Laurel and Hardy remain one of cinema’s best-loved double acts. Now, the story of Stan Laurel, the brains behind the partnership, is coming to the stage. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to actor Jeffery Holland about his love for Stan’s comic invention
They were funnier than Charlie Chaplin, more inventive than Harold Lloyd, warmer and more engaging than Buster Keaton, for the past 90 years Laurel and Hardy have entertained generations of fans with their inspired antics and their best-pal camaraderie.
But, the brains behind their success wasn’t producer Hal Roach or directors like James Parrott, Charles Rogers or Leo McCarey, it was Arthur Stanley Jefferson or, to give him his stage name, Stan Laurel. He was the man who devised the routines and unofficially directed and edited the films with a perfectionism that has allowed these classic films to stand the test of time.
Now, Stan’s story is coming to the stage at the HighTide festival next week as veteran actor Jeffery Holland (Spike in Hi-de-Hi) brings …And This Is My Friend, Mr Laurel, his critically acclaimed one man show to Aldeburgh, fresh from the Edinburgh Fringe.
What was the inspiration for doing a play about Stan Laurel now?
‘I have always wanted to do a play about Stan Laurel, he’s been my hero since I was young, watching Laurel and Hardy at Saturday morning pictures. I first had the idea of doing a one man show about Stan way back in the 1970s and I thought it was a great idea because no-one had ever done a one man show about half a double act.
‘What I wanted to do was tell the story about his life off-screen, not too many people knew just how involved he was in making the films. Then I realized, way back in the ’70s, as a young man I couldn’t possibly do a one-man show about Stan Laurel because I wasn’t old enough. You can’t tell a life story until you have had a life.’
So, presumably you now feel you have lived sufficiently to realise your ambition?
‘I have waited 40 years to do this show and its become a great success I am glad to say. I have just got off the train from Edinburgh and I been playing it for the whole of August on the Fringe and I am so pleased with the way it has gone down.
It’s interesting to look at the reactions of audiences because older audiences have grown up with Laurel and Hardy, they know who Stan is, but younger ones just as enthusiastic because they are being introduced to a very talented comedian and a naturally funny man.
I always knew that I would do this how because it always felt right. It was meant to happen. Judy, my wife, kept saying when are you going to do that Stan Laurel show, and I would say when it’s right and now it is.
You are credited as being co-writer so you clearly had an important role in the development of the script.
‘It all came together when we went to see a play by an actress friend and she was doing a play by a writer called Gail Louw. I loved her writing, we met her after the show, I told her about my idea for a show about Stan Laurel and she said, when do we start? It was as simple as that.
She has written the bulk of the play and I have added bits and pieces of comic business. I’m not a playwright that’s her area of expertise. I gave her free reign to tell the story and she came up with the idea of setting in Oliver Hardy’s sick room. The play takes place in September 1956 just after Ollie had suffered that massive stroke which eventually took him. I, as Stan, have come to see my old friend and reminisce.
So people will get a feel of Stan and Ollie’s relationship?
‘Stan was very much the brains behind the outfit. Ollie was a great actor but he was happy just to turn up and do it. Stan was the ideas man, the gag man, and he was very concerned that everything was right. He worked with the writers, developed the routines and when they started shooting was pretty much the director. They had directors but they were there to control the technical aspects, they let Stan take charge of the performance. It made their lives easier because Stan knew what he wanted and they knew he could do it.
I think what makes this story special is that these guys were great friends off camera as well as on screen. Babe, as everyone called Ollie, was happy to disappear off to the golf course knowing that Stan would have everything under control working with the editors in the cutting room, making sure everything was just right. Even after he retired he kept writing, kept dreaming up ideas for routines and worked with people like Dick Van Dyke and Jerry Lewis.’
Top Laurel and Hardy Moments
The dance in the street in Way Out West, closely followed by the song Trail of the Lonesome Pine
Ollie, looking pained, staring mutely at the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and appealing for our sympathy.
Stan coming up with a clear, coherent plan, Ollie slightly taken aback, asks him to repeat it, it comes out as a garbled travesty of the original idea but Ollie understands every word.
Just hearing their theme tune The Dance of the Cuckoos over the credits of their films.
Stan’s ability to flick his thumb like a lighter and create a flame.
Ollie’s embarrassed tie twiddle
Their inspired use of catchphrases, all spoken by Ollie. ‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ along with ‘Why, don’t you do something to help me?’ and ‘And this is my friend, Mr Laurel.’
The way they invented a system of systematic destruction. The way that they would wait patiently for some indignity to be meted out to them before they would calmly respond and then the first person would retaliate until the world around had been laid waste.
Stan and Ollie mugging for the newsreel cameras at a street parade in Sons of the Desert while their wives look on in horror in the cinema, particularly as Ollie is supposed to be at home ill in bed.
The inspired use of exaggerated sound effects, in the very early days of sound, using sounds of stretching rubber for the twisting of body parts and the hollow gong utilised for being struck over the head.
Pioneering the use of special effects and double exposure when they played their own children in Brats, romping around on a specially built giant-sized set.
The fact that Stan knew he was dumb but Ollie, full of southern charm, never twigged that he was just as dim as his friend.
Laurel & Hardy facts
They appeared as a team in 107 films, starring in 32 short silent films, 40 short sound films, and 23 full-length feature films.
Their first ‘official’ film together as a team was Putting Pants on Philip released on December 3, 1927
Won Academy Award for Best Short film for The Music Box at the 1932 Oscars
A number of their films were reshot with Laurel and Hardy speaking in Spanish, Italian, French or German with the supporting cast often being native language speaking actors. Stan and Ollie would be voice coached for their lines.
The first feature film starring Laurel and Hardy was Pardon Us from 1931.
In 1955, Laurel and Hardy made their final public appearance together while taking part in the BBC television programme This Is Music Hall. This was a about the Grand Order of Water Rats, a British variety organisation.