Helan och Halvan

”Their world is like an alternative reality”

A deeply depressed man. And two desperate singles. Laurel and Hardy are their saviors in need. We go to England to portray the cult around the legendary comedy couple who, 80 years after their heyday, are making it back to the big screen.



Rochester, England, a Friday in November.

At the city movie theatre: an exclusive movie premiere.

Through the movie ”Stan & Ollie”, the spotlight once again hits two of the finest comedians of all times – Laurel and Hardy. The innocently smiling Brit, Stan Laurel, with the posture of a jellyfish, a spotted bowtie, and his hair all over the place. And a couple of steps ahead, always: Oliver Hardy, the larger than life American with his old-fashioned elegant vocabulary, too short of a tie, and both chins high up in the cockiest pose possible.

Laurel and Hardy had their heyday in the thirties, and made their last film in 1951. They have been portraited in a film made for television, and on the stage, but never before in the form of a traditional movie.


But now, director Jon S Baird has taken upon himself to do it, also able to catch his number one choices for the main characters, Steve Coogan and John C Reilly.


Fans around the world have been overly excited for years. About a hundred of them show up in Rochester for elegant appearances, in bowler hats, red fraternity fezzes with black tassels, or even dressed up as minor characters from the movies from way back when.

So will the new film meet their expectations? Or is it an insult of history that awaits behind the close curtain, as some fear?

Luckily, it’s alternative one.

Laurel and Hardy fans are on their toes as their long time favorites come back to the big screen – this time as portraited by Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. Emma Perry poses as Thelma Todd, that appeared in many of the classic originals.

Bild: Joakim Björck

Steve Coogan (Laurel) and John C Reilly (Hardy) deliver a version humbly close to the original in everything from moves and gestures to voices, as the two go on a stage tour in Great Britain in 1953. It’s a quite melancholic yet heart-warming story of the quest for one last laugh. And, more than anything, of the personal friendship that binds the two together forever.

The audience react with applause and even some sobbing of the discreet kind. After that, the crowd sings along to the theme from ”Sons of the Desert”:

”We are the Sons of the Desert, having the time of our lives...”

Roger Robinson, 60, a retired police officer from Southend, is excited afterwards. Attacked as he is of compulsory jokes: ”My eyes teared up. You know why? Because my underpants are too tight!”

The bar has been set.

Co-founder Rob Lewis attends to the last details to make the Laurel and Hardy convention a success. ”I think why they are so popular today is that their films are timeless. Their comedy will outlast many modern day comedians”, Rob Lewis says.

Bild: Joakim Björck

– I couldn’t sleep last night. I was full of adrenaline.

Rob Lewis, 64, is still on a high after yesterday’s movie. Now, he and his friends are hauling around Laurel and Hardy figures of a natural size, arranging a room with hundreds of collectibles and rigging the two halls where a selection of the duo’s 106 films will show.



We are at a regular Holiday Inn hotel, in the neighborhood city Chatham. This Laurel and Hardy-convention is the 33rd annual one. Around 150 people, of which a high proportion are middle aged men, have traveled from different parts of the UK to be here.

”Helpmates”, as they like to call themselves, is one of the many ”tents” (all named after the films) connected to the international Laurel and Hardy appreciation society ”Sons of the Desert”. Through these, thousands of fans worldwide meet regularly to pay tribute to their heroes.

What is it that makes all these people spend so much energy on something that emerged when they themselves were newborn at best?

Many things and themes seem outdated. Some of the wives are portrayed as pests ready to pick up a rifle when their men have been out on adventures of the questionable kind. The very few black people that appear are always at the bottom of the social ladder. The common view of homosexuality – none at all at that time – emerges in a scene where ”Stan” is wondering who ”Ollie” is going to marry:

”A woman, of course. Have you ever heard about anyone marrying a man?!”

”My sister.”

The fans can only say: This was what the society looked like in the 1930's and 40's.

For them, it's the cleverly crafted comedy, with the clown's underdog perspective, that makes the movies timeless. The same can be said of, for example, Charlie Chaplin. But while he eventually took a clear political position (”The Dictator”, 1940), his countryman and former colleague Stan Laurel was consistent in his scriptwriting. He simply wanted to entertain. He used society as a scene, rather than questioning it.

