In 1947, the teenage Derek Malcolm saw the legendary duo perform in London – and was then invited backstage. As the biopic Stan & Ollie premieres, the former Guardian film critic still cherishes the memory.
As someone who met Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, John Ford, Satyajit Ray, Howard Hawks, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and many others in the course of a long stint as the Guardian’s film critic, I am often asked who was my favourite movie star. The answer is none of them. My favourites are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Mind you, I was in my mid-teens when I met them, which probably led to the kind of adolescent hero worship I might later have abjured.
My mother had taken me to the London Coliseum to see them perform. It was 1947 and they were in their 50s, with 20 years as a double act under their belts. It was the matinee of a variety show and they were top of the bill; Elsie and Doris Waters, a pair of well-loved comedians – known as Gert and Daisy – and Rawicz and Landauer – famous piano duettists who played Chopin twice as fast as anybody else – were on the undercard.
I can’t say that Laurel and Hardy were at their very best. Maybe the stage was not their natural habitat, although they were still treading the boards together well into the 1950s, as seen in the new biopic Stan & Ollie, in which Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play the pair during their gruelling final tour of Britain. But I was thrilled to bits just to see them and I asked my mother at the interval whether I could meet them. She asked the theatre manager and he came back with a note. It said: “Yes, but don’t bring your mother …”
The manager took me to the door of their dressing room and knocked, but left before Hardy answered the door. “Come in, young man,” he said. “We have tea and buns on the way for you. This is Stan, by the way, as you can see by his hat. He seldom takes its off, even in bed.”
I was tongue-tied. But when the tray of tea and buns came in, I tucked in enthusiastically. Whereupon Hardy took a bun from the tray, placed it on his chair and sat on it. It was, of course, squashed flat. I’m pretty sure he did it to amuse me. But you never knew with Hardy, who preferred playing golf to working.
Laurel looked horrified, especially when Hardy offered the flat bun to me. He was the master of most situations and the pair’s directors invariably deferred to him on set. He was also the British one, born in Ulverston, Lancashire, in 1890, and was once employed by the music-hall impresario Fred Karno as an understudy to Chaplin. Hardy was born in 1892 in Harlem, Georgia and drawn to the movies from his teens. [ . . . ]