As the new Laurel and Hardy film, Stan & Ollie hits the UKs cinema screens from today – we take a look through the archive at the visit they made to Grimsby and Cleethorpes.
In 1954, when Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy were at the Palace Theatre on Victoria Street, Grimsby – their well-known faces were virtually never seen outside the theatre.
They stayed, with their wives, at the Dolphin Hotel in Cleethorpes (now Smokeshack) and, as a chambermaid there recalled in a letter to the Grimsby Telegraph, they took all their meals in their room and did not communicate very much – but they were always very generous.
She added: “They were not too well and no one saw them very often.”
The Grimsby Telegraph theatre critic at that time (JWB – the late Bill Booth) said in his notice of their performance at the Palace: “To see Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the flesh, on stage, is rather like watching a legend spring to life.
“Their films have been part of the lives of several generations now, but Hollywood is a long way from Grimsby and its inhabitants a little unreal. But there is nothing unreal about Ollie and Stan.
“Both look and act exactly as they do on the screen … Their sketch (Birds Of A Feather) is all good, clean fun, a textbook example of the art of raising laughs without a single blue gag.”
One reader, Patricia Cronshaw, contacted the Grimsby Telegraph following a nostalgia piece and remembered the event. She said: “I vividly remember the scene in their show when the famous pair were throwing all sorts of stuff at each other in the kitchen.
“I remember being in stitches with laughing so much at them.
“Then, being introduced to them afterwards is something else not ever forgotten. I remember feeling a bit nervous at meeting two really famous people, but they soon put me at ease. They were very down to earth.
“I also have my prize book with autograph inside it.”
Ollie suffered a mild 𝕙𝕖𝕒𝕣𝕥 𝕒𝕥𝕥𝕒𝕔𝕜 just a matter of weeks after his appearance in Grimsby and the tour would be the last time that they visited this county. The Palace Theatre was closed in May 1955 – just 14 months after the duo had trod the boards.
There is also another local connection to Stan, who was, at one time, briefly engaged to Ellina Irwin, formerly of Huntleigh Lodge, in Taylor’s Avenue, Cleethorpes.
Speaking to the Grimsby Telegraph in 1974 when aged 81, she said she met her first sweetheart, Stan Laurel, while touring the country with a music hall troupe.
Mrs Irwin treasured the solitaire engagement ring the variety hall comedian gave her when she was Ellina Starr, refined male impersonator.
Sadly, it didn’t work out and a few years later Stan took his talent across the Atlantic and formed his comedy partnership with Oliver Hardy.
Stan & Ollie sees Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play one of the world’s greatest comedy teams, Laurel and Hardy. In the movie, the duo face an uncertain future as their golden era of Hollywood films remain long behind them.
Diminished by age, they set out to reconnect with their adoring fans by touring variety halls in Britain in 1953. The shows become an instant hit, but Stan and Ollie can’t quite shake the past as long-𝕓𝕦𝕣𝕚𝕖𝕕 𝕥𝕖𝕟𝕤𝕚𝕠𝕟 and Hardy’s failing health start to 𝕥𝕙𝕣𝕖𝕒𝕥𝕖𝕟 their precious partnership.
“There’s a trepidation about doing something like this, but to try and do work that you want to be proud of, almost always involves the risk of failure,” notes 53-year-old Coogan, who portrays Stanley Laurel, the Lancashire-born star who started working with American Oliver Hardy in the 1920s.
“I was so intimidated that I said no to the movie at first, a couple of times,” admits Chicago-born Reilly, who is also 53.
“And Jon, [Baird, the director] kept meeting with me like, ‘It’s got to be you. I’m not sure I’ll even do the movie if it’s not you’. So, I started thinking about it more 𝕤𝕖𝕣𝕚𝕠𝕦𝕤𝕝𝕪.”
He adds thoughtfully: “Ultimately, what gave me confidence was that we were not trying to recreate Laurel and Hardy.”
The comedy partnership
Instead, the film takes us behind the scenes of Laurel and Hardy’s partnership; it’s set in 1953 when, diminished by age and with their golden era as the kings of Hollywood comedy behind them, the pair set out on a variety hall tour of Britain.
The tour becomes a hit, but there are plenty of ups and downs along the way, including the fact Oliver’s health is failing (he 𝕕𝕚𝕖𝕕 in 1957 after a series of 𝕤𝕥𝕣𝕠𝕜𝕖𝕤), and ultimately, the unfolding of their partnership.
“One of the first things I said when we started to meet about the script, which we changed quite a bit from its original conception, was this idea that we live in a world of Wikipedia and Google,” explains Reilly.
“If you want to know what Laurel and Hardy were like or what their lives were like, what the personal details of their story were, you can find out in 10 seconds.
“So I said, in our story, we have to offer something that you cannot get anywhere else. Otherwise, what’s the point in going to see the movie?
“And we decided to offer something that no one could know, even their wives; what were these conversations like when it was just the two of them alone in the dressing room?”
Both actors are huge fans of the legendary comedians, and they certainly both fit their respective parts amazingly well when you see them on screen.
“I thought John and I seemed like a really perfect casting,” says Coogan, who was born in Greater Manchester and is most famous for playing Alan Partridge.
“I remember showing my dad, who passed recently, a picture of John and he went, ‘Oh that guy! He’s perfect!'”
As for the approach to his own role, he felt the character of Laurel was a relatable one.
“I didn’t feel like I was playing a Martian,” he elaborates.
“I write comedy, and I’ve performed comedy for 25-plus years. Stan was from the north of England, and I am. I’ve had some success; not internationally the way Stan did, but certainly here…”
He continues of playing Laurel: “We had to rehearse dances, and all the technical stuff was quite 𝕙𝕒𝕣𝕕. But you do feel like, ‘OK, I’m sharing half the 𝕓𝕦𝕣𝕕𝕖𝕟 and I’ve got someone with me who I think is really good at his job’.”
A moving element of the film is Hardy being told he is too ill to continue with their tour. How would the stars feel if they were told they couldn’t perform anymore?
“I don’t know what kind of life that would be,” notes Reilly.
“I’m not sure I could do it, because it’s just so essential to who I am.
“I don’t like it when people tell me anything can’t be done, I’m very American in that way,” he continues.
“Sometimes, I say the road behind me is littered with people who underestimated me.”
“That’s a very good point,” Coogan affirms.
“One of my favourite things is to be underestimated, because it’s like petrol in my tank.
“I remember someone wrote an article in a newspaper, ‘Why they should never make an Alan Partridge movie’ and I thought, ‘For that reason alone I’m going to make it, and make it funny’.”