It’s the evening of Thursday, April 2. Over in Salford the seven party leaders are preparing for the only television debate of the General Election campaign where political fortunes can be made or lost. Forty odd miles away at The Market Inn in Elsecar, near Barnsley, the locals are settling in front of a big screen. Pints have been ordered, there’s been a promise of sandwiches and sausage rolls at halftime, but no-one is too bothered about how David Cameron handles questions about zero hours contracts or whether Ed Miliband proves that “hell yeah, he’s tough enough”. At Elsecar there are more pressing issues at hand. They’re here to watch Laurel and Hardy.
The night has been organised by South Yorkshire branch of the Sons of the Desert. There are similar Laurel and Hardy appreciation societies up and down the country and all think nothing of turning up to a pub midweek wearing trademark fezzes teamed with Hawaiian garlands made from artificial flowers. The outfits are a nod to the Sons of the Desert film and while they might look a little incongruous in the former pit village, no-one seems to mind.
“It’s just a bit of fun,” says Grand Sheik John Burton, who bears more than a passing similarity to his hero Stan Laurel. He organises these nights for charity – this one is raising money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance – but it’s also a rare chance to see films like The Music Box (the one with the piano) and Swiss Miss (the one with the St Bernard) on a big screen.
Thirty years ago you couldn’t move in the bank holiday television schedules for Laurel and Hardy. But then all of a sudden they disappeared, airbrushed out of history along with the likes of Harold Lloyd. I was pleased – I’d spent much of my childhood being forced to watch Stan and Ollie by an older brother who didn’t understand that I just didn’t get slapstick, but many others felt differently.
“In the mid 1980s there was a legal wrangle over who owned the rights to the films,” says John, who took particular exception to their disappearance. “They couldn’t be screened until it was sorted out and by the time it was, I guess the world or at least the broadcasters had moved on. Black and white films as a whole had fallen out of fashion and suddenly there was no longer a place on British television for Laurel and Hardy.”
While the origins of the Sons of the Desert society go back to 1953, in Britain at least it was in the 1980s that they really came into their own. The very first one had been set up by an American student and backed by the double act on the proviso that everything about it would poke fun at the usual old boys clubs.
It was Stan who came up with the society motto – “two minds without a single thought” – which is inscribed in Latin on the official crest and the constitution is similarly tongue in cheek. Take Article V, which states “all officers and board members at large shall have absolutely no authority whatsoever”.
“I went to visit the Stan Laurel museum in Ulverston where he was born. I got talking to a man there who asked where I came from. When I said Sheffield, he said, ‘Well, there’s no appreciation society there, why don’t you start one?” explains John.
It was 1988 and the South Yorkshire branch – or tent as they are known – of the Sons of the Desert was born.
“I remember the first film night I did,” says John, who has passed his love of Laurel and Hardy onto his son John Junior. “I had no idea how many people would turn up. I’d organised a room in a pub to show a few films and thought there might be a couple of dozen of us, but they just kept coming. In the end, 130 Laurel and Hardy fans squeezed into that room that first night.”
Next month a similar number will file into Sheffield’s Curzon Cinema for a weekend-long national convention which will probably also include a few rounds of “Kneesy-Earsy-Nosey” which Stan forced Ollie to play in The Devil’s Brother and the odd rendition of Trail of the Lonesome Pine. While most agree the operatic elements that were occasionally shoe-horned into Laurel and Hardy films didn’t add much, there are a few good numbers.
“It’s not the Bullingdon Club,” says Mark Johnson, who also discovered the society through a visit to the Ulverston museum and joined John in the late 1990s. “It’s just a group of friends getting together to watch films. There’s no test you have to take to be accepted, you don’t have to prove your knowledge of the films, there’s no funny handshakes, you just have to like Laurel and Hardy.
“We don’t even take minutes of our meetings,” he adds just to prove the informality of the Sons of the Desert.
The Boys are arguably the greatest ever comedy double act and their appeal is not just something shared by Britain and America. The Dutch and the Belgians are apparently big fans as are the Germans where Laurel and Hardy have been efficiently translated as Chubby and Dumb.
“There’s something lovable about them,” says Mark. “Harold Lloyd hung off clocks and ran around at double speed, whereas Laurel and Hardy were much more about real life. They were a true partnership and there’s a real sense of innocence about their comedy.
“It’s a shame they are not on television any more, because it’s the kind of humour kids love and they really don’t care whether its black and white or from 50 years ago. However, there is something nice about getting together with like-minded people. You can watch the films on DVD in your front room, which I still do a lot, but it doesn’t beat sharing it with others and the sound of that collective laughter.”
This year marks the 125th anniversary of Stan’s birth and next month’s convention will be focused on a series of film screenings. There will also be a chance to buy memorabilia and share Laurel and Hardy stories.
“The Boys came to Sheffield three times, once to the Cinema House in 1932 and twice to The Empire in 1952 and 1954, and we would love to hear from anyone who has stories of those visits,” adds Mark. “When they first came back to the UK it was complete pandemonium and they just weren’t prepared for it.
“They had come for a holiday and to see Stan’s family and they thought they would be able to go about their business largely unrecognised. They honestly had no idea how big they were over here. They couldn’t do a thing. They were mobbed everywhere they went and what was supposed to have been a break turned into a bit of a promotional tour.
“My dad was at The Empire in 1954. He was fortunate enough to buy tickets in advance because they were queuing right down the street on the night. It wasn’t a full show, but seeing them do 20 minutes live must have been incredible. You have to remember it was a different era back then in terms of celebrity. Television was only really starting to make its mark and to see these two genuine global stars in a cinema in Sheffield must have been quite something.”
While Laurel and Hardy came to dominate comedy in the 1920s and 30s, it was a partnership that happened by accident. Stan, who began his career in showbusiness as Charlie Chaplin’s understudy, moved to America and having secured work with the Hal Roach Studios his intention was to remain behind the camera as a writer and director.
“Stan was working on a film which starred Ollie,” says John. “But he got injured and with time short, Stan had to take his place. He was back acting and it wasn’t long before he and Ollie teamed up formally.
“Stan was really the brains behind the double act, but as a partnership it was perfect. Oliver much preferred being on the golf course. He didn’t like to hang around the set and his look of frustration was often genuine because Stan had made him do another take. He knew which buttons to press.
“There is often not a huge amount of dialogue in a Laurel and Hardy film, but one look, one tiny mannerism is often all it takes to bring the house down. They really were masters of their craft.”
Despite being its biggest stars, Stan and Ollie often had an uneasy relationship with the studio, which insisted they were on different contracts so they couldn’t jointly negotiate salaries.
“They ended up leaving and going to 20th Century Fox in the end, but it was with Hal Roach that they probably produced their best work,” adds John. “They made a phenomenal amount of films and we are lucky that the vast majority of it has survived. These are comedies from more than 70 years ago and while the film might be a little grainy, the jokes haven’t dated one little bit.”
Right on cue, there’s a peel of laughter from the room next door.
• Anyone with stories of Laurel and Hardy’s visits to Sheffield can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0113 238 8952.