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EMMA JONES: New film shows different side to Laurel and Hardy

Steve Coogan, right, and John C. Reilly in Stan and Ollie. Picture: Aimee Spinks - Credit: Archant

EMMA JONES​ attends the rather unusual screening of a new movie which shows a different side to Laurel and Hardy – and the story’s leading man

As screenings for A-lister films go, this is about the most curious and unpretentious I’ve ever been to. Rain beats down outside on a cold winter’s night, with just a shy glimmer of light in the doorway of the Roxy cinema in Ulverston. There are a couple of people in wet anoraks at the door. Not a paparazzi in sight.

I’ve come up north on the train, following an invitation by text. The only other information I got was a follow-up text which read: ‘Great, Lauren will be there too.’ Great indeed. But who is Lauren?

The text was from Steve Coogan and the invitation was to a screening of his latest film, Stan & Ollie, in the Cumbrian town where Stan Laurel was born. Next to the cinema, is a museum in honour of him and comedy partner Oliver Hardy. The town also has a flower shop called Floral and Hardy and a brewery that makes beer called ‘Another Fine Mess’. When I arrive at the Roxy, there is a woman dressed in a suit and a bowler hat – is she Lauren? Apparently not.

Coogan then slips onto the stage in front of a scarlet curtain with the producer of the film. She is not called Lauren either. He explains exactly why the town had been chosen for this special screening.

‘We were in rehearsals, before we started shooting, and the director got appendicitis,’ Coogan says. ‘And it delayed filming by about a week. So I said to John C. Reilly, who plays Oliver Hardy, ‘let’s go to Ulverston, to visit the museum’.

‘And we came here on a pilgrimage, and we tried on Stan and Ollie’s clothes, and handled their cigarette cases, and hoped that by some sort of osmosis, some spiritual connection would take place, which would bring us nearer to who they were.’

The film focuses on the comedy duo in the 1950s, well past their heyday, when they were down on their luck. The pair were forced to embark on a tour of British theatres, to dwindling audiences. ‘They didn’t have a good movie deal. They were just paid a salary,’ Coogan explains.

‘Their films were shown all over the world, then later on television, but they didn’t have a dime. So they had to make some money – and came to Britain to do a tour. They weren’t very big theatres, they were mid-sized theatres – and that’s what the film’s about.’

There is a perfect serendipity in this choice of venue, then. The faded grandeur of Ulverston’s pre-war cinema, built by Drury and Gomersall, speaks of a long-gone heyday of the silverscreen, when movies were watched, not consumed on Netflix. And the idea of two modern-day Hollywood stars, hanging out at this tiny museum – described as a ‘hobby that got out of hand’ by its lovely founder – adds to the magic. Especially, when the projection grinds to a halt, a couple of minutes after the film starts. A ripple of laughter runs through the audience, made up mainly of Coogan’s family and a few invited local guests.

But when the film flickers back to life again, we’re in for a surprise. For this isn’t the full-on comedy we might expect – it’s a beautiful and touching insight into the friendship between the two men. One that deepens during their final tour, as they struggle through hardship and illness. How their love, built on a shared calling to comedy, endured even after the Hollywood machine had spat them out.

It reminds me of a lyric, from the Liverpool band Shack:

‘Oh the awful title belies the quality,

Of this unusual comedy,

It’s the same for you and me.’

It’s rare that friendship of this kind is ever talked about, let alone explored on-screen. But writer Jeff Pope probes it wonderfully, and the performances of the two leading men are outstanding. In one scene, Stan Laurel visits his ailing friend Ollie ‘Babe’ Hardy at his bedside, echoing their famous ‘hospital sketch’. Laurel realises that Hardy is stone cold, so he climbs into bed with him – the irony is not lost on them. It’s played beautifully by both.

At first glance, Coogan’s role might seem an unlikely choice for the man behind Alan Partridge, an ‘in-yer-face’, larger than life character which you might think is the sort of part that suits him best. But in Laurel, Coogan reveals a different skill – a subtle energy, something tender and heart-breaking to watch.

The transformation into the much older character was boosted by heavy duty prosthetics. ‘I’ve got a false chin, and ears, false teeth to push out my jaw and blue contact lenses,’ he tells me. ‘They wanted to give me a false nose, but I said no.’

When the idea for the film was first mooted, Coogan feared that he’d been overlooked for the part by the screenwriter. ‘Jeff Pope also wrote Philomena (in which Coogan starred). And when he first mentioned the film I thought, ‘I’d love to play Stan’. But I didn’t say anything’.’ It was only later, that Pope suggested the part to Coogan.

The parallels between Coogan and Laurel are there, of course. There are the obvious similarities, not least their shared working class roots in the north. But it’s their grafter’s work ethic and off-screen serious-mindedness which are more important.

Later, over drinks, next door at the museum, friends describe how they are never sure which character Coogan is in. I also learn his family refer to him as Stephen not Steve. (Not that any of this brings me nearer to the elusive Lauren/ Laurel mystery.)

In his low-key way, Coogan discusses the film: ‘The reception (for the film ) has been very good. It’s got some funny bits, but it’s mostly sad. The women get the biggest laughs, so it’s very modern. And it’s only 97 minutes long, which is the other good thing about it.’

Of course, running time is far from the film’s only virtue. I loved Laurel’s line: ‘I’m not getting married again. I’m just gonna find a woman I don’t like, and buy her a house.’

After Hardy’s death, Laurel remained true to the end. He refused to take on another showbiz partner, and their signature suits and bowler hats were donated to the Salvation Army.

Although I feared I may never find out who the mystery Lauren is, I’d had an authentic experience of who the man Stan Laurel was. And Stephen Coogan.

Then, while talking to the producer after the screening, I was reminded of a scene from the film in which Laurel finds his way to a film executive’s office blocked by a hostile receptionist. While waiting, he performs his trademark slapstick gag – in which his bowler hat appears to elevate above his head.

The producer said the skit – which must have taken hours to perfect – had been Coogan’s idea and it was one I remembered him playing me on his mobile phone last year, when they were still filming the movie at Pinewood. The receptionist is unimpressed. She rings through to the executive’s office. ‘There is a Mr Lauren here to see you.’ Mystery solved.

Stan & Ollie is in cinemas from January 11

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