Show Hide image

Back to the fantasy

Public hysteria over Kate, Wills and the royal wedding is another kind of crowd madness, writes Will

In February 1542, Katherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife, was executed under the terms of speedily concocted legislation that made it a capital offence not only for the Queen to have committed adultery, but for her "handlers" to have concealed that she had had sexual liaisons before her marriage. Henceforth it would be treasonable to keep from the king information concerning any "will, act or condition of lightness of body in her which for the time being shall be queen of this realm". The penalty for said light bodies and those who didn't rat on them was to be the same: death.

Half a millennium later, another Kate is getting hitched to an English monarch (albeit one in embryonic form); and while physical death probably wouldn't be Ms Middleton's penalty if it were discovered that she had spent her student days at swingers' clubs swigging back liquid Ecstasy while taking on all comers, she would certainly endure the modern equivalent: death by media. This Kate's head would be digitally severed from her body and pasted on to a billion tabloids, and the sanctity of public opinion would be withdrawn from her - a latter-day excommunication.

Sadly, we can be reasonably sure this ain't gonna happen. Ms Middleton's old linen has been thoroughly mediatised already, while MI5 will have gone over all her known associates with the proverbial pubic lice comb. Unlike poor Katherine Howard (or, indeed, her groom's late mother), no one is saying that the soon-to-be Princess of Wales should be virgo intacta, and yet the phrase "a past but no history", has been used approvingly of her.

Some may feel that my concentration on the sexual hinterland of the royal bride is a little prurient, but let's get this perfectly straight: this royal wedding, like all other royal weddings that involve the line of succession, is all about sex and nothing else. I say sex but what I really mean is procreation - I say procreation but what I really mean is breeding, although not "breeding" in the sense used by old-fashioned snobs, but breeding as practised selectively by members of the Kennel Club, or, indeed, adherents of a satanic cult that uses a so-called "broodmare" in its rituals.

It is difficult in the early 21st century to account for the stands along the Mall, the bunting here, there and every-bloody-where, the memorabilia, the unmemorable blether, and all the other manifestations of hysterical approbation that float around these nuptials in a great cloud of unknowing. Most Britons are pretty clear-sighted folk: they know there's nothing special about members of the royal family in and of themselves; they also understand that, in constitutional terms, the monarchy is a kind of feint, designed to distract us from our gerrymandered electoral dictatorship.

William Windsor seems to be a fairly decent young man, especially considering his upbringing; and while Kate Middleton is ostensibly blameworthy - having chosen to get mixed up with this farrago - she, too, is young and probably wouldn't take much deprogramming. Still, I've known crack dealers with a more aristocratic bearing than this heir to the throne, and I've consorted with prostitutes who were almost certainly wittier and smarter - and who indisputably have far better dress sense - than our future queen. I'm sure that so have most of you. How then do we account for this marriage madness?

The answer is that, just as with that founding father of serial monogamy, the reginacidal Henry, the British crowd is driven mad by the quest for an heir. And so, at a subconscious level, this perverse exercise in humans being treated as if they were miniature Schnauzers grips a good part of the nation.

To themselves, and to anchorwomen from the American TV networks whose visages closely resemble cling film stretched over cold chicken, the royalists will stolidly proclaim the virtues of the couple: their exemplary capability for public service, charity, forbearance, et cetera, et cetera. In fact, they will be unable to view the ceremony except through retinas and camera lenses smeared with royal sperm.

Freud viewed the hysteria of his female patients in fin-de-siècle Vienna as the result of suppressed sexual desire - in his memorable coinage, such phantasmagorical symptoms resulted from a failure to achieve "full genitality". The British body politic is similarly afflicted by delusional thinking. Due to a repressive convention that makes the statement "I want a republic" as unutterable for front-bench politicians as "I want to get laid" would have been for Freud's patients a century ago, the entire nation has become unable to achieve what we might term "full constitutionality". And so the people fall prey to voyeurism and other perversions, seeking their jollies in the consummation of the royal couple's union. Following the days of Pearly Spencer and her genuinely adulterous hubbie, the whole miserable syndrome seemed to be fading away. We had the Prince of Biscuits to thank for this, as his egregious exploits helped expose the grotesque chauvinism that lurks beneath all that satin, silk and tulle. I used to deride Chucky as "Prince of Tampons", but I now think there's something rather affecting about his leaked sex talk, and his blatant refusal to do only who was expected of him - by the public, if not the court.

Now his son is riding to the rescue and the whole storybook phantasia is under way once more: the queen-to-be is a clotheshorse to be serviced, the institution of monarchy is a honey trap for tourists, and so we carry on sending our armed forces - of which the prince is an exemplary officer - off to impose our ways on the Mad Mullah de nos jours.

With lunacy like this abroad in the land, now is not the time to be cutting down funding for mental health services, is it?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm

James Parrott Collection Christophel Alamy
Show Hide image

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

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm