Hugh Laurie -- comedy, crew, drama ... and now the blues


By now, you may have heard me lecture on the fact that "House" is TV's best drama and Hugh Laurie is the best drama actor. I do that sometimes; I also  blather about his comedy skills, which remain semi-tucked away in England.

Now there's more; he's also a bluesman who is the center of a terrific PBS special. In some markets -- including East Lansing and Cincinnati -- that airs at 9 p.m. Friday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By MIKE HUGHES

The purpose of Englishmen, it sees, is
to tell us what we've overlooked.

Often, that involves the old blues
greats; in the 1970s, they drew tiny crowds at home, huge ones in
Europe. “They were exiled prophets, if you will,” Hugh Laurie
says.

They already had big fans in England,
including Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger and Laurie, who has a new blues
album and PBS special. “As soon as I heard my first Willie Dixon
song, I was on the hunt,” said Laurie, 52. “I would spend my
pocket money on whatever blues record I could find.”

Fans of “House” – which starts
its eighth, and maybe last, season Monday – have seen glimpses of
this. Dr. Gregory House (Laurie) sometimes obsesses on his guitar or
piano.

“When Dr. House sits down at the
piano for solace ..., it's not really an act,” said David Horn,
PBS' “Great Performances” producer. “Hugh Laurie really knows
his way around a keyboard.”

And he knows about getting lost in the
music at home.“I'll look at my watch and go, 'Oh my God, it's 2
o'clock in the morning and I have to be up at 4.'”

Music is one of many things he does
well. “There's barely a field he hasn't conquered,” Horn said.

One of the first was crew. Laurie was a
champion oarsman – just like his dad, the late Dr. Ran Laurie, a
1948 Olympic gold-medalist. When he had to drop the sport because of
illness, he joined Cambridge classmate Stephen Fry for a comedy team.

For decades, Laurie was known for
comedy – “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of
Fry and Laurie” – or for nothing. For many viewers, he was an
unknown when “House” began.

“It's amazing that I was able to sort
of forge a new identity (in the U.S.),” he said. “I arrived with
as blank a canvas as canvases get.”

As the darkly acerbic Dr. House, he
found instant success – six straight Emmy nominations (with no
wins), six straight Golden Globe nominations (with two wins). Along
the way, he discussed his love of the blues; this past year, Warner
Bros. Records suggested a New Orleans album.

“I could feel the word 'no' rising up
in me,” Laurie said, “(but) I thought, 'No, wait a minute, this
is not going to come my way again.'”

The project grew, adding top
instrumentalists, including a horns arranged by Allen Toussaint.
Laurie did the keyboards and vocals – with Tom Jones, Irma Thomas
and Dr. John joining for a few tracks.

Warner also suggested a PBS special.
“Any time there's an opportunity … to have a celebrity shine a
light on a particular styl of music that people wouldn't ordinarily
listen to, sign me up,” Horn says.

Parts of the hour were makeshift,
Laurie said. “I bought this very wonderful car (a classic
convertible) in Texas and drove to New Orleans, sort of making it up
as we went along.”

The peak came in New Orleans, he said.
“It has a sort of fragrance and spirit to me, that even as a young
English boy, thousands of miles across the ocean, it seemed to reach
me.”

This is the city he imagined when
hearing those Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters records 40 years ago,
Laurie said. It thrives, even after Hurricane Katrina. “It is
actually humbling to behold people who stared death in the face and
found a way to carry on and … share joy with that sense of
generosity.”

Hugh Laurie, everywhere

– On PBS: “Hugh Laurie: Let Them
Talk – A Celebrations of New Orleans Blues,” a “Great
Performances” special, 9 p.m. Friday (check local listings)

– On Fox: “House” opens its
season at 9 p.m. Monday, with Dr. House in prison

– On record: “Let Them Talk,”
Warner Bros. Records; see www.hughlaurieblues.com

– In video stores: “Blackadder,”
“A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” more

 

Well, give it another 41 years


This is not the way a 41-year run should end. After all those decades of pain and rage, "All My Children" ended weakly.

Erica Kane (Susan Lucci) had a long (and quite poorly acted) argument with the latest guy she wanted to marry. He walked out. She said he needed him; he said that frankly, he didn't give a damn. (That was a good line; I wonder if they thought of it themselves.)

