Wednesday, 17 August 2016
Neil Brand's original radio version of Stan
If you read the earlier post about Jeffrey Holland's Stan Laurel play I bring the happy news that the Neil Brand radio play, Stan, can now be heard on archive.org here.
I have to admit that I hadn't got around to listening to Stan until today - I mean, ever, even though I'd been presented with a CD of it. Having been put off by the TV version the original incarnation wasn't an immediately exciting prospect, despite a former colleague's praise.
Well, now I have heard it and she was right: it's very good indeed. The TV version isn't simply the radio script plus visuals but has been considerably reworked: we see scenes from the pair's past rather than their simply being recounted by the elderly Stan. Nothing wrong with that, but there's no doubt that the intimacy of the radio play, and in particular that feeling of luck and privilege in being magically present, unseen, at the last meeting of these two great clowns is diluted.
Hardy is an audible presence in the radio play, though mostly wordless, but in effect we are Hardy, listening to Stan trying to battle through the fog of his friend's illness. It is up close and personal, and even though it's my experience that radio producers often counsel that radio drama can be epic at considerably less expense than TV or film, Neil Brand's Stan is a powerful reminder that it also does intimate pretty darned well.
I don't know whether or not Neil Brand, or others involved, made the right decisions for television. Like they used to say on quiz shows, the radio play is yours, Mr Brand, we can't take it away from you. So why not treat the TV opportunity as something different? And since the studio-bound, shot-on-video drama seemed to go the way of all technology by the early 90s I'm not sure whether a general audience (as opposed to fans) would tolerate two men in a room talking for forty five minutes. Packaging it as a kind of mini-biopic may perhaps have been a contributory factor in the TV film being made; I don't know. But I do know that the radio version is the one to which I'll be returning - and not because of those jarring brahn eyes (I ask yer!) lodged in the sockets of the telly actor playing the young Stan.
If you have read the Jeffrey Holland post then you will know that the premise is essentially the same for his stage play (well, actually written by, or in collaboration with, a playwright): Stan goes to visit his sick friend and partner.
Having seen the Holland play so recently, however, I have to say it's my impression that Brand has the edge. Holland's performance was great, and it's that which has left more of an impression than the play itself. Which was, I hasten to add, absolutely fine, only Brand feels more incisive. Comparisons - especially without the scripts to compare - may be unfair, however, and it could be said that Brand has the advantage of an extra texture to beguile his audience: we can go some way to interpreting Hardy's reactions from the noises he makes, as opposed to having to invent him purely out of the lines given to Laurel in the stage play. And he doesn't have to solicit laughter from the audience, or not in the same way. (I recall the creator of that great radio curmudgeon, Ed Reardon, explaining to an interviewer that the onstage version couldn't just be a worked-up radio script: the writing had to be different: larger, less subtle and designed to provoke solid laughs rather than fleeting wry smiles.)
Against that, when, at the end of his Jermyn Street Theatre performance, Holland motioned for the audience to applaud the bedframe which represented Hardy it felt right. And the sharing of an experience with a theatre audience is a different sort of intimacy from the one experienced via headphones. So I'm not really comparing like with like and ought to shut up and simply be grateful for the fact that so many people - writers and audiences in whatever medium - still care about, and want to understand, the men behind those unforgettable, loveable and supremely human idiots.
I read recently that there is going to be a proper feature film biopic, so in the fullness of time I may come back to this subject. But for now, please to imagine business with tie.
Oh, but I realise I have altogether forgotten to credit Tom Courtenay as the radio Stan. From my memory of a radio interview with Laurel in his later years the quaver in Courtenay's voice is a good fit. Which makes it rather annoying that on the BBC Radio Extra website the image on the page for the play is taken from the TV version, complete with brahn eyes for the actor playing Stan.
Ouch. Some insect needs to get their hair combed with lead for that.
Jeffrey Holland stage play
Various Laurel and Hardy plays
Radio play about Laurel's first stage appearance