In 1953, Hollywood comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy embarked on a farewell tour of the British music hall circuit, dragging their luggage from one provincial hotel to the next. They pulled pints for the cameras, judged a beauty pageant at Butlins and reprised slapstick routines from their 1930s two-reelers. The tour was a hit but it was tinged with sadness as well. There are few sights so poignant as the exhausted antics of an ageing clown.
The trick, says Steve Coogan, is to keep moving, branch out. Aged 53, he feels that comedy, by and large, is a young man’s game. He has been there, he has done it, and is shifting towards drama. “It’s fine to be biting, acerbic and silly when you’re young,” he says. “But when you grow up you need to act like a grownup.” Then he catches himself and winces at his presumption. “Maybe that just means I’ve got flabby and middle aged.”
The jury is still out but I think maturity suits him. Coogan’s reputation was forged during his hectic 90s heyday, when he carried himself like a Premier League footballer, the cocksure comic striker behind witless Alan Partridge. These days, the hair has gone grey while the roles have turned more knotty, nuanced and tender. He was deftly affecting in the Bafta-winning ‘Philomena’, thin-skinned and whip-smart in Michael Winterbottom’s ‘The Trip’, and he gives a lovely, limber performance in ‘Stan & Ollie’, a bittersweet account of the duo’s swansong British tour.
On screen, Laurel played gormless underling to Hardy’s finicky little king. Off screen, though, the roles were reversed. Laurel co-directed the pictures and devised the bulk of the gags. He was at once ringmaster and clown, the artist and the clay, to the point where it became difficult to spot where the man ended and the character began.
Coogan suspects that this is a common confusion. “Look at Tony Hancock. Look at John Cleese with Basil Fawlty. What a comedian does is take their own essence and then channel it. Stan certainly did that. And I do it too, principally with Alan Partridge. He’s my way of channelling all my worst tendencies, my general ineptitude.” He pauses: “In fact, come to think of it, it’s not just comedians. Most movie stars are 80 per cent versions of who they are off camera.”
On screen (and arguably off it, too) Laurel and Hardy were at once inseparable and at permanent loggerheads. They gave the impression of being as much tragic as funny, the inspiration for Vladimir and Estragon in ‘Waiting for Godot’. And at times ‘Stan & Ollie’ — directed by John S Baird with a script by Jeff Pope, Coogan’s co-writer on ‘Philomena’ — feels more indebted to Samuel Beckett than to the comedy of Laurel and Hardy producer Hal Roach. It’s a dying fall of a film: a tale of dwindling resources and aching limbs and two men who suspect they are being edged inexorably towards the exit door. Coogan thinks that this is entirely as it should be.
“It’s hard to make a comedy from success,” he explains. “The best ones are about failure and bad luck and inadequacy. And this film is about the transience of all the success that went before.” Another pause. “Do you know that film ‘Anvil: The Story of Anvil’? It’s a documentary about a heavy metal band and their glory days are behind them and they’re flat broke. And I don’t particularly like the music. In fact, I sort of hate it. But what I was really moved by was their affection and unfailing loyalty in middle age. It’s only as they get older that they realise they love each other.”
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Stand & Ollie releases in the UAE on January 10.