HAVING helmed Filth, the aptly named, 18-certificate adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Scots director Jon S Baird goes to the other comedy extreme in Stan and Ollie. What would the kings of gentle comedy have made of Mr Welsh? Best not to ponder and instead simply enjoy this loving and poignant tribute to the greatest comedy double act ever, save for Morecambe and Wise and David Cameron/Nick Clegg.

Baird opens his tale in 1937, when Stan and Ollie, played by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, still ruled the Hollywood lot. But with the likes of Way out West behind them, they had arguably hit their peak. Tensions were starting to show, and the pair fell out after Ollie agreed to star in a picture without Stan.

Cut to 16 years later and it is a very different Stan and Ollie we find. Hoping for a comeback in films, the pair have reunited for a tour of British cities organised by impresario Bernard Delfont. But comedy has moved on, with Norman Wisdom the hot new act to follow. Though Delfont has kept the venues small for the comeback tour, the theatres (including a rather unconvincing looking Glasgow Empire), are half empty.

To ramp up ticket sales, the duo, now joined by their wives (Shirley Henderson as Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as Ida Laurel) have to take part in various publicity stunts, common at the time but not for acts of their former standing. They adapt, though, which is what they always did. They are older now, wiser, and sober, with Stan making a fleeting reference to “the state we were both in”. It would have been worth following this up, but Baird’s picture is more concerned with staying in the present and maintaining a melancholic tone. You won’t see any hell-raising here.

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan make a perfect Stan and Ollie, their natural resemblance to the characters boosted by clever use of prosthetics. Also making an amusing double act in their own right are the wives, the sarky and fiercely loyal Lucille and Stan’s fourth wife, the redoubtable Ida. There are of course three marriages in this picture, with the screenplay by Jeff Pope (Philomena, TV’s Little Boy Blue) exploring the creative partnership of Stan and Ollie, its strengths and weaknesses. A reckoning is on the cards, and all concerned handle the shifts in tone beautifully.

Having a love for one’s subjects does not always work well in a biographical drama, but Baird’s affection for and knowledge of Laurel and Hardy are an asset here. In the end what mattered most was the work, the laughs, and his picture is brimming with both.