Colin Firth - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

You've campaigned on social issues for years. What sparked your political interest?
Adolescent indignation. I've never grown out of it. My father's balanced and complex reasoning used to drive me insane. I now value it. Also travel, and having questioning parents.

In 1972-73 I was in the States. My father, being a lecturer in American history, sat me in front of the Watergate hearings and took me to hear Senator McGovern speak. My father was the chairman of the local Liberals and took me canvassing.

As a Liberal Democrat supporter, do you feel let down by the decision to form a coalition?
I approached the Lib Dems as an activist. So I didn't exactly feel like throwing confetti when I saw Nick Clegg on the lawn with David Cameron.

Who is your political hero, and why?
I'm always encouraged by people who get more radical as they get older, like Mark Twain and Howard Zinn. Also David Henry Thoreau: I love his undertaking to "live deliberately".

You recently set up Brightwide, a website that showcases political cinema. Why?
When my wife and I screened our documentary, In Prison My Whole Life, at film festivals the response was extraordinary -- particularly among young people. Answers as to how to direct that passion were in short supply. We were being asked, "Where do we march? What do we sign? Who do we join? Who do we write to?" It was all too evident that a 90-minute film had the power to motivate people, but that there was no satisfactory way to harness that motivation.

NGOs often rely on slogans, posters -- and celebrity campaigners -- which, in my experience, have less impact. Brightwide allows one to facilitate the other. The likes of me can shut up and let the stories speak for themselves. Civil society organisations and institutions can direct people towards films to help make their case and the audience can be guided to where the action is. It's supported by Amnesty International, Oxfam and the World Wide Fund for Nature.

What sparked your interest in refugees?
My parents and several grandparents [going back generations] were born in India. My sister was born in Nigeria. We travelled a great deal. It helped give me something of the perspective of the outsider. My mother campaigned for the rights of refugees, some of whom were guests in our house. You can't dismiss people as a political problem once you know them.

What influence can films have on the way we think about these issues?
"Issues" always have personal stories behind them. Film provides intimacy with those stories and a chance to weigh things up without being badgered by attitude. Oscar Wilde enjoyed dialogue because in using more than one voice, more than one point of view, he could take issue with himself. A genuinely good film is never purely polemical. Ninety minutes allows for conflicting points of view.

Can film have a social and political impact?
Yes. The banning of films throughout history, and the rage they can ignite in the press, shows that -- from Battleship Potemkin to Life of Brian. Think of the clamour in the right-wing press against The Wind that Shakes the Barley. I experienced it personally many years ago with a film about the Falklands war called Tumbledown. There were cries for it to be banned before it was screened. It was discussed in the Commons. Did it change anything? By itself, I doubt it. But I run into people who remember it and its impact on them. That's why we're screening a thematic film festival during Refugee Week.

Which films have that kind of impact for you?
The Grapes of Wrath, The Battle of Algiers. Most of all, Come and See, a Soviet-endorsed film by Elem Klimov. Currently, The Age of Stupid and The End of the Line, both of which you can see on Brightwide. I remember, when I was about eight, kids in the playground talking about All Quiet on the Western Front. Some had become rather sanctimonious and were lecturing the boys playing war games that they didn't "know what war is".

Which directors do you admire who work in this way, and on these subjects?
All those on Brightwide, obviously. That's why they're there: Michael Winterbottom, Franny Armstrong, Gini Reticker, Rupert Murray, John Akomfrah, Bahman Ghobadi. Also Lynne Ramsay, Antonia Bird, Nick Broomfield, John Crowley, Ken Loach, Mark Evans . . .

What do you most object to about how we respond to refugees in the UK?
I set up Brightwide so I wouldn't have to subject people to my own views. But if I were to say something, I'd mention the demonisation of refugees by the right-wing press. Labour and the Tories have let the tabloids frame their immigration policies. I'd say something about the lack of legal representation. The calculated impoverishment of asylum-seekers. The appalling practice of seizing and locking up asylum-seeking families in conditions proven to wreck their mental health even though it's known that families don't abscond. I'd also remind the new government that it has pledged to stop child detention, which needs to happen quickly.
But thankfully I don't have to say any of that. I can just urge you to go to Brightwide and watch films like Moving to Mars: a Million Miles from Burmaand No One Knows About Persian Cats.