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The films can also be said to be patriotic, but in a quirky sort of way.

In one of several war films, Stan is left in a trench. He lives on canned beans, blows fanfare and patrols the same short distance back and forth. After shooting a passing private airplane, believing it's the enemy, Stan gets to know that World War I ended – 20 years ago. His reaction:


”Huh, how time flies. Just seems like yesterday. Well, that accounts for it. Everything has been kind of quiet here lately.”

All this made Laurel and Hardy, with the cinema revolution backing them up, the world's first global comedian duo. They set a standard that has since inspired generations of successors.

A French take on the sentimental Laurel and the pompous Hardy. The mine-magician couple Musidora (Martine Behaeghel) and Claude Nops have traveled to Rochester for a true baptism of fire: to perform their act in front of hard core fans. They pass the test with honours.

Bild: Joakim Björck

The audience here in Chatham know every slapstick number and dialogue in and out. Nevertheless, they break down laughing when Laurel and Hardy trip on the tablecloths according to the decree: ”two minds without a single thought”.

With levity and optimism, free from any thought of consequences, they can make any seemingly great idea into a disaster. The good will is there – the good judgment is not.

Laurel and Hardy are the police officers who help the thief break into a safe. As beer barons they go to jail after Stans attempt to sell their home brew to a policeman. (”I thought he was a streetcar conductor”). And they are the street musicians who play ”In The Good Old Summer Time” in the middle of winter.

These two wreck their lives, in their attempts at melting in. Houses, cars, boats fall apart or explode, as they are thrown clear. Or just balancing someplace dangerous, or kicking each other’s butts.


So what are we actually laughing at? Honestly – probably ourselves. On their tragicomic walk of life, we are walking next to them.

Marked for life – by kindness. Steve Hood invested five or six hours of pain, and roughly 350 pounds sterling per tatoo, to always keep his heroes close.

Bild: Joakim Björck

The convention is a safe space where fans can do just what Laurel and Hardy strived for: be yourself, without threats from the outside world.

Steve Hood, 46, from London, suffered from his first deep depression in his teens. Dark obsessions began to occupy his mind. He thanks his idols for being able to keep those compulsions at bay.


”Stan and Ollie were a relief for me, they took me away from the bad things. There is an innocence in them, they are not out to hurt anyone”, he says.

Steve Hood bought all the movies and covered the walls in his room with pictures on the comedy couple. Nights when he was tormented by the dark, their music became his rescue.

”I put on a cassette and laid there listening. It made me calm and I fell asleep.”

Later in life, Steve Hood was diagnosed with OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He is living a good life today with wife and children and a job, thanks to medication in the form of pills and humor.

”Watch this”, he says, showing off his right shoulder.

The big tatoo portraits a smiling Stan. The left shoulder pictures Ollie. On his chest, they are standing together. Well worth the money and the pain.

Antony och Joanne Mitchell-Waite is living proof: a pickup line straight out of Laurel and Hardy’s world can make for a marriage.

Bild: Joakim Björck

Several of the guests have written books about Laurel and Hardy. Antony Mitchell-Waite, 49, could talk for hours about his nerdy perspectives – like how the comic duo has been used in advertising.


”Have you told him how we met?”, his wife Joanne, 46, cuts in.

Back to Newcastle-under-Lyme in central England. The year is 1998, but at the nightclub Reflex, named after a Duran Duran song, it rests assured in the 80's.

Joanne Mitchell is partying with people in giant glasses and funny hats. Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan smile lovingly against her on the wall. She has tried all of the classic pickup lines. Time to raise the stakes.

She walks up to the guy at the bar, scratches her head like Stan, and delivers the Ollie-inspired oneliner: ”and don’t call me the fat one!”

The man smiles in surprise:

”Laurel and Hardy!”

Turns out – and what are the odds? – that he runs the local Laurel and Hardy society. They had a drink, met again the next day, had their son Josh in 2000 and got married eight years later.

And here they are, at another convention.


In their home, there is a whole room devoted to Laurel and Hardy. For them, it remains an escape, a place to retreat.

”Their world is like an alternative reality”, Antony Mitchell-Waite says.

Laurel likes to surprise Hardy with the occasional supernatural stunt. Antony Mitchell-Waite pulls two of them.

