Why Laurel and Hardy remain the world's greatest comedy double act with an international army of fans 100 years on
On the first Saturday of September scores of folk, many sporting a fez or bowler hat, descend on Bryn Masonic Hall in Wigan.
No, it’s not a sub-group of the Stonemasons, but sundry men, women and children from all parts of the UK – and occasionally abroad – who are Sons (and Daughters) of the Desert and have arrived for the town’s annual Laurel and HarDay.
This happy ritual, celebrating the world’s greatest ever comedy double act, has been going on for three decades now.
And given the healthy number of youngsters who populate the throng, it looks like the Laurel and Hardy legacy is in safe hands for generations to come.
When you consider that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s first appearance on film together was over a century ago and even their last movie is now more than 70 years old, their staying power is quite remarkable.
So much comedy is of the moment that jokes and situations that have people rolling in the aisles one decade can leave those revisiting the humour years later more puzzled or bored than amused.
Charlie Chaplin was undisputably a genius, and his work is still admired today despite its knowingness and now unfashionable sentimentality. But I don’t think it is anywhere near as loved as that of Stan and Ollie: “the dumb, dumb guy and the smart, smart guy who is dumber than the dumb guy but doesn’t know it” as Mr Hardy put it.
A lot more of the humour is relatable to our lives to this day. Yes, there is slapstick, but the dialogue – when used (the pair always recognised there was still always space in a film for silent movie techniques after the arrival of talkies) – is witty and sometimes hilariously confusing and the acting is divine. I rate Oliver Hardy among the screen greats for acting. It’s not just the big man’s delicacy and timing, but his wonderful range of expressions and the way he breaks down the “fourth wall” and looks imploringly at us, the audience, when yet another disaster befalls him.
Catch the moment in the Boys’ first surviving feature Pardon Us (1931) when the pair are in prison, Stan has a buzzing tooth, they go to the dentist and, due to a mix-up too complicated to explain, Ollie’s molar is ruthlessly extracted by mistake.
The camera focuses on his face as shock turns to relief at the assault’s end, then to puzzlement as his tongue begins probing the side of his mouth, then we see confiding sadness as it discovers the new gap.
In The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930) we get a nice example of verbal humour as an impoverished Ollie tries to find out if his pal has any rich relatives:
Oliver : Didn't you once tell me that you had an uncle?
Stanley : Sure, I've got an uncle. Why?
Oliver : Now we're getting somewhere. Is he living?
Stanley : No. He fell through a trap door and broke his neck.
Oliver : Was he building a house?
Stanley : No, they were hanging him.
And there is physical comedy – whether bringing destruction to a sawmill or getting their hats muddled up – and there is “silly.” In the words of the late, great Barrie Cryer: “There’s nothing wrong with silly. Some people dismiss comedy as being ‘silly’ but silly is good.”
One man who agrees is Gary Winstanley, grand sheikh of the Sons of the Desert’s Dirty Work tent (in other words the fan club’s Wigan branch – each one is named after one of the 107 films) which hosts the Laurel and HarDay.
He said: “I love ‘daft’ and ‘silly’ and I’m probably daft and silly half the time myself.
"Stan and Ollie perfected that, made it an art form. Their comedy is also innocent: it appeals to all ages and is not offensive.
"It’s a cliché but it’s true: their comedy is timeless. It’s the type of comedy you can watch again and again and it’s still funny, if not funnier.
"It reminds me of Tommy Cooper telling a joke and then cracking up saying ‘I can’t help laughing because I know what’s coming next.”
Another big fan is the TV presenter, author, composer and silent movie accompanist Neil Brand who recently gave a concert at Parbold at which his piano playing underscored several Laurel and Hardy early shorts.
He said: “What has brought home to me by these concerts is that people are reminded of the simplicity of life back then.
"Laurel and Hardy could make a hilarious scene out of trying to get past each other in a corridor.
"As modern life has become more complex and stressful, seeing two blokes who can't even get through a doorway without problems makes the viewers feel better about themselves and life.
“There is something reassuring about that. No matter how tough things might be for you, Stan and Ollie, faced with the same problems, would have it worse while at the same time make it into something very, very funny.
"They make an art form out of incompetence. But there is always warmth in their films.”
There is certainly a lot of warmth at the Wigan Laurel and Hardy meet-ups. Over the years visitors to Wigan have included the veteran Hollywood actress Jean Darling who appeared with The Boys in the feature Babes in Toyland and was one of the child members of the Our Gang comedies which came from the same Hal Roach studios as Laurel and Hardy.
Stan’s late cousin Nancy Wardell came often in the early days of the festival, and over the decades there have also been international guests from Holland, Germany and the US, including the curators of the Oliver Hardy Museum in Harlem, Georgia.
Needless to say custodians of the Laurel and Hardy Museum in Stan’s home town of Ulverston in Cumbria are among those who attend to enjoy the films, buy memorabilia, swap stories, listen to talks, try a quiz and take part in the annual Kneesy, Earsy Nosey World Championships.
For those of you baffled by the last bit of that sentence, Earsy, Kneesy, Nosey is a co-ordination game involving slapping your knees, then raising and crossing your arms for one hand to grab your nose and the other the ear on the opposite side to the arm, then repeating, only this time the hands swap functions. Stan was a master of it and Ollie, like many people, struggled. If I’ve not described it well enough, it can easily be Googled!
A panel of grand sheikhs sit in judgement as a row of contestants try not to slip up, but usually get eliminated for the most spurious, comical reasons until a champion is hailed.
It’s just the sort of silliness that Stan would have approved of when he authorised the establishment of the Sons of the Desert towards the end of his life in the mid-1960s. He insisted that the only rule of its constitution be that there are no rules.
The Boys did have Wigan connections, by the way. Stan appeared at least once at Wigan Hippodrome on King Street alongside Chaplin when they were both members of Fred Karno’s travelling performers before World War One.
And the double act paid a flying visit to Poolstock speedway and greyhound track in 1947 as part of one of their British tours when their days of making movies was all but over.
It was fitting that when Laurel and HarDays were first held in Wigan, they were hosted at the then Beer Engine club, just yards from the site of that VIP visit.
Back in the early 1990s the show was run by the Bacon Grabbers UK tent from St Helens headed by its grand sheikh Chris Coffey who, sadly, died only a few months ago.
He was the person who helped to rekindle the Laurel and Hardy fandom flame in Wigan which has been kept alight by Gary and others since.
And long may this simple but wonderful comedy continue to burn brightly.