Stan Laurel, the tall, thin, "dumb" half of the team of Laurel and Hardy, was born on June 16, 1890. To mark what would have been his 126th birthday, Martin Chilton looks at why they comedy duo continue to make people laugh after many a generation
Frank Skinner once admitted that new girlfriends were always "subjected to the Laurel and Hardy test", when he would play a video of the Laurel and Hardy dance sequence from Way Out West. "If she didn't laugh, I instantly wrote her off as a future companion," said Skinner, conceding that this wasn't exactly rational behaviour.
Perhaps we can all be divided by that Laurel and Hardy test. Those who love the Way Out West dance, which captures perfectly the charm and on-screen chemistry of the comedy duo, will already have been delighted by the news that the BBC1 is to film a one-off 90-minute drama called Stan and Ollie – written by Jeff Pope of Philomena note – which is based around their 1953 tour of the UK, during which Hardy suffered a heart attack. In January 2016, it was reported that Steve Coogan will team up with John C Reilly to play the much-loved double act
It is an interesting idea to focus on a period when their best film days were behind them but their deep friendship remained. Even better is that the 125th anniversary of Laurel's birth was celebrated by cinema screenings of Sons of the Desert and County Hospital throughout the UK.
You can still get their films on DVD (ardent fans will have the 21-disc box set) or even visit the lovely and rather touchingly drab and heartwarming Laurel and Hardy Museum in Stan's Ulverston birthplace (although for marital harmony it's possibly best not to go, as I once did, as a wedding anniversary outing) but anything that brings this magical pair back into the limelight is welcome.
During the Seventies, Laurel and Hardy short films were still regularly shown on BBC2 (usually at 6pm) and the comedians they inspired make an impressive roll call. Matt Lucas ("I always thought of them as friends"), John Cleese ("they're wonderfully, wonderfully funny"), Steve Martin ("they are hard to top"), Steve Coogan ("they were geniuses of comedy") and Stephen Fry ("a constant joy") are among the Laurel and Hardy devotees. Graham Linehan, who co-wrote Father Ted, said: "Ardal O Hanlon partly based Dougal on Stan Laurel."
Laurel (born Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who died on February 23 1965) and Oliver Norvell Hardy were both in their late thirties when real success came. They had learnt their trade thoroughly in silent films and musical hall theatre and, after hitting it off in a chance pairing, they made more than 100 films together. They won one Oscar – their 1932 short The Music Box was honoured with an Academy Award for Best Short Subject – and received a further nomination for 1935's hilarious Tit for Tat.
Paul Merton has said he prefers their silent films and among the most enchanting of those is the 1929 film Big Business, in which they play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen in California who have a feud with a homeowner (played by James Finlayson) that ends in chaos and destruction. The Homer Simpson catchphrase "D'oh!" was copied from Finlayson, the stern and mustachioed Scottish actor who appeared in 33 Laurel and Hardy films in all.
Laurel was the patient brains behind the partnership, staying late to finesse production while Hardy skooted off to play golf with his pals Bing Crosby and WC Fields. Hardy said of their accident-prone characters, "Those two fellows we played they were nice, very nice people. They never got anywhere because they were so very dumb, only they didn't know they were dumb." Or as Laurel says to Hardy in Their First Mistake: "I’m not as dumb as you look."
Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five, said: "I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy. There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could so easily be killed."
They were brilliant physical comedians but there was more to their films than slapstick. Laurel was interested in Surrealism and favoured offbeat dialogue ("You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be led") and they are remembered still for a timeless catchphrase, as Hardy looks deadpan at the camera and says: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into".
During that 1953 tour, Laurel and Hardy were mobbed wherever they went. When they were in Ireland, as they were walking down the high street of Cobh, the church bells began to ring out with their famous theme tune, The Cuckoo Song. Laurel said: "We both cried at that time, because of the love we felt coming from everyone."
It's fitting that Shane Allen, BBC controller of comedy commissioning, has described the screenplay for the new biopic, as “Jeff Pope’s love letter to two pioneers and enduring giants of screen comedy." It's even better that a new generation will get the chance to see them on the big screen.
Laurel and Hardy deserve all the love they get.