Immigration became an important topic in the recent election campaign. How did you feel about the different parties' approaches?
The current system incentivises black-market labour and human trafficking. The amnesty would have made complete sense -- on both economic and compassionate grounds. It was very courageous of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems to defend such an electorally costly idea during the election. I think they were punished for it.

What do you think about the proposed cap on immigration?
It's a pity for us. There are so many arguments about the figures relating to net contributions made by migrants, that it seems clear that people choose the maths which best suits their ideology or prejudice. By that reasoning -- and not being an economist -- I tend to go for the countless studies which find economic benefit in immigration. The humanitarian argument holds the balance.

Is our political/media culture a healthy one?
I wish the establishment was more courageous about the reactionary press. But I spend enough time in Italy to be thankful for what we have.

You have played a wide range of roles. What draws you to a particular part?
I love the quotation from Miles Davis, "Don't play what you know -- play what you don't know." Easier said than done. Typecasting always beckons.

You were nominated for an Oscar for your role in A Single Man. What was the motivation for doing that role?
Good tale. No self-pity. It seemed an exhilarating risk. Tom Ford is a very compelling individual.

Do you feel like you are still trying to shed the legacy of Mr Darcy?
People increasingly ask me about Mr Darcy as if he's dandruff. My memory isn't good enough to have any real feelings on the matter. I imagine people with dandruff are also blissfully unaware of what they're carrying around.

If you hadn't been an actor, what would you have done, or be doing?
I'd be a squeegee merchant on the Euston Road.

Will you always be an actor, or will you try something else?
I've tried writing. I'm still trying -- I've published one short story in 50 years. That gives you an idea of my pace.

Do the arts get enough support in the UK?
If you ask me, you'll only get special pleading. Gordon Brown pledged £45m to the BFI last year, which was significant. But there needs to be more to enable them to function fully. Anthony Minghella and Amanda Nevill fought very hard to get those funds in order to build a new Film Centre in London. I very much hope this will happen. It will be the first major, stand-alone, new cultural building in London for a very long time. It should be a proper home for the film industry, the BFI London Film Festival, the nation's film collections and their year-round programmes.
I'd love to see an international beacon for film in Britain. It's rather surprising that we don't already have such a thing.

Where is home?
London.

What would you like to forget?
A poor memory is a very good anaesthetic.

Is there a plan?
Not really. I'm sure you can tell.

Are we all doomed?
Oh, I think so -- but we ought to drag it out as long as possible.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
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The love affairs of Stan Laurel: "If I had to do it over again things would be different"

A romantic who craved stability, the English comedian Stan Laurel led a Hollywood love life as chaotic as his films’ plots

The comedian Stan Laurel was, even by the standards of his time, a prodigious correspondent. The Stan Laurel Correspondence Archive Project contains more than 1,500 artefacts, and these are only the documents that have so far been traced, as many of his early missives appear to have been lost. He was, quite literally, a man of letters.

His punctiliousness about correspondence can be ascribed, at least in part, to his natural good manners, but letters were also a means of filling his long retirement. He outlived his screen partner Oliver Hardy – “Babe” to his friends – by almost eight years but refused all offers of work during that time. Instead, heartbreakingly, he wrote sketches and routines for the duo that would never be performed. It was, perhaps, a way for Laurel to speak with Babe again, if only in his head, until he followed him into the dark on 23 February 1965.

Though Laurel and Hardy have never been forgotten, they are currently undergoing an energetic revival. Stan and Ollie, a film dramatisation of their later years, starring Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, is scheduled for release in 2018. Talking Pictures TV is to start showing the duo’s long features from September. Sixty years since Oliver Hardy’s death on 7 August 1957, the duo will soon be rediscovered by a new generation.

They were such different men and such unlikely partners. Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890, in Ulverston, then part of Lancashire, the son of AJ, a theatre manager, and Margaret, an actress. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never again considered an alternative profession, eventually leaving for the United States to act on the vaudeville circuit before finally ending up in the nascent Hollywood. Norvell Hardy, meanwhile, came from Harlem, Georgia, the son of a slave overseer who died in the year of his son’s birth, 1892, and whose first name, Oliver, Norvell took as his own.

