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Arts: What a fine mess they got us in

Stan and Ollie have become victims of their own slapstick cliches. Now, 70 years after their first film, a new generation of funny men is acknowledging the original genius of Laurel and Hardy. By James Rampton
ONE CRITIC famously summed up the oeuvre of Laurel and Hardy with the succinct phrase: "They hit each other and fall over a lot." It is true that some people - particularly those from younger generations not steeped in slapstick - think, "oh no, here come Laurel and Hardy, I'd better duck to avoid the low-flying custard-pies". But even a cursory glance at their work reveals how unfair that assessment is.

The modern-day comedian Stewart Lee, himself part of a double act with Richard Herring, believes that the bowler-hatted duo should not be found guilty by association with their pre-War comedy peers. "When you were a kid and they used to put on old films in the morning, even at the age of five you realised that Charlie Chaplin didn't translate to the modern world and that Abbott and Costello, even when they were meeting Frankenstein, were the `black and white' equivalent of Little and Large. Laurel and Hardy have been unfairly bracketed with all that."

Well, you can judge the comic double act for yourselves this week. To mark the 70th anniversary of Should Married Men Go Home? (1928), the first official Laurel and Hardy film, a selection of their best work is being released in cinemas and on video.

But just what made Stan and Ollie different from the cruder, knockabout humour of many of their contemporaries? For Al Murray, three-time Perrier nominee and another contemporary comic admirer, it is the pair's universality that distinguishes them. "Although they may appear slow compared with the high-speed, slam-dunk comedy we're used to now, they have it all. Their comedy operates on the principle that everyone may not have been to America or even worn a bowler hat, but everyone has met an idiot so you can identify with them pretty easily."

It is this Everyman quality that still appeals to Lois Laurel, Stan's 72-year-old daughter. "They're everyday people in everyday situations. We can laugh at the jams they get into - `another fine mess' - because they could happen to anybody." Glenn Mitchell, who, as author of The Laurel and Hardy Encyclopedia, knows more about their work than is strictly necessary, recalls that "Jack Benny once said Laurel and Hardy won't date because they don't rely on jokes per se, but on recognisable human situations that never alter".

Stewart Lee concurs: "Laurel and Hardy are completely timeless. It doesn't matter that their films are old. They're about power struggles in relationships, and everyone can relate to that because everyone has power struggles in relationships. Laurel and Hardy will never not be funny because people will always be bickering with their partners or friends or colleagues."

At the same time, Laurel and Hardy have a deep and touching fondness for each other which never descends into the rank sentimentality of which Chaplin is so often accused. "However frustrated they may become, they know they need each other," says Mitchell. "In Below Zero (1930), they're being roughed up in this cafe and Ollie is thrown out on the street. When he realises Stan's not there, he is visibly distressed. He calls out for him and rushes back to bang on the door of the cafe. It turns out that Stan is in the rain barrel. But for a brief moment we see a very concerned Ollie prepared to risk life and limb to save his friend.

"It's very easy to dismiss them as knockabout comedians, but there's more to them than that. They have such grace and they're such gentlemen - it's not basic clowning where fingers are poked in eyes. Despite occasional squabbles, they have compassion for each other and for other people, unless provoked beyond endurance. They have humanity to spare."

Lee also praises their spirit: "They're like Morecambe and Wise, in that Eric is allowed to pick on Ernie, but when other people try to do it, he defends him. Laurel and Hardy present a united front against outsiders. Also, they suffer in such a dignified way. When things fall on their heads, they don't really get annoyed. Stan will just rub his head and wait for the next thing to land on his head. I like that thing of just accepting your doom."

These eulogies are all very well, but what relevance do Laurel and Hardy have to Nineties' humour? Aren't they just sepia-tinted curios fit only for intensive study by film and comedy anoraks? Not if modern practitioners are to be believed. Morecambe and Wise, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Steve Martin, French and Saunders, Reeves and Mortimer and Steve Coogan are among those who acknowledge the pair's influence. Lee Evans is another fan, a maniacally physical comedian who would seem to be a direct descendant: "I think that the comics of today can't help but be influenced by Laurel and Hardy," he says. "You watch their stuff, and you just think `Wow!' Comedy owes those boys a lot."

According to Mark Little, another stand-up who revels in physicality, "it was work by those guys that inspired me. They didn't mind throwing themselves about a bit, and showing real courage in their comedy. They're like your mates, y'know?"

Further than that, a direct lineage can be traced from Laurel and Hardy down to specific modern-day comedy characters. Tony Robinson, for instance, did not have to look far for inspiration when creating the figure of Baldrick in Blackadder. "I absolutely admit that Stan Laurel, for one, was a great influence when I was developing my character. Baldrick wouldn't have been half the man he was if it hadn't been for Laurel and Hardy. Not that he was much of a man anyway..."

Similarly, Ardal O'Hanlon admits a debt to Laurel and Hardy in the genesis of his Father Dougal character in Father Ted. "When you look at some of the stuff we did, you can almost see Stan and Ollie in that situation. Like when Dougal and Ted tried to carry that piano up the stairs and it ... oh, no, that was Stan and Ollie in Music Box. Well, you can see how easy it is to confuse Father Ted with Laurel and Hardy ..."

Ah, yes, The Music Box (1932) - so many comedians' all-time favourite. I'll let Murray take up the story. "Stan and Ollie have to get this piano up an impossibly long flight of stairs, and much hilarity ensues. The moment that sums them up as a pair of know-nothing geniuses is when they have finally got it up the stairs and the postman says: `Oh, you know you could have put it on your cart and brought it round the back on the road.' Stan and Ollie look at each other, they look at the piano, they look at the postman, and all this takes an eternity. Then they nod to one another and start to heave the piano back down the stairs to put it on the cart. Perfection." And quite a bit funnier than two men hitting each other and falling over a lot.

`Sons of the Desert' (1934), `Helpmates' (1932), `The Music Box' (1932) and `Way Out West' (1937) are released in cinemas nationwide on 4 September. Ten of Laurel and Hardy's best films are released on video on 7 September