Another chance for another fine mess

 

More than 50 years after their last appearance in Dublin, Laurel and Hardy are returning to the Olympia in a Dublin Theatre Festival show, writes Stephen Dixon

'On to the stage strode a little man wearing a broad, benign grin, a pair of big, baggy trousers, a battered bowler, and carrying what once upon a time might have been a respectable-looking violin case. The crowd roared with delight, only to break into a howl of mirth a moment later when he was followed by a somewhat large gentleman, with a worried countenance and a gleam in his eye that spelled trouble for the little man with the benign grin."

The writer was an Evening Herald reviewer, the venue the Olympia Theatre and the year 1952. It was early summer in Dublin, but midwinter for the cinema's best-loved comedy double-act. Elderly and in poor health, their gentle nonsense deemed too quaint and old-fashioned by Hollywood, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had returned to their vaudeville roots to embark on a series of successful European theatre tours.

They were back at the Olympia a year later, spending two weeks working on a new live sketch, Birds of a Feather. They came to Dublin to rehearse because of delays processing Hardy's visa for the 1953 UK tour, and stayed at the Royal Marine Hotel, Dún Laoghaire. The day before they left for England, they performed Birds of a Feather for the first time in front of an audience at a charity show at the Olympia.

Now, more than half a century on, Laurel and Hardy return to their favourite Dublin theatre, this time played by Barnaby Power (Stan) and Steven McNicoll (Ollie) in Scottish playwright Tom McGrath's Laurel and Hardy. Written 30 years ago, it has been revived from time to time but attained its full flowering only very recently, and arrives in Dublin trailing ecstatic reviews.

On the face of it, the premise seems mawkish. The two comedians, marooned in a limbo-style afterlife, are called to account before they are admitted to heaven. So they talk about their lives and wives, friends and fans, liquor and lovers, re-enacting some of their best routines along the way. Evidently the portraits McGrath paints transcend this unappetising framing, and the uncanny fidelity of McNicoll and Power's impersonations has been widely praised.

I have a tiny personal link to the pair because nearly a 100 years ago my grandfather, Fred Elcock, was friendly with Laurel - still calling himself Stan Jefferson in those days - when they worked together in Fred Karno's troupe of knockabout comedians. Stan (and another young comic named Charlie Chaplin) were the stars and grandad was way, way down the bill. After fighting in the first World War he quit show business, but was always proud of his old pal's success in America and made a point of watching Stan's movies with me whenever they came on TV, sometimes commenting: "That's a bit of business he used to do when we were with Karno."

Not that I needed any persuading. For a child, it is wonderfully liberating to watch adults who are even more clueless than yourself without being fake or patronising. And children can see, too, that despite Ollie's exasperation and Stan's mulishness, the world of Laurel and Hardy is one of great sweetness. Although they continually squabble, they love and care for each other through good times and bad - indeed, all that keeps them going is a mutual dependency, in spite of the unlikely presence of wives or girlfriends in some of the films.

Another point of identification is the way all the disasters that befall them begin by Laurel and Hardy trying to do something quite beyond their modest capabilities, or with innocent but misguided good-heartedness, or, occasionally, as a result of being childishly deceitful.

AT THE HEIGHT of their inventiveness in the 1930s, Stan Laurel wasn't a weedy little guy, nor was Oliver Hardy a preening tub of lard. They were superbly fit slapstick comedians doing a tremendously exacting job with grace and skill, Hardy standing 6ft 2ins and built like an American footballer and Laurel a strong and wiry man of just under average height.

Away from the cameras Laurel was charming and a legendary ladies' man: he had four wives and during two of those marriages managed a 12-year relationship with a lover. He was a heavy drinker in the team's heyday - some say a borderline alcoholic - and his womanising is probably responsible for the preposterous rumour that he fathered Clint Eastwood. Hardy didn't party quite so relentlessly, but he married three times and certainly enjoyed his jar.

