THERE should be a blue plaque on the lamppost outside the Plough Hotel in Northampton to mark the October day in 1953 when a council worker found himself atop a wooden scaffold mounted on an old milk float painting the lamppost. Both swaying alarmingly.
Suddenly a second floor window opened and a familiar face popped out to ask the chap with the paint pot: “What are you trying to do? Recreate one of our films?”
Just then, the next door window opened and another familiar face emerged. The council painter was inadvertently performing a stunt for Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
The pair were in Northampton to begin what would turn out to be their last UK theatre tour at the city’s New Theatre. The sad story of that final tour is the subject of Stan And Ollie, a major film that will close the BFI London Film Festival in October, starring Steve Coogan and US actor John C Reilly. It was written by Jeff Pope, Coogan’s co-writer on acclaimed comedy-drama Philomena.
This was Laurel and Hardy’s fourth visit to Britain as a double act. On their first trip, in 1932, their arrival brought London’s Waterloo station to a standstill. When Bernard Delfont brought them over for a tour in 1947, they arrived in February and left in October, and then only because Hardy’s visa was about to expire.
During that season they played at both the Palladium and the Coliseum, an unheard-of accolade for performers; reopened a large section of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway and were inducted into the Grand Order of Water Rats by Robb Wilton, a star English comedian of the time.
Reviewing their act, which involved disastrous attempts to procure a driving licence, The Stage asked “Are Laurel and Hardy as funny in the halls as on the films?” and declared: “They are funnier.”
After a brief diversion to the continent they returned, with Hardy’s papers renewed, to top the bill at the Royal Variety Performance.
Visas weren’t a problem for Laurel. Born in Ulverston – then Lancashire, now Cumbria – he had retained his British nationality.
The UK tours were a welcome opportunity to visit his family including his sister Olga, the landlady of the Bull Inn at Bottesford, Leicestershire. There are numerous pictures of Stan and Ollie clowning behind the bar of Olga’s pub or just enjoying a pint.
On tour here, the pair became friendly with Dump Harris, a novelty xylophone player who bore a striking resemblance to Hardy (known to his friends as Babe). Several times Harris volunteered as a decoy to divert the attention of waiting crowds at railway stations.
Avoiding the scrum isn’t to say that Laurel and Hardy were grand or aloof. Despite their success they remained humble and grounded. In public they were fools; in private they were intelligent men, interested in the people they met. Laurel once went home with a pit band drummer to see his new baby.
Delfont enticed Stan and Ollie back again in 1952, opening in Peterborough, and then again in autumn 1953. There was a sketch set in a psychiatric hospital where Hardy played a patient and Laurel his visitor, with a doctor getting the two confused. Hardy urges Laurel to get a barrister and he returns with a section of a bannister.