be dishonest because I don’t like any other types of music, or I don’t do it at all. If I were not to do it, how does that help? How does that advance any particular cause? It’s obviously going to be a common observation about a white middle-class Englishman singing the blues, there’s no getting around it.”
He wants to continue his music career, indeed prefers it over acting. “It’s a fascinating problem, how to play a character, how to play a scene, it’s an endlessly interesting problem, but the sheer pleasure I get from playing music, being around music, being around musicians, is very, very intense,” he says.
Meanwhile, the days of sketch comedy recede into the past. Is there any hope of a reunion with his old comic foil Stephen Fry, with whom he made A Bit of Fry & Laurie in the 1990s?
“I would love to do it,” he replies. “My picture is of a sort of Flanders and Swann-type musical revue, two blokes in dinner jackets, we’ll have a piano on stage, Stephen will have a big leather armchair where he’ll tell amusing monologues while I go off for a smoke. It will be very enjoyable to do and, hopefully, enjoyable to watch.”
No blues, then? “I don’t know,” he admits. “Since I just made it up 10 seconds ago I haven’t thought about it in any detail.”
Aha. The former mock upper-class twit appears to have successfully twitted the FT. Typecast Hugh Laurie at your peril.
‘Didn’t It Rain’ is out on Warner Music on May 6