Hardy, who had worked as a singer and as a projectionist, became a jobbing actor, often being cast as the “heavy”because of his bulk. Laurel, by contrast, was groomed for stardom, but it repeatedly slipped through his fingers. Unlike Chaplin’s Tramp, or the boater-and-glasses-wearing Harold Lloyd, he had no persona. Only when Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he finally find a mask that fitted, and thus a professional marriage slowly grew into a friendship that would endure until Babe’s death.

Laurel was the creative engine of the partnership, creating storylines and gags, intimately involving himself in the directing and editing of each film, but Hardy was the better, subtler actor. Laurel was a creature of the stage, trained to act for the back rows; Hardy, by contrast, had watched countless films from his projectionist’s perch and knew that the smallest of gestures – the raising of an eyebrow, a glance flicked in the audience’s direction – would be writ large on the screen. Laurel recognised this and tailored his scripts to his partner’s strengths.

Thus – and unusually for such partnerships – they never argued with each other about either screen time or money, despite the notorious parsimony of their producer Hal Roach, who paid them what he could get away with and would not let them negotiate their contracts together in order to weaken their bargaining position. Indeed, apart from one contretemps about the degree of dishevelment permitted to Babe’s hair, it seems that Laurel and Hardy never argued very much at all.

And then Babe died, leaving his partner bereft. What was a man to do but remember and write? So Laurel, always a prodigious correspondent, spent much of his retirement communicating with friends and fans by post. It helped that he had a curious and abiding affection for stationery. During one of the many interviews he conducted with John McCabe, his first serious biographer, Laurel revealed a wish to own a stationery store. Even he didn’t seem sure exactly why, but he admitted that he was quite content to while away entire afternoons in examining grades of paper.

Since letters were Laurel’s primary source of contact with the world, much of his writing is quite mundane. He deals with repeated inquiries about the state of his health – “I’m now feeling pretty good,” he informs a Scottish fan called Peter Elrick on 8 June 1960. “I suffered a slight stroke in ’55, fortunately I made a good recovery & am able to get around quite well again, of course I shall never be in a condition to work any more.” He notes the passing of actors he has known (to Jimmy Wiseman on 29 January 1959: “That was a terrible thing about [Carl] ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer wasn’t it? All over a few dollars’ debt he had to lose his life. I knew him very well as a kid in Our Gang films…”), answers queries about his films and his late partner (to Richard Handova on 21 March 1964: “Regarding the tattoo on Mr Hardy’s right arm – yes, that was an actual marking made when he was a kid – he always regretted having this done”) and often writes simply for the pleasure of having written, thus using up some stationery and enabling him to shop for more (“Just a few more stamps – hope you’re feeling well – nothing much to tell you, everything is as usual here,” represents the entirety of a letter to Irene Heffernan on 10 March 1964).

In researching my novel about Stan Laurel, I read a lot of his correspondence. I had to stop after a while, because the archive can overwhelm one with detail. For example, I might have found a way to include Oliver Hardy’s tattoo, which I didn’t know about until I read the letter just now. But of all the Laurel letters that I have read, one in particular stands out. It was written to his second wife, Ruth, on 1 July 1937, as their relationship was disintegrating. It is so striking that I quote it here in its entirety:

Dear Ruth,

When Lois divorced me it unbalanced me mentally & I made up my mind that I couldn’t be happy any more. I met & married you in that frame of mind, & the longer it went on, the stronger it became. That’s why I left you with the insane idea Lois would take me back.

After I left you, I found out definitely that she wouldn’t. I then realised the terrible mistake I had made & was too proud to admit it, so then I tried to find a new interest to forget it all, & truthfully Ruth I never have. I have drank just to keep up my spirits & I know I can’t last doing that, & am straining every effort to get back to normal.

You’ve been swell through it all, except the few rash things you did. I don’t blame you for not being in love with me, but my state of mind overrules my true feeling. If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business. My marital happiness means more than all the millions.

