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A nice mess of Stan and Ollie is long overdue

WHEN my old dad was in hospital earlier this year, I wanted to take him a bag of hard-boiled eggs and nuts.

I didn't, though. What he got instead was lemon barley water and grapes. You see, he wouldn't have understood. He isn't a diehard Laurel and Hardy fan.

If he had been, the aforementioned provisions would have immediately called to mind the 1932 short, County Hospital. In the movie, Ollie is laid up in hospital with a broken leg when Stan pays him a visit, bearing a bag that turns out to contain said eggs and nuts. "What did you bring me that for?" grumbles Ollie. "You know I can't eat that. Why didn't you bring me candy?"

"Candy costs too much," says Stan. "And you didn't pay me for the last box I brought you."

The scene encapsulates some of the main themes of the duo's humour. Oliver Norvell Hardy - the fat one, for any visiting Martians - is long-suffering, pompous and cursed by having hooked up with a simple-minded friend. Arthur Stanley Jefferson - Stan, the tallish, skinny one - is endearingly childlike, the archetypal innocent abroad. And the Evil Villain Poverty is always just around the corner, waiting to throw a custard pie in their faces, or, more likely, pull their pants down.

Laurel and Hardy were back in the public consciousness yesterday when it was revealed that writer Jeff Pope, whose credits include Mrs Biggs for ITV and the movie Philomena with Steve Coogan, is penning a feature-length biopic of the pair, to be screened on the BBC.

It will tell the story of their 1953-4 UK tour, which came after a run of poorly received films and a split from their mentor, Hal Roach (that tour, incidentally, included Glasgow; Stan's father managed the city's Metropole Theatre, and the future superstar, who attended Rutherglen Academy, gave his first professional performance on stage at the Panopticon).

A biopic is all very well, and will be well worth watching; the duo, after all, lived remarkable lives. They were huge stars in the silent era, and were almost unique in successfully making the transition to the talkies. They were close friends from their first pairing in 1926 to Ollie's death in 1957, and they had more than their share of triumphs and tragedies in between. But seeing two actors play them on the small screen isn't nearly enough; what the world needs now is Laurel and Hardy's movies back on the telly. And the sooner the better.

Maybe they could start with the 1933 classic Sons of the Desert. It's the movie from which the duo's international appreciation society draws its name; and Charlie Lewis, 53, from the Sons of the Desert's Edinburgh Tent (to give the branch its proper name) yearns for their return.

"It's long overdue," he said. "I grew up with them. They used to be regularly shown early on Friday evenings, I remember, but that was a long time ago.

"The BBC has just screened documentaries on Morecambe and Wise; those two drew their inspiration from Stan and Ollie. And after them came alternative comedy. Some of it was decent observational stuff, but a lot of it was protest. After a bit, you think, OK, we get your point, but, come on, give us a laugh. And a lot of it was mean-spirited."

That's not an accusation that could ever be levelled at Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. OK, Stan may end up kicking a policeman's backside, or poking an overbearing oaf in the eye, but they never started it. They get drawn into trouble, the hapless victims of circumstance. And such encounters usually end with a crumpled Ollie bewailing: "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." (Contrary to popular belief, he never said "another fine mess" on screen, though that was the title of a 1930 movie.)

Maybe it's time we reminded ourselves that humour need not always be smothered in slick satire, and that it's good to laugh with the downtrodden, rather than demonising the poor as our lords and masters are so wont to do. Give us back our slapstick, and let's have a belly laugh instead of a bellyful of belligerence.

So please, TV producers. Let's have Stan and Ollie back on our screens. You know it makes sense. As Ollie would say: "Why don't you do something to help me?"

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