As someone who met Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, John Ford, Satyajit Ray, Howard Hawks, Katharine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin and many others in the course of a long stint as the Guardian’s film critic, I am often asked who was my favourite movie star. The answer is none of them. My favourites are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Mind you, I was in my mid-teens when I met them, which probably led to the kind of adolescent hero worship I might later have abjured.
My mother had taken me to the London Coliseum to see them perform. It was 1947 and they were in their 50s, with 20 years as a double act under their belts. It was the matinee of a variety show and they were top of the bill; Elsie and Doris Waters, a pair of well-loved comedians – known as Gert and Daisy – and Rawicz and Landauer – famous piano duettists who played Chopin twice as fast as anybody else – were on the undercard.
I can’t say that Laurel and Hardy were at their very best. Maybe the stage was not their natural habitat, although they were still treading the boards together well into the 1950s, as seen in the new biopic Stan & Ollie, in which Steve Coogan and John C Reilly play the pair during their gruelling final tour of Britain. But I was thrilled to bits just to see them and I asked my mother at the interval whether I could meet them. She asked the theatre manager and he came back with a note. It said: “Yes, but don’t bring your mother …”
The manager took me to the door of their dressing room and knocked, but left before Hardy answered the door. “Come in, young man,” he said. “We have tea and buns on the way for you. This is Stan, by the way, as you can see by his hat. He seldom takes its off, even in bed.”
I was tongue-tied. But when the tray of tea and buns came in, I tucked in enthusiastically. Whereupon Hardy took a bun from the tray, placed it on his chair and sat on it. It was, of course, squashed flat. I’m pretty sure he did it to amuse me. But you never knew with Hardy, who preferred playing golf to working.
Laurel looked horrified, especially when Hardy offered the flat bun to me. He was the master of most situations and the pair’s directors invariably deferred to him on set. He was also the British one, born in Ulverston, Lancashire, in 1890, and was once employed by the music-hall impresario Fred Karno as an understudy to Chaplin. Hardy was born in 1892 in Harlem, Georgia and drawn to the movies from his teens.
It was clear that they were ageing. The cheers that welcomed them at the theatre, which was three-quarters full, were not so enthusiastic when they left the stage, which may be why they were prepared to entertain a young boy so anxious to see them. If so, they gave no sign of that to me.
They were determined to entertain me and they did so royally, asking me about my school, the subjects I liked and whether I preferred the theatre or the cinema. When I told them I often went to the newsreel cinema on Victoria station, which invariably had a Laurel and Hardy short, along with the boring documentaries and songs, they were clearly very pleased. And they told me that many countries had different names for them. In Iran, they were called the Fat and the Skinny; in Poland, Flip and Flap; in Germany, Chubby and Dumb; and, best of all, in India, Stout and Worrywart.
We spent almost an hour together before they called for the manager, who took me back to my mother, who was waiting impatiently in the foyer. I will never forget that flat bun, or the stories they told me about appearing on television and being informed that they were being introduced to 6 million people: “That will take rather a long time,” said Laurel. Another of his gags I recall from that day was: “I was dreaming I was awake, but I woke up and found myself asleep.”
But it was never verbal jokes that defined the pair. It was the extraordinary way they dovetailed, almost telepathically. No one did double-takes better than Hardy; and few did weeping at fate’s enormity better than Laurel. They once did a short film in which they used 3,000 cream pies, most of which were upended over Hardy.
But it wasn’t the pies that most intrigued me. In another short, the pair sat together in the front seats of an old car that Hardy couldn’t start. And, for a full three minutes they managed to make everyone laugh, just by the various expressions on their faces. It was a masterpiece of comedy I shall never forget, and so was the little dance they did together at the end of their Oscar-winning film The Music Box. Just meeting them was one of the most cherishable moments of my life.