Where’s the female Laurel and Hardy?
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