“Show business is not too good in general here. They are all blaming the invasion of TV, which I don’t think has anything to do with it,” wrote Stan Laurel in a letter dated January 19, 1954. “There is a terrific amount of unemployed plus a lot of labour trouble – strikes, etc,” he continued, “Just a lot of bad conditions in the country.” The skinnier half of Laurel and Hardy was writing following a four-week run of shows at Nottingham’s Empire Theatre, a part of the legendary duo’s British Tour, now the subject for a new film Stan & Ollie starring Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly based on A.J. Marriot’s brilliant book Laurel & Hardy: The British Tours. No longer the box-office monoliths they were two decades previously, their eight months in the UK was frequently overshadowed by half-empty theatres, an apathetic press and the rapidly deteriorating health of Oliver Hardy.
Stan Laurel was no stranger to treading the boards in England. Born to a theatrical family as Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire, he honed his craft from the age of 16 in the music hall as a member of Fred Karno’s legendary performance troupe, often serving as understudy to Charlie Chaplin. It was alongside Chaplin that Stan, then still performing under his birth name, made one of his first appearances on the Nottingham Empire stage in the 1910 performance of Jimmy the Fearless. Chaplin was even aboard the same steamer that carried a 19-year-old Stan to the United States for the first time later that year.
The premise was simple: they both thought they were better off without the other, and they were both wrong
Having given up the stage to focus on his film career by the 1920s, Stan signed with the Hal Roach studio, and was eventually paired with Oliver Hardy. Quickly becoming friends, the two developed a comedic chemistry that was to become legendary. With both able to play it either straight or funny, their brand of humour became a prototype of highly visual surrealist slapstick that, although often replicated, has never been bettered. In a 30-year screen career the pair created 106 films, including Another Fine Mess (1930), Sons of the Desert (1933) and Way Out West (1937), successfully navigating their way through the transition from silent cinema to the era of sound – a switch that claimed the careers of more than a few of their contemporaries. Though close friends off-screen, in front of the camera the pair would often become embroiled in ridiculous arguments, descending into ballets of cartoonish violence. The premise was simple: they both thought they were better off without the other, and they were both wrong. Walt Disney once famously said that to be an icon, you must be recognizable in silhouette, and few can claim to remain as recognizably iconic as Laurel and Hardy, with their big-man/little-man frames decked out in ill-fitting suits, wing collar shirts and bowler hats.
But by the early 1950s, a contract dispute between Stan and Hal Roach had seen the pair temporarily split up, and their star began to lose much of its shine. Although always larger in frame, Ollie was at his heaviest as they embarked on their tour of Britain, with many commenting on his inability to complete basic physical tasks without becoming noticeably out of breath. The tour, named Birds of a Feather, was at times a brutal litmus test of the pair’s waning appeal. After a performance at the Glasgow Empire, under the headline ‘The Screen Magic is not there’ the Evening News wrote “They have to struggle with the sort of sketch which is only funny if it’s performed in a church hall with your cousin in the cast. It just comes to this – that you can’t imitate on stage what you can do on the screen.” Brian Harvey, writing in the Post & Mail was no less scathing following their performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome, “you can assure yourself that you have seen Laurel and Hardy ‘in person’, as the posters says. What more? Little, I’m afraid.” Harvey continued, “the sketch itself is flimsy material; and, to do them credit, they do not waste any exertion in trying to stretch it beyond its somewhat pathetic limits.” In a letter penned partway through the tour, Stan wrote, “What’s the matter with poor old England? Old sod don’t seem to like us anymore,” he lamented, “it hasn’t been any fun playing to empty seats, that can really knock down your morale.” The pair had found themselves in yet another fine mess.
But by the end of the year, the tour had started to gain momentum, with Nottingham in particular proving to be a highlight. Unlike many of the cities on the tour, Nottingham had heavily advertised the pair’s arrival, a campaign that began two months before they’d even arrived in the country.
Birds of a Feather was tweaked slightly to become the Laurel and Hardy Christmas Show, and began a busy four-week residency at the 2,200 capacity Nottingham Empire in December 1953, which included a full week of matinees. So popular was their presence in the city that a taxi was required to drive them less than a hundred yards from their hotel to the venue, less they be delayed by the enthusiastic crowds gathering.
