So why hasn’t there ever been a female version of 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 early 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, explaining away the ones that work as exceptions to the rule. 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 even bear to 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: 20 years and six series (not to mention countless live shows) in which Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were seemingly allowed to do whatever they pleased, concocting increasingly ambitious sketches, film spoofs and musical parodies. And, more unusually, playing themselves in linking scenes similar to Morecambe and Wise’s meandering intros and side-by-side bedtime conflabs. Before French and Saunders there was also Wood and Walters, though both Victoria Wood and Julia Walters found greater fame and success in their solo work.
But venture beyond those examples and the disparity between male and female becomes clear. Patsy (Joanna Lumley) and Edina (Jennifer Saunders) in Absolutely Fabulous (inspired by a French and Saunders sketch) are characters. So, too, Laverne & Shirley, Kath & Kim, Ilana and Abbi from Broad City. Julia Davis and Vicki Pepperdine are also playing characters in their brilliant and profane agony-aunt podcast Dear Joan and Jericha. Perhaps the nearest latter-day example of women being allowed to operate by the same rules as men is the knowing comedy-drama Doll & Em, in which Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer play warped versions of themselves à la Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip.
See what I did there? I took a female achievement and explained it by way of comparison to a male-oriented precursor. And therein lies one of the problems: 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 reinvent the wheel and walk on water, preferably at the same time. Or, at the very least, 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 in comedy. The same rule persists in cinema, where any amount of male-led movies can flop without affecting adversely the chances of similar projects, while a single female-oriented failure is used as proof positive that women don’t sell.
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 possibly 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 on stage silently, draped in sheets from which elongated flowers would occasionally emerge like feelers. At some point over the course of the next hour, 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 on film for the Guardian