It’s the friendship that the fans care about the most. No matter the setbacks, the duo just accept, stand up, move on, and continue to belong together, like two peas in a pod.

One example – Ollie gets his home burned down by Stan. Sitting in the ruins, he asks to be alone for a second. He gives his friend a tired wave, meaning ”don’t worry, see you tomorrow”.

Then the rain starts to pour down.

The very same Ollie considers killing himself after a failed marriage proposal. He demands of Laurel to drown himself in solidarity. Stan refuses, and gets told off for being too self-centered.


”So that’s the kind of a guy you are! Do you realize that after I’m gone, that you’ll just go on living by yourself. People will stare at you and wonder what you are. And I wouldn’t be here to tell them. There’d be no one to protect you. Do you want that to happen to you?!”

Stans apology, in tears, is accepted. The double-drowning is stopped thanks to a bystander.

Gregg Taylor has often appeared as Hardy – but since his partner in crime is absent this time, he settles for just wearing the hat.

Bild: Joakim Björck

Gregg Taylor, 29, from London summarizes it all:

”They are each others worst enemies, but in the best possible way.”

To him, the idols awake childhood memories. He remembers how the whole family is sitting laughing in front of the television.

Then he grew older – and bigger. Gregg Taylor has the sturdy body going for him, as he turns into Hardy on rare occassions. He feels like another person when he does. More elegant somehow.

After hours in front of the mirror, the original's patented moves has been copied to perfection: the chuckle. The nervous messing with the tie. The fingertips that march against the tabletop to make a point.


This particular weekend, there is no performance scheduled. His partner Tom Seymour has had ”another nice mess” hit him, which in this case means trouble with his car.

”You can't have a Hardy without a Laurel”, Gregg Taylor says.

Daisy Webb goofing around with the reporter’s brand new hat. Mother Jane, sister Evie and dad Russ keeps her company. Twelve year old Daisy loves the childishness of Laurel and Hardy, and appreciate how they always apologise to each other. ”It’s a big thing to do”, Daisy Webb says.

Bild: Joakim Björck

At one of the tables, the Webb family from Brighton takes a break between movie shows and the purchase of memorabilia.

Daisy, 12, and Evie, 7, daughters, have been given a soda each. They know what happens when Laurel and Hardy share a drink. Stan downs the entire glass with the explanation:


”I couldn´t help it. My half was on the bottom.”

Children in the shape of adults.

”Most men are, I think. In our culture there is a acceptance for that men never quite grow up, and it`s up to us women to keep them in line. That’s not neccesarirly a good thing, just how it has been too long”, mother Jane Webb says.

Daisy Webb adds that daddy Russ ”can’t be serious in any way".

She plays along occasionally, and is proud of the Laurel & Hardy inheritance. It does not matter that her friends barely know who they are.

To Russ Webb, being silly is necessary. Responsibilities and obligations, fine, absolutely. But he still thinks that the adult world, himself included, is faking it – based on society's expectations. There is a child in us, right behind the facade.

As he says to his eldest daughter:

”You will reach a point where you realize that all adults only are pretending.”

Gag man Roger Robinson has written several books about Laurel and Hardy.

Bild: Joakim Björck

At the convention, celebrations are going on until late evening.

Roger Robinson cracks another joke. The Mitchell Waite couple kiss in front of the Laurel and Hardy statues. Steve Hood prescribes himself another dose of human humor.


When the fans wake up in the hotel beds the next morning, they are a little happier and wiser in the nerdiest of ways. At the same time, it's time to step out of the bubble and say goodbye.

They all do it with a strong conviction:

The world outside needs Laurel and Hardy more than ever.

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”Stan & Ollie” – soon to hit movie theaters

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”Stan & Ollie” tells the story of what would turn out to be Laurel and Hardy’s farewell. Steve Coogan and John C Reilly are portraiting the main characters as they are touring Great Britain in 1953. Director Jon S Baird calls it ”a story of friendship”.

John C Reilly has been nominated to a Golden Globe for best leading actor in a comedy or musical, and some predict Oscar nominations for the two.

”Stan & Ollie” opens in the USA on December 28, in England the month after, and in Sweden on March 22.

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