I mention these very human traits only because, apart from the ready availability of their films on television and DVD, the iconography of Laurel and Hardy has assumed a separate life as cartoons, posters, advertising aids, bookends, mugs and little figurines in chain stores, so much so that sometimes it's hard to think of them as real people.

It's well known that Laurel was the creative force behind the partnership, spending long days editing their films while Hardy played golf.

This was reflected in the salaries they received from Hal Roach, owner of the studio they were contracted to; because of his gag-writing, editing and producing Stan earned more, with his partner content to be merely an actor who showed up for work on time each day. But what an actor! Stan's respect for Babe (as he was always known) was absolute. When their biographer, John McCabe, ran some of the old shorts for Laurel a few years after Hardy's death, Stan was listless watching himself, perking up only when Babe was on. "He really is a very, very funny fellow," he chortled.

As a double-act, they have never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Consider the old line about an eager but incompetent person: "He can do the jobs of two men - Laurel and Hardy." Now substitute Abbott and Costello, or Morecambe and Wise. Doesn't work, does it?

I asked Steven McNicoll, an Oliver Hardy fan for many years before he was professionally required to immerse himself in the man's life for the show which is coming to Dublin, what were the key elements of Babe's character. "He was the absolute epitome of the Southern gentleman," said McNicoll. "That fastidious courtliness you see onscreen is a quality he had in real life. He was a man of incredible bravery and dignity, because he actually hated the way he looked, and there was something very sad within him because of that."

IN THEIR GLORY days Laurel and Hardy were friendly colleagues who rarely socialised. "Funny, we never really got to know each other personally until we took the tours together," Laurel told McCabe. "When we made pictures it was all business, even though it was fun. Between pictures we hardly saw each other. His life outside the studio was sports - and my life was practically all work, even after work was over. I loved editing and cutting the pictures, something he wasn't interested in. But whatever I did was tops with him. There was never any argument between us, never."

So it was only towards the end, together night and day, that Laurel and Hardy looked at each other properly for the first time, and each found a cherished friend. And those tours brought to their real lives the qualities that had been there all the time in their films: easy companionship, tolerance, consideration for others, decency and that glorious sweetness.

There are plenty of stories to illustrate this. At one provincial British music hall, the stage manager found Hardy, who had severe circulation problems in his legs caused by his weight, laboriously clambering up the steep and narrow stairs to the top dressingrooms of the lesser acts. He explained that he and Stan always asked for the autographs of everyone they worked with. "But they'd be more than happy to come down to your dressing room, Mr Hardy," protested the stage manager. "Oh no," said Hardy. "I am asking the favour, so it is up to me to approach them."

Derek Malcolm, former film critic of the Guardian and a small boy in the 1950s, tells another. His mother had some pull at a London theatre where they were appearing and arranged for him to meet the comedians backstage after a matinee. When the young Malcolm was ushered into the dressingroom they were taking off their make-up, but quickly bustled around organising tea, buns and sweets for their visitor. "Would you like a bun now, Derek?" asked Stan. "Or perhaps you'd prefer it after Ollie has sat on it." There was some silly business with Ollie pretending to sit on the buns and twiddling his tie with embarrassment. Stan tried to help, but his words just came out all wrong. Malcolm laughed until he cried.

Years later Malcolm realised just how generous they had been. Two tired old troupers, a bit down on their luck and far from home, with the glory days of Hollywood stardom just a memory, had taken infinite pains to put on a show in their dressing room for one little boy.

But perhaps we would expect nothing less of them. Because it's all up there on the screen, isn't it? The gentleness behind the escalating mayhem, the conviction that they owed the public their very best shot, the loyalty, the sheer niceness of these men. That's what keeps Laurel and Hardy in our lives today. Plus they're still very funny, of course.

Laurel & Hardy previews at the Olympia Theatre on Fri Sept 30th and runs Oct 1-4th as part of Dublin Theatre Festival (Sept 30-Oct 15). Telephone: 01-6778899 or

see www.dublintheatrefestival.com