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Thursday, 27 October 2016

That time Hugh Laurie helped me steal something

In the early 90's when I was a fresh-faced whippersnapper of a juggler, mainly making my rent from street performing, I got my first proper agent. He was a lovely chap, with an office just around the corner from my street pitch in Covent Garden, which was festooned with 8x10s of bodybuilders, martial artists, mimes, and associated people who specialised in physical skills. As a young bouncy circus monkey, he saw some potential in me, started putting me up for castings, and indeed, landed me some fun jobs.

Yes. Me. Shut up.

Mostly, I ended up in late 80's/early 90's pop videos. Which means that if you scour YouTube for a couple of early Shakespear's Sister songs, and one particularly dirgey ditty by Sarah Brighman, there, more often than not under some fucking clown make-up, I am. The Shakespear's Sister ladies were delightful, and I remember playing with Siobhan's young daughter at the time, who made it into one of the video's dressed as a bumble bee. What most of these clips had in common were that they were directed by the brilliant Sophie Muller, and when she was prepping to direct the video for Annie Lennox's next single, I got another call.

The shoot for “Walking on Broken Glass” took place on location over a long weekend in London, but the cast all got called in the day before. It was, I guess, a homage to things like “Dangerous Liaisons”, so we all got plopped in front of a line of mirrors for complicated costume and powdered wig fittings. By the middle of day 2, those wigs felt heavy and painful, dragging on the pins that held them in place and giving everyone matching headaches.

The vibe was a party – cool and beautiful people, and staff serving drinks, and – hey – a juggler entertaining them! But as opulent and beautiful as the location and costumes were, all eyes were on the stars of the show. John Malkovich, kinda sorta reprising his role from “Liaisons..”, and Hugh Laurie, sorta kinda reprising his role from Blackadder. Malkovich took it all quite seriously, struggling a little, I think, to be able to have the kind of fun that Laurie was able to have. And my god, Hugh Laurie was amazing. And then there was Lennox. Draped in spectacular red velvet, gliding around serenely, and treated by everyone – correctly – like the queen. She radiated serene focus, and, at least for me, that became the feel of the shoot. And after the first take, when they'd hit playback and all the actors had heard the song for the first time, we all tried to make sure she saw us grinning at how good it was.

For me though, it was all about Hugh Laurie. I was already a fan, and a totally star struck at working in the same room as him (more so than Malkovich, I'm afraid). As part of the set dressing a harpsichord stood in the corner of the set, and between shots, the talented son of a gun just sat down and played it. There was a key scene where Lennox's character gets drunk and angry – in the final cut the camera cuts a few times to Laurie's face as he desperately tries to calm her down. I remember vividly when that was shot. They just put the camera on him, and let him go. For minutes upon minutes he improvised various different ways of trying to defuse the situation – firm, embarrassed, ignoring it, laughing it off, getting angry, being patronising... he just kept going and going, to a silent, rapt room of actors. When Sophie finally told him they had more than enough, everyone clapped.

Something else that the angry drunk Annie Lennox did in the video, and lets face it, the thing that really spoiled the party for everyone, was barge past the juggler. We shot it a couple of times with me just being pushed to one side and dropping my balls, and then I was asked if I would be ok actually falling down. I've always been very ok with falling down. It's one of my key skills. So, on the next take, she pushes past me, and I take a good old fashioned back bump to the floor. They finish the shot, cut is yelled, and everyone seems happy. Except for Annie, who hurries over to me, asking if I'm ok, totally concerned that she had accidentally, in the heat of the moment, actually thrown me to the floor. I tell her, yeah, I'm fine, it was a pratfall, they told me to go a little bigger, and then she's helping me up and telling me “oh, very nice, very good”. And although it only lasts half a second, and you can't really see it, that's the take they used.

On the second day, while they were shooting something downstairs, myself and a few of the other actors were sitting around on set, killing time, chatting about anything and nothing in particular. I mentioned that it was my girlfriend's birthday soon (she's now my wife), and I hadn't found a good main present. As we're talking, Hugh Laurie wonders in and sits nearby. We started joking that I should steal something from the set. Then we started joking a little more specifically, that I should steal the gorgeous crystal, gold-rimmed goblet that Annie Lennox uses in the video. Then we slowly realised that she'd finished shooting all her scenes with it. And then, Hugh Laurie is standing up, sidling over to the table, taking the goblet, walking back, and giving it to me, with a conspiratorial grin.

I stole it, gave it to Lesley for her birthday, told her the story, and to this day, whenever that video turns up there is giggling and pointing and yelling “Look! It's your glass!”

Sorry Annie Lennox. Sorry Sophie Muller. Blame Hugh Laurie.

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