Belfast Telegraph

I'll always be bowled over by the great Stan and Ollie

By Mike Gilson

My father nearly died laughing. I can still see him now on his hands and knees choking and retching uncontrollably, it being unclear whether my mother violently hitting him on the back is for dubious medical purposes or some sort of punishment for being so stupid.

I was only 10. Across the living room a black and white film on the television was showing two bowler hats floating in a puddle in the middle of a road. Fifteen minutes later, my dad was still looking red-faced, his eyes still bloodshot. He was in a bit of pain in his chest, but the danger had passed.

I blame Laurel and Hardy for it was their hats that were in the water. Every Christmas the BBC would show a series of the comic duo's famous 20-minute two-reel comedies produced by the legendary Hal Roach. I have never forgotten them. The one that almost killed dad was called The Perfect Day. It's simple, but brilliant. Stan and Ollie are loading up the car with picnic, assorted wives and a grumpy uncle with a bandaged foot on account of the gout, in order to head for a day out.

As their neighbours watch on, something keeps stopping them from leaving. They've forgotten something, the car won't start, uncle's foot gets slammed in the door (several times, of course) and every time they seem to be on their way (we're going now, they repeatedly wave to the street in ludicrously formal neighbourliness) another setback happens.

At one point Hardy removes the car's entire clutch and hits Laurel over the head with it. Laurel watches all this happen, even feels the pain a second later than he should. Dad and I had started to laugh early on at the destructive genius of the comedy. As the absurdity multiplied, he began getting dangerously overheated and then came the denouement, magnificent in its stupidity.

Finally, amid much howling from uncle, his bandaged foot over the side of the car, and twittering from the wives, the picnic party gets under way, turns the corner at the end of the road and hits the puddle. And immediately and improbably the car sinks up to the aforementioned iconic hats the pair are wearing, just slowly enough for that famous gormless look from them that signals that they don't understand what's happening to them, but are going to let it happen anyway.

At this point, my dad could hold the torrent of hilarity no longer. It took over his body like something from the spirit world, the jocular version of a possession.

I've loved Laurel and Hardy ever since. I've seen nothing that comes close to giving uncontrollable mirth. I passed on the love to my own sons, bought the deluxe box set of everything they ever made. Slapstick is now a devalued comic form, but in Stan and Ollie's hands it was pure art.

The reason I raise the subject now is that last weekend I was at a friend's house and, searching for some simple entertainment, he got out the same box set. Twenty minutes later our lives were also at risk as another classic, Busy Bodies, played. Here Stan and Ollie get a job in a sawmill and bungle it so badly they're forced to flee in their car in the film's big finale.

Unfortunately, they drive straight into a vertical large band saw which slowly cleaves their vehicle in two as once again they sit mysteriously powerless. I defy anyone not to shed waterfalls of laughter as the hapless ones supinely watch each other disappear behind the whirling blade to reappear with half a car each. That sort of laughter can make you feel better for days.

Those movies were made around 1928, not far off a century ago. But down through all those decades their power to lift the spirits, to make us laugh unconditionally, not ironically, has not diminished. Laurel and Hardy orbit forever just waiting for us to pick up their signal again. Take my advice. Bring Stan and Ollie back to life one more time. Just try not to die laughing.

Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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