Laurel and Hardy

A fine mess – Neil Brand on why Laurel and Hardy still matter

For this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, acclaimed composer Neil Brand will present an afternoon of music by immortal comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Fully illustrated with stills, clips (both silent and sound) and Neil’s piano accompaniment, the event will culminate with a screening of two of the boys’ best silent short films, Big Business and Liberty

Below, Neil reminds us why, a century after their first film together, the magic of L&H has endured…

Like most of my generation, I first saw Laurel and Hardy on daytime TV when I was growing up.

It was as if, somehow, they had always been there – two 1930s working-class (or lower) buffoons, one aspiring to better things, the other barely conscious until roused. At that time their antics were inexplicably treated as being purely for kids, even when they crossed the line from clowning to real, albeit hilarious, violence.

To me they were funnier than all the other great comics of early cinema for reasons I couldn’t fathom until I began to meet them regularly as part of my day job.

In the mid-1980s I became an improvising silent film pianist, playing regularly at the National Film Theatre in London and learning the enormous repertoire of pre-sound film on a weekly basis: dramas from all countries and of every genre, documentaries, Expressionist nightmares, French and Japanese classics that seemed more real than real-life… and classic comedies inhabited by geniuses. Chaplin mining comedy from being at the bottom of the food chain, Keaton creating his existentialist real-life cartoons in which everything was out to kill him, and Harold Lloyd taking on the American dream with all the vigour and insanity of the Jazz Age.

And then there was Stan and Ollie. Just as I’d first seen them – shirt sleeved, sharing the same puzzled expression and determined to make the best of a bad job, then going about it with a precision of disastrous detail that both fed and defied expectations. And from the piano I welcomed them as old friends.

With the other silent greats, I had to play fast, hitting the gags, riding the laughs and doing my best to keep up. With Laurel and Hardy, I could come in with a slow, lugubrious stride blues, not dissimilar to Leroy Shield’s wonderful compositions for their sound films, and then let their sudden insights and slow, dawning realisations be the drivers of the music. I didn’t spend too long trying to analyse their comedy, I just revelled in their company and loved the audience woofs of laughter at the set-pieces that had often been so intricately prepared, but sometimes came riotously out of nowhere.

In 2005 I wrote a radio play and TV movie, Stan, which looked at their partnership as it was ending, but it wasn’t until the 2018 movie Stan and Ollie came out that I felt there was something of their legacy missing. They were silent comics, forming their symbiotic characters long before sound, and learning their craft as individuals even before that.

Laurel and Brand and Hardy…

Hence the show that I am bringing to the Dublin International Film Festival – I show clips, tell stories and share insights, accompanying the films live on the piano, as to where these two wildly differing comics came from – how they became the warm, funny disaster area we all know and how their comedy works. The show culminates with two of their classic silent shorts, showing them at the peak of their powers, without ever having spoken a word on film.

It has been a pleasure emerging from lockdown with Stan and Ollie, hearing live audiences laugh again, to be reminded that real comedy comes from the simplest of situations, and that, in Babe Hardy’s words “those two fellows… they were nice people, you know?”

And that’s the secret of their timelessness. Somehow or other… we’ve met them before.

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