It will be difficult to convey to younger folk, but I was part of a generation that grew up watching black-and-white TV without complaint. As a result of this innocently monochrome early upbringing, I made no distinction between what was old and what was new. So, when the BBC broadcast Laurel and Hardy films during the school holidays in the early 1970s, I bore no prejudice towards the fact that many of these delightful capsules of vaudevillian shtick were already 40 years old – of even greater vintage in the case of the duo’s silent shorts, which were also shown.
I will always value this home education: the comfort and joy of watching a fat man and a thin man coexist in a square frame, often jostling to find their mark, barging each other to one side, or picking up the other’s bowler hat and placing it on the wrong head. From expat Lancashire lad Stan Laurel and southern gentleman Oliver Hardy, I learned everything there was to know about slapstick, precision and timing, attuned forever to physical comedy. Screenwriter Jeff Pope is of a similar vintage – he’s commented that their movies make him feel like “it is forever a Saturday morning and I am six years old watching the TV at home utterly spellbound.” Pope’s specialism is dramatising the history of real people (from the Moors Murderers and Albert Pierrepoint to Lord Lucan and Cilla Black), and this latest slice of extraordinary life concentrates on the theatre tour in Britain and Ireland that Stan and Ollie undertook in the mid-50s, when they already appeared to dwindling audiences like a heritage act.
The story begins in happier, snappier times, in 1937 at the height of their pre-war pomp. We join them in sun-blessed Hollywood on a technically astounding, seemingly continuous single tracking shot. It’s as if Stan and Ollie have been brought back to life by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as we tail them through the MGM backlot while they discuss contractual options and fall into character whenever addressed by starlet or stagehand. We come to a stop on the soundstage of Way Out West, where producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) berates Stan for some boozy public indiscretion and threatens to fire him. They take their places in front of a backcloth and shoot what will become the beloved, dainty dance routine to At the Ball, That’s All, an innocent jewel of a sequence that Laurel and Hardy have down pat. Despite storm clouds gathering, we’re witnessing peak Laurel and Hardy, a heyday the pair lonesomely pine for during the rest of this melancholy film.
Scottish director Jon S Baird (Filth, HBO’s Vinyl) announces himself as well as his perfectly cast two leads, and thereafter settles into a clean, formal shooting style, often holding a fixed frame in which the two stars interact, as they might once have done for Roach. It is a masterstroke on the part of Pope and Baird to introduce slapstick into the reality of the two fading stars: some business with a bell at the desk of a Newcastle hotel; an oversized trunk that bumps down some stairs. Rather than kitsch back-projection, Baird uses sparing CGI to expand the scenes around real locations in Birmingham and Bristol, as well as London’s Savoy, playing itself when Stan and Ollie make comic capital from the taxi in which their wives – the stern Ida (Nina Arianda from Florence Foster Jenkins) and a devoted Lucille (Shirley Henderson) – arrive mid-tour. Both onstage and off, Coogan and Reilly are note-perfect as Stan and Ollie; the former re-creates Stan’s shtick with precision, the latter carries a neck-brace of prosthetic chin without ever losing his personality beneath the latex. We’ve certainly come a long way since Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.
Though their relationship is strained, and Ollie’s health failing, it’s the lack of bums on velour seats that is the abiding tragedy of the piece. If a hospitalised fat man in traction bemoans a thin man for bringing him hard-boiled eggs and nuts, and nobody buys a ticket to see it, has it really happened at all? In this sense, it will remind comedy connoisseurs of melancholy moments in Tony Hancock’s The Punch and Judy Man (1962), or The Entertainer (1960) with Laurence Olivier (both, crucially, in black and white). While Baird colours in the postwar gloom, this is clearly an affectionate postcard from an age before he was born – a simpler time of domineering wives, hapless husbands and tipped hats, an idyll threatened only by skiffle music.
The question is, though: to fully appreciate Stan & Ollie, must you share its aching nostalgia for a melancholy subject, its fading seaside-postcard setting and a kitsch map with animated arrows to guide us around Britain? Will it offer anything meaningful to an audience under the age of 40? That the piece has been mounted with sincere and adoring affection is beyond doubt, and the supporting cast, dominated by Rufus Jones as supercilious impresario Bernard Delfont, are having the time of their lives, but unlike, say, the biopic of a Great Train Robber or the dramatisation of a recent tabloid scandal, it may lack purchase for a millennial demographic. While, say, a French audience may connect with its clowning and sentimentality (and the berets worn by the geriatric jesters when they are off-stage), even Coogan’s sizeable fanbase might shrug at two out-of-breath comics, down on their luck, trudging around bombsite Britain on the flimsy promise of a film comeback. At the end of the last reel, it’s clear that Stan & Ollie is a film about friendship – after all, it was the pair’s early natural chemistry as solo performers that fed the double-act and nourished it for almost 30 years.
For its target audience of hopeless hankerers after a simpler past, Stan & Ollie will be an absolute delight. But it may go over the hearts and heads of the uninitiated, that’s all.