Why has this letter stayed with me? I think it’s because of the penultimate sentence: “If I had to do it over again things would be a lot different, but not in this town or this business.” Hollywood brought Laurel a career, acclaim and a personal and professional relationship by which he came to be defined, but all at a price.

Stan Laurel was a complicated man, and complicated men lead complicated lives. In Laurel’s case, many of these complexities related to women. His comic performances and lack of vanity on screen often disguise his handsomeness, and monochrome film cannot communicate the blueness of his eyes. Women fell for him, and fell hard. He amassed more ex-wives than is wise for any gentleman (three in total, one of whom, Ruth, he married twice), to which number may be added a common-law wife and at least one long-standing mistress.

Had Laurel remained in Britain, serving an apprenticeship to his father before assuming control of one of the family’s theatres, women might not have been such a temptation for him. At the very least, he would have been constrained by a combination of finances and anonymity. Instead, he left for the United States and changed his name. In 1917, he met Mae Dahlberg, an older Australian actress who claimed to be a widow, despite the existence elsewhere of a husband who was very much alive and well. Laurel and Mae worked the vaudeville circuit together and shared a bed, but Mae – who lacked the talent to match her ambition – was eventually paid to disappear, as much to facilitate Laurel’s wedding to a younger, prettier actress named Lois Neilson as to ensure the furtherance of his career.

Yet it wasn’t long into this marriage before Laurel commenced an affair with the French actress Alyce Ardell, one that would persist for two decades, spanning three further nuptials. Ardell was Laurel’s pressure valve: as marriage after marriage fell apart, he would turn to her, although he seemed unwilling, or unable, to connect this adultery with the disintegration of his formal relationships.

The end of his first marriage was not the result of Laurel’s unfaithfulness alone. His second child with Lois, whom they named Stanley, died in May 1930 after just nine days of life. For a relationship that was already in trouble, it may have represented the final, fatal blow. Nevertheless, he always regretted leaving Lois. “I don’t think I could ever love again like I loved Lois,” he writes to Ruth on Christmas Eve in 1936. “I tried to get over it, but I can’t. I’m unhappy even after all you’ve done to try to make me happy, so why chase rainbows?”

But chasing rainbows was Stan Laurel’s default mode. He admitted advertising his intention to marry Ruth in the hope that Lois might take him back. Even after he and Ruth wed for the first time, he wrote letters to Lois seeking reconciliation. It set a pattern for the years to come: dissatisfaction in marriage; a retreat to Alyce Ardell’s bed; divorce; another marriage, including a year-long involvement with a notorious Russian gold-digger named Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, known by her stage name of Illiana (in the course of which Laurel, under the influence of alcohol, dug a hole in his garden with the stated intention of burying her in it), and finally contentment with another Russian, a widow named Ida Kitaeva Raphael, that lasted until his death.

These marital tribulations unfolded in full view of the media, with humiliating details laid bare. In 1946, he was forced to reveal in open court that alimony and child support payments left him with just $200 at the end of every month, and he had only $2,000 left in his bank account. In the course of divorce proceedings involving Illiana, his two previous wives were also briefly in attendance, leading the press to dub Lois, Ruth and Illiana “triple-threat husband hazards”. It might have been more accurate to term Stan Laurel a wife hazard, but despite all his failings, Lois and Ruth, at least, remained hugely fond of him.

“When he has something, he doesn’t want it,” Ruth told a Californian court in 1946, during their second set of divorce proceedings, “but when he hasn’t got it, he wants it. But he’s still a swell fellow.”

Laurel’s weakness was women, but he was not promiscuous. I think it is possible that he was always looking for a structure to his existence and believed that contentment in marriage might provide it, but his comedy was predicated on a conviction that all things tended towards chaos, in art as in life.

Thanks to the perfect complement of Oliver Hardy, Laurel was perhaps the greatest screen comedian of his generation – greater even than Chaplin, I would argue, because there is a purity to Laurel’s work that is lacking in Chaplin’s. Chaplin – to whom Laurel once acted as an understudy and with whom he stayed in contact over the years – wanted to be recognised as a great artist and succeeded, but at the cost of becoming less and less funny, of leaving the comedian behind. Stan Laurel sought only to make his audience laugh, and out of that ambition he created his art.

“he: A Novel” by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 24 August