What follows is a piece of arts journalism I wrote for a competition that, having failed to win the prize, has been gathering dust on my computer’s hard drive, so I thought I would give it an airing here.
Those of you who know me well know I have been a Laurel and Hardy fan since I was a young lad.
This piece is a review of the excellent John Connolly biographical novel about Stan Laurel, he. It also makes a passing reference to the movie Stan & Ollie starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly. I hadn’t seen it when I wrote the review; I have now, and although I’m utterly biased on the subject, it’s sublime.
For added value, I include photos of me and my brother outside Stan Laurel’s birthplace in Ulverston. I’m on the right and it was taken circa 1977 (thanks, Mum, for putting us in matching outfits). Compare these against the grainy picture of a young Stan on the same doorstep with his grandmother in the late 1890s.
I hope you enjoy the review.
A review of John Connolly’s he: a novel.
When Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared on This Is Your Life in 1954 the film comedians politely smiled but inwardly squirmed. They were caught off-guard when television lights flooded room 205 of Los Angeles’ Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and a hitherto hidden camera began rolling. The show’s oleaginous host, Ralph Edwards, broadcasting from the nearby NBC studio, informed them their famous lives were to be reviewed in front of millions of viewers.
If the duo, who were in their early sixties by then, said very little, they were nevertheless courteous during the recording. For Laurel the episode was an embarrassment because they were unprepared. His reaction illuminates our understanding of what made the comedian tick.
While the love shown to the comedy duo by legions of fans was genuine, neither man was especially funny in real life and the magical illusion of their on-screen relationship was the result of hard work and finely-honed talent.
To be clear, from the beginning Stan Laurel was a construct.
Irish crime novelist John Connolly has been obsessed with Stan Laurel since childhood.
We were both born in 1968 and are of the generation that grew up watching Laurel and Hardy on television. It was usually one of their vintage two-reelers, twenty glorious minutes of mirth at teatime on BBC2. Connolly was laughing at them in Dublin, while I was a bowler-hatted frisby-throw from Laurel’s hometown of Ulverston in the Lake District. I fed my Laurel and Hardy obsession with trips to see the house where he was born. My dad also took me to the chaotic L&H museum in the town, curated in a low-ceilinged damp old building behind a fish and chip shop.
Laurel and Hardy’s films inexplicably vanished from the TV schedules in the 1990s, but happily, they’re being screened again on niche channels, while a biopic, Stan and Ollie, is due in our cinemas.
From the beginning Stan Laurel was a construct.
He was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890 into a theatrical family. He took the name Laurel in his twenties because Stan Jefferson was thirteen unlucky letters long and took up too much space on theatre bills.
John Connolly’s he: a novel is a work of fiction about the fiction of Laurel’s life. In style and tone it reminded me of David Peace’s biographical Brian Clough and Bill Shankly novels: jabbing, repetitive sentences alive with meticulous detail, and structural gimmicks: Stan Laurel is never named, referred to only as ‘he’ throughout.
This is a book about identity and love affairs. It picks over Laurel’s disastrous personal life, defined by five marriages to four women. It is his relationships with Hardy and his one-time rooming mate, Charlie Chaplin, however, that most interests Connolly.
Laurel understudied Chaplin when they were raw comedians with the Fred Karno company touring Britain and America in the 1910s. Chaplin succeeded early, emerging as the Little Tramp, the most celebrated movie actor in the world. Laurel took another decade to find his comic destiny in the context of a double act with Hardy.
Connolly beautifully dramatises the mixture of love, admiration and revulsion Laurel felt towards Chaplin as the years rolled by. Chaplin never delivered on a promise to help Laurel in Hollywood, and excised all reference to him from his autobiography. Connolly intimates Laurel was disturbed by Chaplin’s predilection for underage girls, although publicly he only ever spoke respectfully about him.
Nevertheless, Laurel never lost his conviction that Chaplin was the greatest comedian who ever lived.
Forget the five marriages. Forget Chaplin.
For Connolly, the heart of he: a novel is Laurel’s love for his screen partner, Oliver Norvell Hardy.
Chance brought them together while both at the Hal Roach Studios. Once they found one another a glorious alchemy occurred. They were sometimes referred to as the fiddle and the bow: together they made the most heavenly music.
Laurel never got over losing Hardy, who died in 1957. He turned down all offers to appear in movies. Aside from not wanting the public to see him as an old man (which would have destroyed that perfectly created celluloid illusion), how could he have been funny without his great foil?
He spent the remainder of his life writing unperformed Laurel and Hardy scripts. He lived in a modest seaview apartment in Santa Monica, left his phone number in the Los Angeles phone book, and welcomed visits by young, genuflecting comedians: Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers.
At Laurel’s funeral in 1965, Buster Keaton said Laurel was the greatest comedian of all, greater than himself and even Chaplin.
Stan Laurel never truly knew how funny he really was.