A lot of contemporary British comedy is so self-consciously depressive. There’s Alan Partridge’s sojourn in the Travel Tavern, David Brent in tawdry office space in Slough, the village of Royston Vasey (‘You’ll never leave’), Jez and Mark’s fetid inner monologues in Peep Show, and the super-charged atmosphere of the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (DoSAC) in The Thick of It.
That means it is easy to regard the light entertainment, slapstick register of Laurel and Hardy, Morecambe and Wise, the Two Ronnies etc, rooted as it is in the late nineteenth century world of touring variety shows and the music hall, as just not as funny they used to be.
And for all the rich comic vitality of a Malcolm Tucker diatribe, Jeremy’ Usbourne’s POV wanking scenes, the gross-out texture of Royston Vasey’s freak show, Brent’s fixed leer and Partridge’s dim crassitude, John S Baird’s new release ‘Stan and Ollie’, an affectionate tribute to Laurel and Hardy, shows that comedy is no less a quality of the preternaturally messed up, than of the gentle and the good.
We first encounter Stan Laurel (played by an elfin Steve Coogan, who nails Laurel’s weird transatlantic accent) and Oliver Hardy (a convincingly fat-suited John C. Reilly) in 1937 at the height of their fame. A long tracking shot pulls us along with the duo as they saunter through the sun-baked studios of pre-war Hollywood, cheerily flirting with passers-by and joshing about their weekend plans (Hardy wants to hire a yacht), until we find Stan and Ollie in confrontation with co-producer of the picture ‘Way out West’, Hal Roach.
Stan wants a better deal, but his and Ollie’s contracts are out of sync. Stan bets on Fox giving him an improved deal, sure that Ollie will up sticks with him. It doesn’t work out and Ollie makes the film without him.
Zoom to sixteen years into the future and Laurel and Hardy are standing outside a grimy hotel in Newcastle about to set off on a UK tour to garner interest in their next film project, “Rob’em good”, a, you guessed it, spoof of Robin Hood. Criss-crossing the island, the tour goes from bad (no one turns up to their first couple of gigs) to good (a two week long packed-out run in London), but this film is anything but a predictable feel-fine comedy.
In the first stages of the film, Stan and Ollie interact in an atmosphere of stale bonhomie – slightly naff jokes, stilted conversation and the occasional reminisce about better times in the past. That dynamic is shifted into something quite different when their wives turn up, a hilarious double-act in their own right – Stan’s Russian dancer, Ida, utterly devoted to his genius, played in imperious style by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson’s Lucile, fiercely protective of her husband Ollie.
We then find out in quick succession that funding has fallen through for “Rob’em good” and that the interplay between Stan and Ollie is so staid because there remain difficult, hitherto unexpressed, tensions between them. In 1939, Ollie made a film without Stan – Zenobia (which features a real elephant!) which Stan viewed as a betrayal.
We discover that Stan is still unable to forgive his partner which leads to a pulsating confrontation between the two: “I loved us”, Stan tells Ollie. Ollie replies: “But you never loved me”. In a moment, we see Stan and Ollie in a quite different light – Stan as an obsessive, controlling, narrow type, and Ollie a needy, flabby wreck.
That’s the fascinating thing about great double acts – how far does that sublime on-stage chemistry (Coogan and Reilly brilliantly act out a fabulously well-crafted series of comic routines) sustain itself in the messy outside world, where bodies are frail (Hardy has a heart attack) and happiness easily turned sour by addiction (Hardy, gambling; Laurel, drink)?
We are invited to see value in the essential innocence of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy, still as sweet and winsome as it was all those decades ago, and in the truthfulness of their art that comes from love, and their capability of love for each other.