It has long been said that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, and this has never been more true than in the common link of great personal tragedy that can be found in many a quintessentially British comedian from yesteryear. Think about them; Tony Hancock, an alcoholic and abusive husband who eventually committed suicide. Max Wall, a man who left his wife at the age of forty-seven for a twenty-one-year-old Miss Great Britain, a disastrous relationship which led to his mental breakdown. Margaret Rutherford, a bipolar sufferer who spent her life in and out of institutions, whose father bludgeoned his own father to death with a chamber pot and whose mother committed suicide, hanging herself from a tree. Frank Randle, an alcoholic whose eccentricities often saw him banned from theatres and in trouble with the law and who died virtually penniless. Peter Sellers, blimey how long have you got for Peter Sellers?!
It is this ironic duality that features at the heart of Stanley, a Man of Variety, a deeply peculiar and eccentric one-hander starring Timothy Spall, which the actor co-wrote with the director Stephen Cookson. In the titular role, Spall plays a rather grey and bespectacled, northern man who is seemingly the sole patient in an off-shore psychiatric facility, having been found guilty of some terrible crime. He spends his days mopping the stairwell and gloomy corridors to earn tokens which can be used to purchase some TV time in his small cell. On the television, Stanley is enchanted and enraptured by British comedians from the days of music hall and early cinema and, slowly but surely, these figures begin to intrude his thoughts; hallucinations that torment and confuse him as he attempts to plead for a release on compassionate grounds to visit his daughter’s grave. All of these vintage monochrome characters, from Sellers, Randle, Hancock, Wall and Rutherford, as well as Max Miller, George Formby, Noel Coward and Alistair Sim, among others, are played by Spall. It’s a remarkable testament of the actor’s impressive talent and great range, but it does not make for a satisfying film.
Released digitally and on DVD this week, I had actually first heard about Stanley, a Man of Variety a couple of years ago (indeed, it seems to have been wrapped in 2016 and has been touring the festival circuit ever since) and I knew it was a film that I was going to really like or really hate. Spall himself has claimed that the aim of the movie was to make a cross between the Ealing classic Kind Hearts and Coronets (which, like Spall here, saw the versatile Alec Guinness play a number of roles) and David Lynch’s 1977 film, Eraserhead. A surrealistic, Kafkaesque nightmare with a basis in the great traditions of experimental theatre, Cookson throws a great deal at Stanley, a Man of Variety that ensures it is nothing short of an acquired taste, and one that is not for me. Cookson distorts and warps the sound design to near-intolerable levels, edits the action with a choppy, manic air and employs CGI for a cod-Gilliam hot air balloon ride to freedom sequence. Like fingernails down a blackboard, it all becomes too much for a viewer – or at least this particular one. Amidst this stifling maelstrom, Spall’s Stanley gets rather lost and the exact circumstances of his mental illness and the crimes that led to his incarceration remain enigmatic and reduced to mere captions in the closing credits, leaving the audience to ponder that, if Cookson or Spall have so little interest in the tragedy of their central character, then why should we care either?
I commend Cookson and Spall for their experimentation, but I cannot recommend Stanley, a Man of Variety as a film. It may have worked rather well as an episode of Inside Number 9, from the similarly vintage and macabre loving Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, but that’s about it. If you’re looking to get a dark-edged and surreal fix of your favourite old school comedians, then you’d be better served watching writer/director Paul Hendy’s short film The Last Laugh on Vimeo instead.