Another fine mess?

John Sessions and Robbie Coltrane play Laurel and Hardy. By James Rampton

A critic on this newspaper once memorably summed up the work of Laurel and Hardy thus: "They hit each other and fall over a lot." There is, of course, a bit more to them than that. Their comedy is timeless - the endless, vain struggle of the little guys to get ahead - and they have influenced everyone from advertisers to Samuel Beckett. They have even spawned the Sons of the Desert Society, who attend screenings of Laurel and Hardy films dressed in bowler hats and fezes.

Their enduring hold on the imagination sparked Tom McGrath to write a stage-play about the pair, which he has now adapted into a radio version starring John Sessions as Stan Laurel and Robbie Coltrane as Oliver Hardy. In the two-hander called, er, Laurel and Hardy, the duo look back on their partnership from beyond the grave.

They first meet on a schlocky Hollywood feature, when Hardy delivers the immortal line to Laurel: "Stick 'em up, insect, or I'll comb your hair with lead." Laurel notices Hardy's comic potential on another (straight) film, when he sees the look on his face as the horse he is sitting on gradually sinks into the sand. As the double act develops, Laurel realises: "The secret is for things to happen slowly. You can have six custard pies in a row and you'll get a laugh. But you'll get a bigger laugh with just one custard pie and a strong reaction." They made 44 films in just 10 years during their halcyon days in the 1930s. After the war, however, they fell out of fashion. "Yesterday in Hollywood I was everybody's host," Laurel laments, "today I'm nobody's guest."

Aided by John Scrimgeour's sterling work on the piano, and liberal delving into the sound-effects archive, the play captures the vivacity of the pair, as well as their infantile bickering. "Stop wiggling your tie," moans Laurel. "If you interrupt me again, I shall wiggle you," Hardy storms in reply.

That puerility is just one reason for Laurel and Hardy's enduring appeal. "They're two vulnerable guys," reckons Patrick Rayner, who directed and produced the play. "They're hapless, but there's no nasty streak in them. It's completely unmalicious humour. If anything dates, it's malicious humour."

Sessions - who like Coltrane, turns in a marvellously spirited, if not always 100 per cent accurate, performance - takes up the theme. "Stan gave off a child-like quality, and there's something deeply attractive about that. The sense of innocence is something that you couldn't get away with now. Playing those child-men - nobody would buy it these days. People are nostalgic for that prelapsarian age. They want the world to be filled with nice gangly men in hats. Nobody knows how to put his hands in his pockets like Stan did. He did it in a deeply elegant, non-faggot way. You wouldn't see Noel or Liam Gallagher doing things with such elegance. A lot of Laurel and Hardy's gags weren't great. It's like Tommy Cooper; if you write it down, it doesn't look that funny. But the sheer force of charm is so enormous, it produces something enchanting."

The plight of Laurel and Hardy in their films - as life's eternal losers - is also endearing. "The fact that they were always on their uppers, victims of the Depression, always trying to make money with ploys that went wrong - we can sympathise with that," McGrath maintains. "There was also a great sadness towards the end of their lives. They were getting battered about in their films, and they were getting battered about in real life, too. What I'm trying to show in the play is that comedy emerged out of tragedy. Comedy's a great act of defiance, a vital spark of life."

Most of all perhaps, Laurel and Hardy achieved effortlessly what all comedians strive for with generally less success: likeability. "Warmth is the quality that comes off Laurel and Hardy," McGrath contends. "I get other things from Chaplin and Keaton, but I don't get that sense of companionship. Laurel and Hardy are lovable and gentle. There are certain lines that they never cross. They never become coarse or swear - the worst word they ever use is 'tarnation'. And yet, it's not nauseating in the way that some people trying to be family entertainers are."

Sessions ends by reflecting on Laurel and Hardy's off-screen relationship. "Stan was the brains. He sorted out the money and the filming. Ollie just did as he was told - which, I must stress, is no reflection on my relationship with Robbie. I wouldn't like to tell Robbie how to do anything."

'Laurel and Hardy', Thur 2pm R4

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?