IT’S a long, high set of public steps, and the piano crate is hurtling down to the bottom of them, for about the fifth time. Two men, in work clothes and bowler hats, look down – the fat one appalled, the thin one (as ever) dreamily confused.

Elbows out, they bustle to the bottom, and try again to deliver the goods. By this time, you doubt they’ll ever manage it.

No, not some Brexit-inspired physical theatre piece, but the most perfect thing that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy ever made as film comedians – a 1932 “three-reeler” (or 30 mins) called “The Music Box”.

I hadn’t seen this for at least four decades, and thanks to YouTube I laughed my way through it yesterday. A whole childhood instantly evoked, and enough symbolism for our present travails.

Deep in my bones, I love Laurel and Hardy. And I couldn’t be happier that our retromaniac culture has decided to dig them up again – in the form of this new biopic of their final performing years, Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly.

It’s a slightly treacly, but richly satisfying movie about a long creative partnership (and, it suggests, a loving friendship) approaching its final stages, beset by frailty and failure.

The satisfaction comes from the way it roots the iconic roles of Laurel and Hardy – their eternally clashing opposites, somehow miraculously staying together – in the personalities of Stan and Ollie.

It makes sense that Oliver Hardy – fussy, pompous and tie-twiddling on screen – was, in reality, an easy-going conformist. He was equally devoted to the racetrack, and to a succession of expensive wives: unwilling to rock his career boat if it threatened his income.

It also makes sense that Stan Laurel – in his role completely bemused by everyday reality, and willing to entertain any fantasy version of it – was in fact an artistic perfectionist, the effective writer/director of all their best films. The movie shows his brain (and his typewriter) constantly clacking out the next idea for a gag or skit.

Laurel felt frustrated, an under-recognised peer to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Stan’s ambition, compared to his partner’s debt-laden complacency, is the only real tension in this otherwise affectionate movie.

Yet for me, all this biographical info doesn’t remotely exhaust my joy and fascination with the Laurel and Hardy movies themselves.

I put them in a childhood continuum with the Warner Bros “Looney Tunes” cartoons of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Or the episodes of Monty Python, Spike Milligan or the Goodies that my dad would let me occasionally watch beyond the usual bedtime.

What did I enjoy about all of them? At some point in their proceedings, they signal very obviously that they know we’re watching them, that we know that they know we’re watching them ... and I’ll stop there, before this gets too much like a line of Stan Laurel’s dialogue.

In the cartoons, it’s when Wile E Coyote holds up a sign as the boulder falls towards him: “this is going to hurt, isn’t it?” In Python or Milligan, it’s when the newsreader’s desk is set in a field (“and now for something completely different”). Or Spike and his cast step forward, shouting in mindless unison, “What are we going to do now? What are we doing to do now?”

It’s what great comic media does – which is to shake up the frame of reality, with such precision and concision that it wrenches a laugh out of you. It makes reality – often tediously oppressive and overdetermining – into something light and bearable, just for a moment.

The obvious instance of this in Laurel and Hardy is when Ollie slowly turns to the camera (breaking what film scholars call the “fourth wall” of realism). At which point, he conveys his disdain and disbelief at Stan’s latest pratfall, misunderstanding or mangling of language.

Even now, I get the same old childish thrill: he’s looking directly at me, right out of the screen, inviting me to see how silly this all is. Rather than give the duo any avant-garde intentions, it’s obvious that this works because this is early cinema, still mired in the older artforms of vaudeville. These shots capture how a performer would mug for and wink to their live audience, in order to get more giggles.

But in the 1970s, when I first saw their films on tv during the school holidays, it felt like a perceptual upgrade: we’re all in on how reality gets put together here.

It’s been no surprise to read in recent days that Laurel and Hardy were a great influence on Samuel Beckett, and very possibly informed the clownish duo at the heart of Waiting For Godot. (Vladimir and Estragon’s routines with bowler hats, stubborn boots, and imagining being hung from trees, are almost straight lifts from their movies).

But on the other side of the duo, there are the smiles and bewilderments of Stan, bathing the world in the infinitude of his incompetence. Ollie lets us know this show isn’t real – but Stan actually radiates a deeper reality. If we could but admit it, we social humans often struggle to make basic sense of things, to adequately perform our role in the system.

Laurel just visibly gives up on all that effort – and we delight in his ontological anarchism. Take the scenes in “Oliver the Eighth”, where the duo find themselves in the spooky house of a crazed, homicidal heiress.

They all sit down to eat an imaginary dinner, spooning invisible ladles of soup into empty bowls. As usual, Oliver’s looking straight at us, in a state of massive alarm. But Stan adapts entirely, picking up imaginary playing cards, tidying up spilled imaginary salt.

They’re always clonking each other on the head – forcibly reminding us that consciousness precedes reality – and for Stan, that often means a trip into a different universe.

The biopic recreates, as a stage routine, the famous “Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” sketch. This is where Ollie changes Stan, with one decisive mallet tap on the head, from a butch baritone to a camp soprano.

So there they were, superstars in the mid 1930s, as America was crawling out of the Great Depression and watching European war approach. And all this rampant absurdity takes place at the heart of everyday life.

They play (as Andrew O’Hagan once listed) “escaped convicts, delivery men, waiters, musicians, sailors on leave, builders, husbands, tramps, visitors to the dentist, imaginary heirs, salesmen, business associates, Foreign Legionnaires”.

Think of most comics since, and one might imagine most of what they do comes after what Laurel and Hardy did. I highly recommend Stan & Ollie as a cinematic experience – but treat it as a gateway to the mythic, elemental power (and joy) of their heyday movies.

Finally, back to “The Music Box” as metaphor for everything. Or Brexit, at least.

The duo eventually deliver the crated piano – who knows in what condition: the contents are now jingling randomly – to the home address (though the home is largely trashed in the process). When they get there, they do a little victory dance to a “medley of patriotic songs”, tinkling on the player-piano sheet.

Unfortunately, the recipient – a florid middle-European titled “Professor Theodore von Schwartzenhoffen – M.D., A.D., D.D.S., F.L.D., F-F-F-and-F.” – doesn’t like his birthday surprise. In fact, he actively hates pianos, and takes an axe to the box, instrument and all.

Amidst the chaos, Oliver tries at least to get the final delivery deal signed and sealed. Unfortunately, at the very last moment, Ollie’s fountain pen explodes black ink all over the consternated European’s face. Exit two men in bowler hats, with absolutely nothing to show for their Sisyphean efforts, scrambling desperately from the scene. Now that’s prophecy. Never mind genius.

Stan and Ollie (PG), starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly, is showing in all good cinemas