The true story of Hollywood’s greatest comedy double act, Laurel and Hardy, is brought to the big screen for the first time. Starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as the legendary movie icons, Stan & Ollie is the heart-warming story of what would become the pair’s triumphant farewell tour.
With their golden era long behind them, the pair embark on a variety hall tour of Britain and Ireland. Despite the pressures of a hectic schedule, and with the support of their wives Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda) – a formidable double act in their own right – the pair’s love of performing, as well as for each other, endures as they secure their place in the hearts of their adoring public.
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.
By then, the years were catching up with them. Stan fell ill at the start of a week at Finsbury Park Empire in November 1953 and they were replaced by Jimmy Jewel and his cousin and sidekick Ben Warriss.
When the tour reached Newcastle a couple of weeks later the bill was joined for a week or two by a young ventriloquist called Ray Alan, who was thrilled to be working with his heroes. He watched them like a hawk and learned a lot. These were the days before Alan had created Lord Charles, his then touring companion being a dummy called Steve. Originally Steve had no spectacles but after Eric Morecambe put his own glasses on Steve for a backstage joke Alan bought a pair of child’s sunglasses, popped the lenses out and stuck them to the puppet’s head.
The showbusiness rule is that big stars get the dressing rooms nearest the stage but Alan recalled that after his last show Hardy, despite his legs failing him, made the effort to visit him two floors up in just such a room.
This was a perfect example of the Stan and Ollie’s nature. They kept a huge book of signatures and publicity shots of all the people they worked with and Hardy wanted Alan to sign it.
“I looked back quickly in the book,” Alan recalled in a TV interview. “There was Danny Kaye when he was a little boy. Jack Benny when he really was 39. It was a fantastic book. As I was signing it he noticed some little photographs, half-postcard size, that we used to give out and he said, like a little boy, ‘Do you think you could spare Stan and I a photograph?’ I was choked, I couldn’t believe it. They were wonderful, wonderful people.”
In May 1954 the tour reached The Palace, Plymouth, but after the first night Hardy had a heart attack and the duo returned to the US. Plans for a TV series were shelved as his health worsened.
They made a final appearance, on film, in a 1955 BBC special honouring the Water Rats. Hardy died, aged 65, on August 7, 1957, after a series of strokes. Laurel survived him by eight years, dying in 1965, aged 74. More than 50 years later their legacy lives on.
“Some say they were very funny gentlemen,” said Ray Alan. “I’d call them very funny, gentle men.”