Director: Stephen Cookson
Screenplay: Stephen Cookson, Timothy Spall
Producers: Stephen Cookson
Starring: Timothy Spall
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 83 mins
I grew up watching classic comedy, back when George Formby films were still given a regular airing on TV and 70s sitcoms were ubiquitous in the prime time schedules. Variety shows were still a staple and old clips of Tommy Cooper, Max Wall and Frankie Howerd abounded, while my Mum’s love of films starring Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford inspired me to develop the same affection for their light-hearted confections. There are undoubtedly cosy personal memories that enhance my enjoyment of these comedic treasures of yesteryear and yet there is also a dark side to revisiting these childhood delights, not only in the inevitable discovery of disturbing attitudes from bygone eras which are often at the forefront of the material (try watching a Carry On film now. Actually, don’t!) but also in the acknowledgement of the often troubled mindsets of the stars that made us forget our own troubles. Often it is there in plain sight, such as in the lonely, self-loathing yet egotistical monologues of Tony Hancock, and it sometimes enhances the experience, like those little balls of super-sweet chocolate that are coated in a bitter juxtaposition of tongue-tingling cocoa powder. Sometimes however, it leaves an unpalatable aftertaste.
The inherent creepiness of vintage comedy is something that director Stephen Cookson and star Timothy Spall were clearly keenly aware of when developing the thoroughly odd one-man performance Stanley, A Man of Variety. The story of the last inmate in a prison for the insane which is on the verge of closing down, the film features no other actors but Spall plays a range of comedy stars from yesteryear who visit the troubled Stanley as manifestations, gradually teasing out details of his tragic, if itself bleakly comic, past and getting to the bottom of why it is so important that Stanley be granted leave to visit his daughter’s grave. Although their presence seemingly helps Stanley face up to some long-surpressed issues, the ghostly comedians are less benevolent therapists than taunting, grotesque spectres. Stanley’s love of their work helps him put his own world in a context he can understand and yet in doing so he drains away all the comedy, conjuring up disturbingly chilly versions of their screen personas whose anarchic flailings and barbed bon mots take on an air of the threatening.
The concept for Stanley, A Man of Variety is a marvellous one and yet it loses almost all of its promise in the execution. The eerie, oppressively claustrophobic atmosphere is well achieved, with a sound design that turns apparently joyous snippets of comic business and audience reaction into a patchwork wave of foreboding, but the appearances of the old entertainers themselves are simply grating or unpleasant, rarely tapping into a real sense of the performers. A notable exception is Spall’s dead-on impression of Tony Hancock, and Cookson and Spall’s screenplay gives him a suitably downbeat, witty monologue which is the first moment of real promise after disappointing early encounters with an irritating Max Wall and an ominous James Finlayson. Some of these names and personas may be unfamiliar to audiences who come to Stanley, A Man of Variety with little knowledge of classic comedy and, while this is not necessarily a flaw, it does severely limit the film’s appeal to a handful of aficionados. I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable in this area and yet there were references here that I’d never encountered, such as the lesser-known Frank Randle whose slurred, drunken dialogue with Stanley may or may not be an accurate impression but is certainly annoying either way. Meanwhile, some of the better-known names are slightly beyond the reach of Spall’s game but flawed performance. His attempt at George Formby is alarmingly feeble, emerging as the broadest grotesque of the whole batch. Were it not for the ukulele in his hand (which isn’t even the banjolele style instrument Formby most famously played), Spall’s approximation of the Lancashire comedian would barely be recognisable.
There are also manifestations of comedy characters that were popularised by famous performers but seem to have been divorced from those original readings for no discernible reason. The stern Dr. Boob is based on Peter Sellers’ retrospectively-frowned-upon Indian doctor character from Blake Edwards’ The Party and the hit single Goodness Gracious Me, and this appearance takes the script in a very strange direction in which Boob challenges Stanley, and by extension viewers who have fond memories of Sellers’ dated shenanigans, for his racism. There are important points for discussion here which could spawn a whole other film in themselves but they seem completely out of place. Why should a man who has been living in solitary confinement for decades suddenly be holding himself to account by modern standards, the development of which he so clearly will have missed out on witnessing? Later, Stanley encounters a bearded figure named Igor whom the accompanying collectible DVD booklet informs us is based on Marty Feldman’s character from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. But Spall’s rendition of the character bears no resemblance to Feldman’s clean-shaven creation in either looks or actions.
The final nail in the coffin of Stanley, A Man of Variety is Stanley himself. Played in the classic style of average suburban bores from a plethora of British comedies, Stanley’s predicament is essential in providing some narrative drive to the various sketches that make up the film’s short running time. But the details that are slowly and somewhat inorganically uncovered are neither surprising nor interesting and a final revelation proves to be both confusing and deeply unsatisfying, handed to us as it is in the form of a pre-credits caption. The show-don’t-tell rule is disastrously ignored here as it has been throughout the film, which simply portions out its information across the runtime instead of teasing it out by way of the comedic interventions. Like a very bad comedy routine, the mechanics are clearly on show and consequently the magic is impossible to achieve.
It’s a real shame that such a solid and ambitious concept for a film is so badly squandered in Stanley, A Man of Variety. The tone that needs to be achieved to attract the audience the film seems to crave is a tightrope walk between a celebration of classic comedy and an acknowledgement of its dark-side. Too often in the Youtube comments sections of old Royal Variety Performance clips or moments from black and white films you’ll find missives from people who seem to only be able to celebrate the comedy of a bygone age by tearing down the achievements of those who came next. This conservative stubbornness is something that can and should be challenged and the concept of Stanley, A Man of Variety has the potential to offer just such a critique by way of a post-modern, semi-celebratory deconstruction masquerading as a psychological drama. Sadly, it would take a hell of a writer to achieve such a thing and Cookson and Spall’s screenplay, along with Spall’s sporadically effective but largely oversold performance, just isn’t up to the task.
Stanley, A Man of Variety is released by Tribal Films on DVD and digital download on 29 March 2019. The DVD comes with a handy booklet in which the various comedian’s portrayed by Spall are identified.