Anthony Clavane: Steve Coogan’s brilliant portrayal of Stan Laurel highlights North’s comic heritage

John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. Picture: PA Photo/Entertainment One/Aimee Spinks.
John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel. Picture: PA Photo/Entertainment One/Aimee Spinks.
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Whilst watching Steve Coogan’s poignant portrayal of Stan Laurel last weekend, it occurred to me that the critics rightly heaping praise on both the actor and the Hollywood icon had failed to notice a significant connection between the two comic actors.

Namely that they both hail from the north of England.

Most people are aware of Coogan’s Lancashire roots. Less is known about Stan’s upbringing in the same county and the years he spent treading the boards in Ulverston, and then Glasgow, before crossing the Atlantic – along with fellow Englishman Charlie Chaplin – to become a global comedy legend.

We northerners are well-balanced people. We have chips on both our shoulders. And one of the things I am a bit chippy about is the London-centric media’s failure to recognise, let alone celebrate, our cultural heritage.

A much-admired Observer cartoon of the 1980s, drawn by the incomparable Trog, contrasted a pair of Home Counties champagne swillers, basking in the sun, with a gloomy middle-aged couple from the north. The latter, sheltering from the rain, observed: “They’ve got their prime minister (Margaret Thatcher) why can’t we have ours?” I feel the same way about humour. They’ve got their comedy tradition, why can’t we have ours? After all, it’s much funnier. Very often, of course, the stereotypical northerner acts as a figure of fun for southerners. We tend to be patronised as trouble-at-t’-mill, Tetley’s ale-drinking, black pudding-eating, whippets-racing, bizarrely-accented buffoons who don’t beat around the bush in social situations and are over-bearingly friendly.

Sometimes, as a brilliant TV sketch about that last “foible” demonstrates, the joke is actually on them. In Nish Kumar’s The Mash Report, a sombre-sounding newsreader informs viewers that “a northerner has been accused of terrorising London by walking around saying hello.”

As Coogan’s film Stan & Ollie reveals, Laurel was the brains behind the most popular comedy double act in history. He was the creative genius who wrote and refined their scripts and perfected an act which went beyond mere slapstick, influencing generations of comedians, writers and actors. Stan’s admirers have included Alec Guinness, JD Salinger, René Magritte and Steve Martin. Samuel Beckett “never missed” their films and admitted that his absurdist classic Waiting For Godot was inspired by their routines.

As writers like Tony Hannan (On Behalf of the Committee) and Rosemarie Jarski (The Wit and Wisdom of the North) have pointed out, from the industrial revolution through to the digital age, this country’s greatest comics have hailed from Yorkshire, Lancashire and the north-east and been at the heart of British popular culture.

Think Hylda Baker, Les Dawson, Morecambe & Wise, Victoria Wood, Vic and Bob, Peter Kay and Caroline Aherne. Think The Likely Lads, The Liver Birds, The Royle Family, Phoenix Nights and The League of Gentlemen. Think of great writers like Alan Bleasdale, Alan Bennett, Alan Ayckbourn, Willy Russell, Kay Mellor, John Godber and Sally Wainwright.

What tends to distinguish northern from southern humour is its self-deprecation. “Northern comedians don’t try to be cleverer or smarter than us,” writes Jarski. “Southern comics tell us how they got one over on someone, Northern comics tell us what a prat they made of themselves. There are no airs and graces, no attempts at one upmanship. They are one of us.”

Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film about Laurel and Hardy is remarkable for its self-deprecation. It is set in the early-to-mid 1950s when the two fading stars are travelling around Britain, checking in at third-rate boarding houses, performing in front of half-empty theatres. Stan, like Ollie, is not egotistical or vain. He is a comedy genius – but he remains one of us. It is this identification with the common people, a desire to prick the pomposity of the self-important, an ability to find the comic in the tragedy of everyday life that connects Coogan to Laurel. And connects both men to the great tradition of northern comedy.