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Why it's hats off to those slapstick legends Stan and Ollie

How peace process led to two fans setting up NI's first Laurel and Hardy appreciation society, which celebrates its 10th anniversary tonight

By Ivan Little

Comedy giants Laurel and Hardy would doubtless see the funny side of it if they knew that the formation of their hugely popular appreciation society in Northern Ireland was linked to the Good Friday Agreement which, at times, was anything but a laughing matter, as another fine mess led to another.

For if the fates hadn't thrown Keith Davidson and Gerry Dunne together in the office of the Hansard debating transcription service after the eventual setting up of a power-sharing Executive at Stormont, the Another Fine Mess Tent (AFMT) as it's called would never have seen the light of day.

Keith says: "It was only after Gerry and I found ourselves at adjoining desks working for Hansard at the Assembly that we discovered that we were both Laurel and Hardy devotees."

They went to a series of meetings of a cross-border fan club, but when the southern organiser found the trips north too much and called a halt, the Dunne and Davidson double act established their own Northern Irish branch of the worldwide Sons of the Desert appreciation society, which got its name from a Laurel and Hardy film.

And tonight the Another Fine Mess Tent - named after another 1930 movie - celebrate their 10th anniversary in the Civil Service club beside Stormont where the comedy duo's knockabout classics will be screened in front of an appreciative membership, still enthralled by the capers of a thin man and a fat man in bowler hats who were at the prime of their careers nearly 100 years ago. Yet their appeal has never died.

It was just before his death in 1965 that Stan Laurel - the skinny one - approved the idea for an appreciation society and drew up its wacky constitution, urging members to wear a fez and to elect a Grand Sheik instead of a Grand Master and to call themselves a Tent rather than a club.

"It's all a laugh," says Keith, the local Grand Sheik. "We get together four times a year to show their movies and generally have a bit of fun."

Given the age of the films, it might be thought that all of the society's members are of a zimmer-frame vintage. But the humour is so timeless that pre-teens and 90-year-olds sit side by side in the audiences.

Keith says: "One of our main aims was to keep the films alive by encouraging younger people to experience them and we've had even more success than we ever imagined possible.

"Parents who love the duo have brought their children along to the film nights and we get almost as much pleasure listening to them laughing at Ollie and Stan as we do from watching the movies themselves.

"We feared with all the games at their disposal children might have been bored, but it's quite the reverse. They love the slapstick and the mixed up language of Stan Laurel, the Stan-isms as we call them."

Keith (51) was hooked on Laurel and Hardy in his youth: "My uncle, Edwin Cassidy, used to show their movies in a cinema club in Portadown and I lapped them up."

The AFMT, who used to meet in Roy Spence's small atmospheric Tudor Cinema in Comber, now has 180 members but, of course, the fanaticism isn't restricted to Northern Ireland.

Across the world, there are hundreds of Sons of the Desert appreciation societies, with no fewer than 40 around the UK, where Laurel and Hardy spent many of their twilight years because their popularity never waned here.

Indeed, they spent two weeks performing in sell-out stage shows at Belfast's Grand Opera House in June 1952.

Newspapers from the time called them the prisoners of the Midland Hotel, which was their Belfast base, and where they were virtually trapped during their days here because there were so many fans besieging the place.

To pass the time Stan Laurel replied to fan letters and several of them can be seen in a website called Letters from Stan. One of the Belfast letters is said to be particularly rare because Stan signed it from Laurel AND Hardy and not just from himself.

Reports say Stan Laurel took ill and was briefly admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, but quite obviously he recovered.

One of Laurel and Hardy's only other daytime sorties outside the hotel was to a barber's shop in Whitla Street and for years afterwards the hairdresser had a sign outside saying "We cut Laurel and Hardy's hair. Let us cut yours".

But another fine myth is that Belfast's own laughter-maker Frank Carson met Laurel and Hardy in that barber's shop. In interviews, however, he said he actually bumped into them just outside the Midland Hotel, which was close to his home.

He said he thanked them for the many hours of happiness they'd given him. "They both reached out their hands and Ollie pushed Stan's hand away as he had done a thousand times in the movies.

"I can still see them as they waved me goodbye."

Carson was so inspired by the chance encounter that in 1990 he erected a plaque to Laurel and Hardy's visit to Belfast at the entrance to the old Midland Hotel.

And there are other nods to their greatness in Belfast.

In Dublin Road, beside the Movie House cinema complex, a restaurant called Stann and Olly's opened three years ago, admittedly with spellings which are different from the duo's Christian names.

One of the stars of their old movies was a guest of the AFMT eight years ago.