And then -- just as Erica walked by -- the angry J.R. fired his gun. "All My Children," which may or may not be coming back as an Internet show, had ended its 41 year run.

It was as if someone had consulted "The Sopranos" on how to end a series. I went through the mixed emotions of:

1) Thinking maybe it's OK if the soaps are ending.

2) Thinking maybe it's not. The ads for "The Chew," which takes the spot on Monday, gave me no inclination to watch. Or to eat.

3) Or maybe it IS OK. Following the "All My Children" finale, "One Life to Live" began with four straight scenes in which people woke up from odd dreams. Four. Shouldn't there be a legal limit?

 

The X Factor: Haven't we been here before?


What did I think of the "X Factor" debut? I sort of  liked it; of course, I also liked it when it was called "American Idol."

If there were anti-cloning laws in Hollywood, this show would face capital punishment. It's mostly "Idol" with a few "America's Got Talent" touches added for, well, originality.

Simon Cowell is like the kid who was wise enough to stay awake in class and copy someone else's answers. He was also wise eough to copy from the smart kids; it would have been a shame if he'd copied from the dumbos who created, say, "H8R."

The X Factor: Haven't we been here before?


What did I think of the "X Factor" debut? I sort of  liked it; of course, I also liked it when it was called "American Idol."

If there were anti-cloning laws in Hollywood, this show would face capital punishment. It's mostly "Idol" with a few "America's Got Talent" touches added for, well, originality.

Simon Cowell is like the kid who was wise enough to stay awake in class and copy someone else's answers. He was also wise eough to copy from the smart kids; it would have been a shame if he'd copied from the dumbos who created, say, "H8R."

Placido Domingo: The first 70 years


In the midst of this week's commercial-network commotion, PBS drops in a Placido Domingo special on Friday. This varies a lot from market to market -- it airs Friday on Cincinnati, but not in Lansing -- so I'll put the story here. Check your local listings:

By MIKE HUGHES

From his earliest moments, Placido
Domingo had music flowing into his ears.

“I remember both my mother and my
father singing me a lullaby before sleep,” he said. “The
harmonies … were so beautiful that it was hard for me to fall
asleep.”

These were pros, stars of zarzuela –
a Spanish musical theater, similar to operetta – in Madrid. His
first performance memories involve his parents onstage.

“I remember my father dressed in
tails,” Domingo said. “There is a song that says this gentleman
is a very elegant gentleman and he drives crazy the ladies.”

In his 70 years, Domingo has often been
the elegant man onstage. He has sung 131 operas, using his native
language (Spanish) plus Italian, French, German, Russian and English.
He's learned individual songs in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and more.

“I always like to learn a popular
song to please the people,” he said. “Probably, they don't
understand me too well, but in any case, I try.”

Lately, many of his roles have been on
PBS' “Great Performances.” He's done three in the past 20 months;
next is “Il Postino” (Nov. 25). Before that, there's a “My
Favorite Roles” special.

It was PBS that propelled a new wave,
two decades ago, with the popular “Three Tenors” concerts.
Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras were elevated to
pop-star fame.

That's fine with Domingo, who has
admired pop performers. He praises Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand,
Sting, Spain's pop stars and more. “The Beatles … were great,
great musicians.”

And in any performance, he said, his
classical technique is secondary. “I will give up technique for
feeling … It's important that that the public believes and feels.”

It's also important that he doesn't
take those feeling away from the stage. “You live a lot of tragedy,
constantly, on the stage,” Domingo said. But “you cannot let
yourself in the suffering.”

So he seems to live a non-operatic
life. A teen marriage ended quickly, but next August, he has his 50th
wedding anniversary with Marta Ornelas, a director and former
soprano.

“I love to be happy,” Domingo said,
“but I love to suffer onstage. On the stage it's wonderful, the
suffering. I also like the comedy, but I am better at the suffering.”

Domingo on PBS (check local listings)

– “Placido Domingo: My Favorite
Roles,” 9 p.m. Friday

– “Il Postino,” Nov. 25.

– Recent roles have been “Simon
Boccanegra” last year and two – “Rigoletto” and “Iphigenie
en Tauride” – this year; next year is “The Enchanted Island”