HUGH LAURIE has practically cornered the market in playing cheery upper-class characters - whether bumbling his way through numerous Blackadder series; as Bertie Wooster, or even, this week, as the rather pompous and imperious MI6 mandarin battling for supremacy with his MI5 counterparts in the BBC spy drama series, Spooks.
So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the comedy actor has suffered so severely from black moods and depression that he has spent two years in psychotherapy and credits the experience with changing his life.
It's rare enough to find Laurie a willing interviewee, rarer still to find him so open about the hidden torment that has so altered his life.
"It affected everything - my family and friends. I was a pain in the arse to have around. I was miserable and self-absorbed. It's actually selfish to be depressed and not try and do anything about it," he says.
"I know a lot of people think therapy is about sitting around staring at your own navel - but it's staring at your own navel with a goal. And the goal is to one day to see the world in a better way and treat your loved ones with more kindness and have more to give."
He accepts that his wife, Jo, and three children, Charlie, 13, Bill, 11, and eight-year-old Rebecca, were affected by his depression. "I diagnosed myself as being depressed and decided I would try and sort it out. I don't know enough about the illness to say whether it was clinical, but it was certainly more than feeling a bit sad. It went on for long periods of time and had all the other symptoms, like lethargy and not wanting to get out of bed in the morning."
At the time, a few years ago, the depression was crippling. "I can remember the moment when I realised I had a problem. I was doing this stockcar race for charity somewhere in the East End. But in the middle of the race, with cars exploding and turning over - life or death - it suddenly hit me that I was bored.
"I thought: 'This can't be right. I should either be hating it with every fibre of my being or loving it, because this is an extreme experience.' I realised this was the state of mind of a depressed person."
He sought help the very next day: "A friend recommended a fantastic lady therapist and I found it incredibly helpful. Truth is a bit scary, but I think everyone should have a go. I feel very much more at peace."
Reluctantly, he admits that the depression may have been connected to his brief extramarital affair with a film director with whom he once worked, but he does not want to go into any details.
"It possibly was connected. But I don't remember." His 13-year marriage survived the crisis and is stronger than ever. "It's terrific, and I'm very lucky. I'm so much happier now and more accepting of things. I used to get consumed with things that were in the past. I saw a million different versions of who I could have been and all of them were better: 'Why didn't I do this?
Why didn't I do that?'" Laurie, whose father was a GP in Oxford, has just turned 43 and seems always to portray himself selfdeprecatingly. He also has an extraordinary inability to value his achievements.
He has been head of house at Eton, an oarsman for Cambridge in the 1980 Boat Race, president of Footlights and co-star with Stephen Fry in Fry and Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster. He is also the author of a thriller hailed as "superb" and is a fine pianist. So many gifts, and such good fortune could arouse resentment, of course. "Oh, I've had a very ordinary life," he mumbles. It is good fortune, in fact, that seems to have been the catalyst that made Laurie miserable and drove him to therapy.
"It wasn't that I couldn't talk about my problems," he says, "I used to bore my friends stiff. But because money has changed hands, I don't feel I have to entertain or make myself sound better than I am." In his depressed moods, he can, he says, "glower for hours. I'm amazed that people put up with it. I would cling to unhappiness because it was a known, familiar state. When I was happier, it was because I knew I was on my way back to misery. I've never been convinced that happiness is the object of the game. I'm wary of happiness.'' Dissatisfaction with his achievements seems to be Laurie's problem.
He always thinks there is something else he should be doing, some other activity that would make him happier.
Having children, he says, has diverted him a little.
"They do make you less egotistical," he says. "I still manage to think about myself 98 per cent of the time, but at least there is a little window where others can impinge."
AS he shuffles his 6ft 2in frame in the chair, Laurie still looks windswept and ruddy-cheeked from riding his BMW motorbike into the West End. "People probably expect me to turn up in a Bentley with a shooting stick," he grins, parodying his posh image as an upper-class toff. He is clearly uneasy about the reaction he gets from being wellknown: "I don't take off my helmet a lot of the time - that's one of the really good things about riding a bike. I can go all over the place and no one knows who I am."
While trying to retain some degree of anonymity, Laurie can't get away from his privileged background. He speaks in a clipped, upperclass accent but seems almost apologetic that his three children go to private schools. He also possesses that very English embarrassment when it comes to sex, and begins to blush as he describes a recent episode at home, when his son Charlie came into the living room as Laurie and Jo, a former theatre administrator, were watching a graphic sex scene on television.
"It's the way that your children always arrive in the doorway at that moment. Why do we get embarrassed by that kind of thing?"
Yet Laurie stripped off for love scenes in Ben Elton's debut movie about infertility, Maybe Baby. "I was only allowed to wear a sock," he says.
"But the only way to do the shot was to be naked. It's been my worst nightmare ever since the showers at school - I couldn't believe I was living it."
Although he fights hard to protect his private life and personality away from the cameras, most of the British stars who have worked with Laurie - and subsequently become friends - fall over themselves in their admiration for him.
"He is very lovable," says Emma Thompson, who was, many years ago, his girlfriend, and has been his friend for more than two decades. "He is one of those rare people who manages to be lugubriously sexy - like a well-hung eel."
"He's a remarkable man to know," says his great friend Stephen Fry. "I owe him everything. He's the real thing. Gifted, phenomenally intelligent, and wise." Ben Elton, who has known Laurie for nearly 20 years, cast him in Maybe Baby because: "I always felt with Hugh that there was a secret waiting to be let out. He thinks a great deal. He is not good at selling himself.
Of course, he's terrific at comedy, playing the amiables and idiots, but those who know him well, and not that many do, know that as well as doubt and insecurity he has great inner strength, huge depth and thoughtfulness.'' Laurie is, to anyone looking at his life from the outside, a success, yet he grimaces every time this word is said.
"I've been lucky and was given all the advantages in life, though I fear my background is somewhat timid, dull and middleclass, compared with, say, Stephen (Fry)." Laurie grew up in a comfortable family, six years younger than his next sibling, a brother to whom he wasn't particularly close. He was loved and cared for. "Lovely parents, lovely sisters and brothers. But I was sort of an only child, because I was so much the youngest. Sort of alone.
"I did have problems with my mother, and she with me. I was an awkward and frustrating child. She had very high expectations of me.
Long after I had stopped being a child, I heard from my sisters that I was the apple of her eye, her golden boy, but I didn' t realise it at the time. I knew she had high expectations, which I constantly disappointed.'' Real depression, " heavyweight unhapp iness", began in his late teens and continued despite success, marriage and fatherhood.
Perhaps it is a chemical imbalance, he says, although he will not take drugs for it (once, he admits shamefacedly, he did resort to St John's Wort).
He hates the idea of drugs that will alter him, and anyway, he is not convinced that he wants to be altered.
WORK seems to be Laurie's most obvious escape from those dark clouds, and he has been in the United States recently to put the finishing touches to Stuart Little II, the follow-up to the Hollywood children's movie about an animated mouse, which was a surprise box-office hit two years ago. "I think it's even funnier than the first one," he says of the sequel in which he and Geena Davis play a patrician couple living in Manhattan.
Apart from his other film work, which includes a British romantic comedy, called The Girl From Rio, he is also trying to write his second novel, Paper Soldier, and has been busy adapting his debut novel, The Gun Seller, for the screen.
The Gun Seller took the mickey out of the 007 genre, but Laurie had to abandon his screenplay for John Malkovich's production company because the story involved terrorism: "It's at the bottom of the pile now.
I was working on it for about two years, which is a shame, but people lost a lot more than I did, so it's one of those things."
COPYRIGHT 2002 Solo Syndication Limited