Growing old with Laurel and Hardy

WE’RE in the Railway Tavern in Ladybank, Fife, and Tom McGrath is singing to me over our burger and chips. It’s a song from his play Laurel and Hardy at the point in which the two comedians are lamenting the onset of old age. "Growing old/ My jaws unfold/ My face is wrinkled/ Starting to crinkle/ But we’ll be bold/ Before we’re old/ We’ll show them what we’re made of."

The irony is that these are lines McGrath wrote 30 years ago as a young man. Now at the age of 65 and recovering from a stroke, McGrath is looking more than a little crinkled himself, as he prepares for the play’s arrival at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh. Laurel and Hardy’s stage debut was way back in the 1970s.

We meet a week after he has put his walking stick aside, a sure sign of his continuing recovery even if his movements are slow and cautious. His hair is wispy and grey and his face more lined than I remember it, but his eyebrows are thick and dark and his mind as sharp as ever.

Remarkably, there is little evidence of his stroke. His fingers are stiff - preventing him from playing his beloved piano - and the right side of his mouth is slightly more animated than the left, but that’s nothing compared with the paralysis of two years ago. "You have to do a lot of physiotherapy at the start and I was very lucky that they made me do that at the hospital," he says. "The first thing I remember them teaching me was how to stand up and sit down. It’s an extraordinary thing. Everybody tells you it takes a long time and it does. It’s very difficult to believe at times, but it does happen. You do recover."

He says the stroke had milder effects on his mental powers and, thanks to a recovery process that included the keeping of a journal to chart his illness and a subscription to the New Statesman ("The writers are very predictable but it did give me a point of attack"), he is back to his old free-associating powers. "It’s not just to do with your brain, it’s to do with your whole social interaction," he says. "You lose it all."

Conversation with McGrath is never less than fascinating. Every idea he expresses opens up several further avenues of thought, all of which he explores with a careful logic, making new discoveries and still further avenues en route. Like the experimental jazz he listens to, his conversation has the air of a musical theme being repeated, developed and tried out in different contexts. With McGrath, you don’t get sound-bites but spirited improvisations.

He’s helped by a prodigious memory for names and places and a blotting paper ability to absorb ideas from philosophy, literature and pop culture. Our lunchtime interview ricochets from Billy Connolly to Arnold Schoenberg, William Golding to Oscar Peterson, Liz Lochhead to serial music. He talks in as much detail about Animal, his favourite of his own plays which he wrote in 1979, as My Old Man, his latest play, which will be performed by Magnetic North in the autumn.

It’s typical of this pathologically creative man that he should have used artistic expression to recuperate from his illness as well as alternative and mainstream therapies. "I used to just sit writing all the time when I was in the hospital," says the playwright, explaining that the stroke highlighted problems with diabetes and his liver and kidneys. "The journal was very useful for keeping me rooted. All throughout this I was writing the play for Magnetic North and I allowed myself to stay inside the state of being in order to express it. I think it was my saviour. It was a very creative thing. I’ve always had an intuitive response to anything that’s happened to me. I have a basic belief that what happens to me has to happen and I have to respond to it."

The play he’s writing for the autumn draws on themes very close to his heart. "This latest play is about old age. It came from a notion I had about how old people were depicted on stage: they always seem to be the same thing and that annoyed me. But as I was writing it, it became something personal because I became a grandfather. Having a grandson was very moving. He was so small and young and I was getting older and then I got ill."

How, then, does he feel about his 36-year-old self daring to comment on old age in Laurel and Hardy? Doesn’t it seem naive to him now? The reverse is true. "There’s a speech in the play which is a direct quote from Oliver Hardy: ‘When a big body like mine breaks down it’s breaking down forever.’ And he talks about the different things that are going wrong inside him. Now I’m at a stage in my life where all these things are wrong with me. I’ve always looked back on my writing and thought: ‘How did I know that?’"

Before writing Laurel and Hardy, McGrath was known as a musician, poet and editor. In London in the 1960s, he’d worked on Peace News and was a founder editor of International Times, a bible of hippy counter-culture. As a poet, he’d appeared on stage at the Albert Hall in 1965 with Allen Ginsberg and other beat poets.

He makes no secret of his high living at the time, a memory that has returned to haunt him during his recent ill health. "It’s possible that some of the drug abuse in the ’60s has had a bad effect on me - my kidneys for instance - but quite honestly all the checks suggest that the diabetes is the underlying cause of it. Diabetes runs in my family and being overweight was something I inherited from the Italian side."

After his return to his native Glasgow in 1969, he took a degree in English and drama, and in 1972, was musical director on Billy Connolly’s The Great Northern Welly Boot Show, a riotous celebration of the Upper Clyde shipbuilders’ work-in. He ran the Third Eye Centre (now CCA) for three years from 1974, and after Laurel and Hardy, his work as a playwright would go on to include The Hardman in collaboration with gangster-turned-sculptor Jimmy Boyle, and an adaptation of Tankred Dorst’s fabulous Merlin. Most recently, he spent over a decade as the Scottish Arts Council’s associate literary director, a post crucial to the development of many younger playwrights.

Oddly enough, McGrath was not a fan of Laurel and Hardy when two actors asked him to devise a tribute for them to perform. Kenny Ireland, who would later spend a decade at the helm of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, and John Shedden were great fans of the double act, but Stan and Ollie’s heyday had passed by the time McGrath was growing up and he felt they’d gone out of fashion. It was only as he worked on the play that he came to appreciate their comic genius. Repeated exposure to their films - and repeated exposure to many productions of the play since - changed his mind. "I developed a great love for them. In particular I developed an enormous respect for Stan as an artist."

The theme also chimed with his recent stage experience. "I’d been playing piano in The Great Northern Welly Boot Show and I’d been watching how the actors would build their comic business," he recalls. "I used to talk to a lot to Kenny about the relationship between comic business and jazz. Being on stage with Billy Connolly, you couldn’t help but notice they were so much into rhythms. I could tell from the way the actors were hitting the rhythms of the speech whether they were going to get a laugh or not - or how big the laugh was going to be."

Laurel and Hardy was put together in close collaboration with the two actors, the final draft being written in something close to a dream state. "I was travelling on the train back to Glasgow thinking about the rewrite I had to do," he recalls. "I was pretty high by this time - I’d been in the Traverse all day and night - and I got out some paper and just wrote it like it was a poem. I did the entire rewrite on the train. Without sitting down in a linear way, I did it spontaneously in the way I used to write jazz poems. That’s the version that’s now used."

In Tony Cownie’s production for the Royal Lyceum, Steven McNicoll will play Oliver Hardy opposite Barnaby Power’s Stan Laurel. Thirty years on, McGrath still recognises the same writer behind the play. "The techniques that I applied in Laurel and Hardy and the preoccupations I had are still with me. I’m still basically the same writer, though I’ve learned a lot more."

Laurel and Hardy, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, April 23-May 14; My Old Man will tour in the autumn