Jean Darling, who acted with Laurel and Hardy in Babes in Toyland, travelled from her home in Dublin to a meeting eight years ago.

Relatives of another actress, Thelma Todd, who appeared in Another Fine Mess, were also present at a meeting in Comber which was where the star's father had been born.

The late comedian Eric Sykes, who was a huge admirer of Laurel and Hardy, was also associated with the local AFMT, joining up after a trip to Belfast to promote a book.

Sykes was presented with a special fez which found a place on the mantelpiece of his home alongside one that his close friend Tommy Cooper had been wearing on the night he died during a live TV broadcast from a London theatre in 1984.

Sykes was just one of a long line of comedians who acknowledged their debt to Laurel and Hardy. And Stan's bewildered scratching of his head and Ollie's stony look at the camera in response to something his sidekick had said or done have been openly copied down the years.

But how come comedians who date back over 100 years can still make modern generations laugh? The answer is in the question, says Keith: "They're still incredibly funny."

And the AFMT isn't likely to run out of movies to show at its get-togethers any time soon. For Laurel and Hardy made 106 films together - 32 short silent films, 40 shorts with sound and 23 full-length feature films. Many of them have been re-issued in different formats by movie companies.

Jan Taylor has seen every one of them. He watched his way through the entire box set collection as he recovered from an illness, proving that laughter really was the best medicine for Jan who knows a thing or two about how to raise a smile - for he's a tutor in the Streetwise Community Circus School in Belfast.

Jan, who taught circus skills in England before returning home to Belfast, says: "As I got more involved with the circus, I began to appreciate the sophistication of the humour of Laurel and Hardy. It looks like simple slapstick but, in fact, they used really elaborate set-ups.

"Through their work, you can trace the development of music hall comedy into the movies and you can also see how a lot of more recent double act comedy has been based on what Laurel and Hardy were doing a century ago."

Jan, who's 55, was weaned on a diet of the duo's films on the television but says he outgrew them for a time and only appreciated how funny they really were during his marathon movie-watch.

He relishes his visits to Another Fine Mess Tent meetings in Belfast, even though he can see the jokes coming from a mile off. "It's all a bit silly but it's silly in a harmless and really enjoyable way.

"And songs like At the Ball from Way Out West have stood the test of time even though they were written in 1913. I think that is just amazing."

Jan's children have been smitten with the Laurel and Hardy bug, too, and have been regulars at the AFMT gatherings.

Norman Wilson (77), who lives in east Belfast, has his daughter Sonya to thank for his involvement with the Tent. "She knew I was a fan of Laurel and Hardy and a friend of hers went to the meetings so she organised my membership for me," he explains.

"It was right up my street. I've always been a fan of their comedy.

"I would have gone to cinemas like The Strand and the Willowfield as a child to watch people like Laurel and Hardy."

Norman's wife, Sylvia, goes to the AFMT meetings with her husband too.

"She often says she's just as mad as I am. But I like mixing with people with similar interests to myself. Laurel and Hardy were good actors and the films were good clean, simple family fun. It's always easy to see what is going to happen. But I just love a good laugh."

Even the memory of a funny routine from their movies or a look or a gesture from either of his heroes can send Norman off into a fit of the giggles.

But he can't pick a favourite moment or film. "No, I like them all," he says.

Political commentator Alex Kane is another aficionado of Laurel and Hardy comedy, which is the perfect antidote to the normal fare he watches at Stormont.

Alex says: "Yes, it is a great escape for me from the world of politics. I go to the Tent meetings as often as I can."

Alex's first sight of Laurel and Hardy was in the Sixties in the old Classic cinema in Belfast, where his father brought him regularly from their home in Armagh.

"I just fell head over heels for the humour instantly.

"I still laugh even though I've lost count of the number of times I've seen some of the movies.

"It's uncomplicated but it's the familiarity of it all and my liking of the guys and knowing what's coming which makes it brilliant viewing.

"I've watched them with my own children and they find them hilarious, too. They're films which won't offend anyone. They make people happy."

Five classic moments...

Keith Davidson's top five Laurel and Hardy moments

1. Stan and Ollie hauling the piano up the never-ending set of steps (The Music Box, 1932 - Academy Award Winner Best Live Action Short Comedy Subject))

2. Stan putting in time inside the boat having received two black eyes for offences against Ollie (Towed In A Hole, 1932)

3. The dance routine outside the saloon to music by Chill Wills and The Avalon Boys (Way Out West, 1937)

4. All of the scenes filmed on the skyscraper as the boys attempted to outrun the law (Liberty, 1929)

5. Stan's ghostly extra arm as they rested from being pursued around a maze (A Chump At Oxford, 1940)

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