Their supporting acts were eclectic, and included performing Pekinese dogs, jugglers, trained pigeons and Tony the ‘Wonder’ Horse. Adding to the festive atmosphere, Stan and Ollie agreed to stay on stage once the show had finished, inviting younger members of the audience on-stage to take part in party games, competitions and a talent show.
The Evening Post noted that the pair were met with “shrieks of delight,” adding, “How splendid it is to recapture that old rapture ‘so funny it hurts!’.” The Guardian Journal were similarly enthused by the pair’s performances, writing that their comedy stylings were “still enough to send all the youngsters and their parents into hysterics.” Writing a letter to a friend the day after Boxing Day, Stan exclaimed, “We had a very good week’s business here to start off the run, and expect to have a very big week commencing tomorrow.”
Residing in Nottingham over the Christmas period provided Stan with the chance to stay with his sister Olga and her husband in their pub, The Bull Inn in Bottesford. “She has a small hotel and pub near Nottingham,” he wrote, “which was an old church back in the days of Oliver Cromwell. I felt like a bloody ghost walking around there!” It’s impossible to overstate the impact it had on the area, which, less than a decade previously, had suffered the ignominy of being the last place in Britain to be attacked by the Luftwaffe, as one of the most famous comedy duos in history joked with locals as they pulled pints behind the bar. A plaque still adorns the wall of the pub today, drawing scores of Laurel & Hardy fans from all around the world, including Stan’s own nephew last year.
Buster Keaton said of him, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest."
Their sold-out Nottingham Christmas show delivered on its promise to provide “a yuletide show brimful of good things for all the family,” standing out as one of the highlights of an otherwise tumultuous UK tour. In an era where social media has broken down the barrier between celebrities and their fan base, it’s hard to comprehend the sheer excitement felt by Laurel and Hardy’s audiences that particular Christmas; not only being offered the occasion to see the pair live, but giving the children an opportunity to share the stage with the legendary duo, and as the Evening Post wrote, ensuring that each child left the theatre “clutching a book, a comic or a balloon, thrilled with a wonderful evening.”
The tour came to an abrupt conclusion in May 1954, when Hardy suffered a heart attack that forced the pair to cancel their remaining dates, sailing back to America a month later, never to return to the UK again. Ollie began to drastically lose weight, completely changing his iconic larger frame. Letters written by Stan suggest that his dear friend had terminal cancer, and a series of major strokes over the next few years left him confined to a bed, unable to talk. Forced to sell his house to pay for his care, Oliver Hardy, known as Babe by his friends, died in August 1957, aged 65. “Even though I had been notified the day before [that] my dead pal Babe wasn’t expected to last but a few hours, the final news came as a shock and upset me very much,” he wrote to a friend, “I miss him more than anyone will ever know and feel quite lost.” Following the death of his beloved partner, Stan Laurel refused to appear on-screen again, and spent the remaining eight years of his life writing, including personally answering every piece of fan mail he received, before dying in 1965 at the age of 74. At his funeral, Buster Keaton said of him, “Chaplin wasn’t the funniest, I wasn’t the funniest, this man was the funniest.”
For those four weeks, they belonged to the people of Nottingham
Globally, Laurel and Hardy’s legacy is without equal, with their influence seen in anything from Samuel Beckett to Kurt Vonnegut, Peter Sellers to John Cleese, Marcel Marceau to Steve Martin and from Harold Pinter to J.D. Salinger. Ricky Gervais states that it was their style of comedy that had the biggest influence on The Office, and even Homer Simpson’s trademark ‘D’oh!’ was inspired by Jimmy Finlayson, the moustachioed Scottish actor who appeared in over thirty Laurel and Hardy films. Here in Nottingham, both the Empire Theatre on South Sherwood Street in which they performed for those four weeks in Christmas 1953 and the County Hotel on Theatre Square at which they resided during the run have long been demolished. But as Stan & Ollie opens in cinemas, playing at Cineworld, Broadway, Showcase and The Savoy, their presence is once again felt around the city, plastered across the sides of buses, on posters in cinema foyers and on the enormous digital advertising screen above the Victoria Centre. Laurel and Hardy left an incredible impact on the world of comedy, becoming amongst the most recognisable faces in history; but for those four weeks, they belonged to the people of Nottingham. They captivated and delighted them as if still in their heady prime, leaving thousands with a lifelong memory of seeing the most famous comedy duo of all time perform just for them.