Where’s the fe­male Lau­rel and Hardy?

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Ryan Gil­bey,

The cel­e­bra­tory biopic Stan & Ol­lie is at­tract­ing re­views every bit as af­fec­tion­ate as the film’s own treat­ment of Lau­rel and Hardy. That’s only right. The movie it­self may be no great shakes, but the per­for­mances by Steve Coogan as Stan Lau­rel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy are enough on their own to have au­di­ences blub­bing like Stan or wag­gling their ties in the man­ner of Ol­lie. As they shuf­fle around the UK in the 1950s on what was to be their fi­nal stage tour, we get the ar­gu­ments (Ol­lie: “You loved Lau­rel and Hardy but you never loved me!”) and the ten­der­ness (Stan: “All we had was each other: it was just the way we wanted it”), as well as the oc­ca­sional in­sight into the dy­nam­ics of duos.

What it can’t ex­plain – and shouldn’t be ex­pected to

– is why male com­edy dou­ble acts en­dure while fe­male ones re­main an anom­aly. Never un­der­es­ti­mate the in­grained sex­ism of male im­pre­sar­ios, who must have de­creed that au­di­ences sim­ply don’t re­spond to fe­male dou­ble acts. But per­haps there is some deeper rea­son why the sight of two women per­form­ing har­mo­niously to­gether as height­ened ver­sions of them­selves has never prop­erly clicked, or never been al­lowed to.

Lau­rel and Hardy were per­mit­ted to do it; so too were More­cambe and Wise, Lit­tle and Large, Can­non and Ball, the Two Ron­nies, and Flana­gan and Allen. Yet the most vis­i­ble fe­male dou­ble act in my own 1970s child­hood was Hinge and Bracket – and they weren’t even women. Male friend­ship and ri­valry is rou­tinely the stuff of com­edy. Does the no­tion of women get­ting along – or not – make us so un­com­fort­able that we can’t laugh at it?

Fe­male dou­ble acts don’t ap­pear to be thin on the ground, but try to cite ex­am­ples and you quickly find your­self nam­ing char­ac­ters rather than comics. Yes, French and Saun­ders are a deliri­ous in­spi­ra­tion: and there was also Wood and Wal­ters. But ven­ture be­yond those ex­am­ples and the dis­par­ity be­tween male and fe­male be­comes clear. And what­ever women do, they are likely to be judged ac­cord­ing to rules and prece­dents es­tab­lished by men. Gen­der im­bal­ance in the in­dus­try means that men have al­ways been judged on the ba­sis of whether they are funny or not, whereas women tend to be ex­pected to bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the fu­ture com­edy prospects of their en­tire gen­der.

When Mathew Horne and James Corden were sav­aged for their lack­lus­tre BBC Three sketch show Horne & Corden in 2009, no one said it was the end of male com­edy duos; it was just an in­stance of tal­ented per­form­ers over­es­ti­mat­ing their own ap­peal. Yet if a show by a fe­male cou­ple fails to cap­ture au­di­ences’ imag­i­na­tion – think of Wat­son & Oliver on BBC2 in 2012, or Anna & Katy on Chan­nel 4 the next year – it’s some­times treated as a cau­tion­ary tale for women.

Yet if we’re com­plain­ing that there aren’t enough fe­male dou­ble acts, per­haps we’re look­ing in the wrong places: the rise of YouTube and pod­casts must have taught us that. And out in the world of live com­edy, away from the bet-hedg­ing and fence-sit­ting of TV com­mis­sion­ing, there are al­ways plenty of fe­male dou­ble acts tak­ing risks: Lola and Jo, Louise Mother­sole and Re­becca Bis­cuit (Sh!t The­atre) or Maddy and Ma­rina Bye, Ruby Wax’s daugh­ters, who per­form as Sib­lings.

And no one who has seen the peer­less Beard can read the last rites on women in sketch com­edy. One of the most spook­ily de­ranged com­edy ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever had was in the com­pany of duo Matilda Wnek and Rosa Rob­son who be­gan their set milling around silently, draped in sheets from which flow­ers would emerge like feel­ers. At some point, I was dragged on stage to help one of the per­form­ers give birth to a bas­ket­ball. It owed as much to the­atre com­pany Com­plic­ité as com­edy and was all the more in­vig­o­rat­ing for that.

Es­pe­cially pleas­ing in this con­text is the con­sid­er­a­tion given by Stan & Ol­lie’s screen­writer, Jeff Pope, to the women in the comics’ lives. By the time the film hits its stride, Stan is on his fourth and last wife,

Ida (Nina Arianda), while Ol­lie is on his third, Lu­cille (Shirley Hen­der­son). As the women bicker pub­licly at a post-show shindig, an em­bar­rassed pro­moter puts a pos­i­tive spin on it for the as­sem­bled guests: “Two dou­ble acts for the price of one!”

And that’s ex­actly what the film gives us. Arianda and Hen­der­son make Ida and Lu­cille every bit as in­ter­est­ing as Stan and Ol­lie. There is even an echo of Stan’s lov­ing ges­ture to­wards Ol­lie (he places his hand on his part­ner’s dur­ing trou­bled times) in the even­tual rap­proche­ment of these women, who are shown to be very much more than merely the wives of fa­mous men.

Ryan Gil­bey is film critic of the New States­man and writes about film for the Guardian

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.