A period structure, with a pinkish dome and a peculiarly mid century look about it. Well, that’s Hugh Laurie for you, but what about the Hammersmith Apollo? I first went there in 1991 when it was yet to be rebranded by Labatts and was still known as the Hammersmith Odeon, even though a film hadn’t played there for many years. I sat three rows from the back and watched Lou Reed, who was so dull I slept through the last hour. But it is an extraordinary building, with a ceiling in the auditorium that looks like an Art Deco dream of pink blancmange, rippling up and up and adding some delicacy to the acoustics. Large, conical drop chandelier lights dazzle from either side of the stalls, giving the auditorium the illusion that its wearing earrings. There is, however a odd, murky episode in Hammersmith’s past , the key scenes of which occurred here, in the glamourous, rose-carpeted confines of the Hammersmith Odeon, which to locals must have been like an exquisite slice of Hollywood magically transported to West 6.
During the last autumn of the Second World War, a dancer and Hammersmith resident named Betty Jones met a US private called Karl Hulten in a cafe in Hampstead. Both were fantastists who instantly pretended to the other they were someone else. Betty Jones pretended to be a glamourous rising British film star called Georgina Grayson, whilst Private Hulten pretended to be Lieutenant Ricky Allen of the US Army, and a criminal with links to Al Capone. She lived in King Street, Hammersmith, and met Hulten outside this Odeon, where she would indulge her passion for exciting film noirs, often viewed with her landlady, Mrs Evans. In six days in October 1944, Hulten and Jones (both still successfully tricking the other into believing they were far glamorous people) went on a crime spree in Hammersmith. In his (stolen) army truck they knocked over and robbed a woman on a bicycle, picked up a hitchhiker who they then attempted to murder and threw into the Thames (she survived) and finally after a night of dancing at the Palais, hailed a cab and shot and killed the driver, George Heath, robbing him of a silver cigarette lighter and £8. The case was sensational and became known as The Cleft Chin Murder. None of their crimes appear to have had any motive, except the thrill of the crime and so tragic and pathetic seemed the Jones / Hulten case (not least because of their desire for each to see the other as a milk bar version of a glamourous hoodlum and his daring gun-toting “broad”) that George Orwell focused on them in his essay “The Decline of the English Murder”. Murder – ain’t what it used to be, said Orwell. These couple of loons lacked the finesse and accomplishment of the proper murder, appearing so stupid as to drive about in the murdered man’s car for a day or two, as if begging the police to take them in. They were a putrid, sad, ration coupon, Turnham Green kind of Bonnie & Clyde. Karl Hulten remains the only US serviceman to be tried and hanged by the British in World War II.
Something of the wartime austerity lingers about the inside of the Hammersmith Apollo. Somewhere beyond the shard of light reflecting from a plastic beaker filled to the brim with Merlot, you can sense and taste the escape this building must have represented to 18 year old Betty Jones during the last drab days of the war. The period lighting, the pre-war tiles of the ladies loo, the luxurious sense of space, the leather banquette that draws a large seating circle on the Dress Circle level of the building – and of course the auditorium. This is a gem, and Hugh Laurie, we know is not a dancer called Betty, nor is he intent on coming to Hammersmith and pretending to be a Chicago gangster before going on an ill-planned killing spree. What he is intent on doing is bringing something else of America in – the Copper Bottom Band, which he fronts whilst playing the piano and singing the blues for a vastly entertaining 90 minute set. His set was littered with quips and chats to make the audience laugh, but Laurie seems plagued by the idea that he really shouldn’t be doing what he is doing. “An actor. What am I doing? What am I doing?” he asked us during the opening section. “I feel like a Saudi Arabian playboy given keys to a Ferrari that he doesn’t know how to drive,” he muttered, before proving that although he might not be top drawer at driving Ferraris he certainly knows his way around the piano.
Laurie understands both his own strengths and his own limitations, the understanding of both of which being invaluable. He knows the Copper Bottom Band are the stars, and not him, and spent as much time as he could championing them, kicking us all off with a “Come On Baby Let The Good Times Roll” singalong. It was clear that this band were his backbone or, as Laurie preferred to call him “my trousers”. They are a remarkable cluster of musicians that soon had the place clapping along, although it must be hugely depressing playing raucous blues music to an audience sitting down. It wasn’t until the end that Hammersmith stood up. According to Laurie, blues music is nothing short of “America’s gift to the world”, although he did spend some time discussing whether his Englishness (perhaps he also meant his class) acted as being preventative in accessing blues, not in any real terms, but in the public eye.
Half way through we got a particularly delicious, and practially a cappello version of “Up A Lazy River” and were also treated to a guest appearance from Chris Barber, amongst the Bessie Smith songs and the Buddy Bolden covers. At this stage, women of a certain age, blissfully entranced by Laurie in “House” began throwing red roses onto the stage at him. Cue humble English, attractive, cringeing.
In accenting his Englishness, Laurie also accents his lack of professional qualifications as a musician : “I can’t join in musical jokes. I have no musical training”. But I thought he had had some classical piano training as a child, and why should he, a more than competent musician, single himself out in this way? Perhaps he is trying to deflect criticism, but I do not see that criticism coming to him. Hugh Laurie and The Copper Bottom Band are a successful outfit because of the juxtaposition of Hugh’s Englishness against the Southern American sound and style of the band, not despite it, and this was a splendid evening. They – and he – were brilliant. I don’t think that there is any reason for Laurie to feel he needs to continue the self-effacing act. He should allow the way he sings and plans to stand alone. Because it more than did on Friday night, even with the echoes of Hammersmith murderesses standing in the historical wings of this odd venue.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next blog will be on Thursday July 4th. Thank you!