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Laurel and Hardy: How the world’s favourite double act came to tour UK theatres

John C Reilly and Steve Coogan in the film Stan and Ollie. Photo: Aimee Spinks

Towards the end of their careers Laurel and Hardy embarked on a UK tour, performing up to 13 shows a week. Stan and Ollie is a new film about their onstage twilight years. Nick Smurthwaite speaks to screenwriter Jeff Pope

At the height of their fame, Laurel and Hardy were the most popular comedy double act in the world. They appeared in 23 full-length feature films that were shown in more than 30 countries.

Having started out in the 1920s, by the late 1940s and 1950s their stars had waned, age was starting to take its toll and they turned to live appearances in the UK where they were as popular as they were at home in the US.

Their second British tour, which ran for six months from 1952 to 1953, is the inspiration for a new film, Stan and Ollie, in which Steve Coogan and John C Reilly give remarkable impersonations of the comedy icons in the twilight years of their partnership.

The Stage reports on Laurel and Hardy’s arrival in 1952 (click to enlarge)

We see them re-enacting some of their best-known routines on stage, struggling with health issues and coping with the gruelling tour schedule inflicted on them by the impresario Bernard Delfont, played by Rufus Jones. Most of all, the film is about the off-stage and off-screen relationship between two very different men.

“It is basically a love story,” says screenwriter Jeff Pope. “During the movie years they didn’t hang out much socially. Like Morecambe and Wise they led separate lives. But when they toured Britain and Europe they were thrown together a lot more. It is about how they became as close in their real lives as they were on the screen.”

The onscreen relationship showed the rotund Hardy to be the more dominant of the two, but the reverse was true in real life. The workaholic Laurel was the creative brains behind their success. When they’d finished a day’s shooting, Hardy would go straight to the golf course, while Laurel studied the rushes and checked over the next day’s script and schedule.

One of Pope’s most useful research tools was AJ Marriot’s comprehensive 1993 volume Laurel and Hardy: The British Tours, which not only records every engagement and performance they gave but also where they stayed, their travel arrangements, the people they met and Laurel’s visits to family members and former homes.

During the UK tours, Lancashire-born Laurel saw his sister Olga Beatrice and her family in Nottingham as often as their schedule would allow. A prolific letter writer, he records how much he enjoyed his visits to Olga and the pleasures of her “wholesome home cooking” after the indifferent food they were used to in the second-rate British hotels and digs they stayed in while touring.

Considering their age and distinction, the tour schedule Laurel and Hardy undertook was gruelling to say the least – Newcastle one night, Plymouth the next, often 13 shows a week – and producer Delfont expected them to do daytime publicity appearances in addition to two or three shows a day.

Jeff Pope

In one letter, written from the Nottingham Empire on December 27, 1953, Laurel writes: “We had a very good week’s business here to start off the run and expect to have a very big week commencing tomorrow. [We are] going to be doing three shows a day, so it’s going to be pretty hard, as we do our act and then appear in the Christmas party too. The last two weeks we do two matinees a week. Shall be glad when it’s all over and we get back to twice nightly again.”

Delfont requested the promotional stunts because, initially, advance booking was so poor. Pope believes this was due to the kind of venues they were playing. “At the time, Delfont was in dispute with Moss Empires, who owned all the big touring venues, so they were playing smaller theatres and the public simply didn’t believe it was the real Laurel and Hardy. I don’t think they felt any animosity towards Delfont. They were grateful he was offering them work when no one else was.”

Pope continues: “Delfont did drive them hard but he also gave them a generous guarantee. As well as being a great showman, he was also a shrewd businessman. I think he was worried about losing his shirt because he wasn’t sure how big a draw they’d be.”

A scene from Stan and Ollie
A scene from Stan and Ollie

Despite their misgivings about the personal appearances, the pair attracted a crowd whenever they appeared in public, and never failed to put on a show. “Stan and Ollie would go into Laurel and Hardy mode at the drop of a hat,” Pope says. “They were like Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe in that respect – all they needed was an audience of one.”

Did he worry that the audience of 2018 might not find them funny? “No, I never felt they would be dated because the humour is still fresh. It’s to do with how perfectly the characters of Stan and Ollie are formed and realised. My greatest fear was that we wouldn’t do them justice. If you’re going to make a film about Laurel and Hardy, at some point you have to believe that’s who you are watching, and Steve and John have achieved that brilliantly.”

Stan and Ollie opens in cinema this week [1]

If you’d like to read more stories from the history of theatre, all previous content from The Stage is available at the British Newspaper Archive in a convenient, easy-to-access format. Please visit: thestage.co.uk/archive [2]