Column: When Stan and Ollie popped to Northampton

Laurel and Hardy in Northampton in 1953
Laurel and Hardy in Northampton in 1953

Our columnist David Saint takes us back in time to when two comedy greats visited Northampton...

With the new film ‘Stan and Ollie’ just out, I thought it was worth taking a look back to October 1953 when the great Laurel and Hardy, played for a week at Northampton’s beautiful New Theatre.

It was the first night of their final UK tour, which, on May 17, 1954, ended in Plymouth.

Their last appearance should have been in Swansea on the 24th, but Ollie had been warned by his doctors to rest following a minor heart attack.

Managements and agents tried to persuade Stan to continue the tour on his own, but he refused: “I’d be lost without Ollie, I’m not a gag man, we do comedy sketches.”

They arrived in Northampton after an unscheduled one-month stopover in the Republic of Ireland.

Because Ollie was an American, British immigration laws prevented him from working here until a year had passed since his last British engagement.

So they got round it by coming via Eire and then performing in Northern Ireland.

As the New Theatre was the start of their tour, they received considerably more publicity than they would later, so as they arrived at the Gallery and Stage entrance in the alley where A.W. Arnold had their boot and shoe factory, they broke into ‘their act’.

This time it was not just for the benefit of the welcoming crowds, but also for the Pathé News camera that came to record this important date.

The short Pathé film (still available on the ‘net’) shows the theatre’s main entrance proclaiming “Laurel and Hardy”.

Their car stops and the driver holds the rear door open for them, but they walk round the car to behind the driver.

They realise he’s holding the door for them, so they climb back in the car and clamber through the back seats, fooling all the time, and emerge from the door the driver is holding open.

It’s a lovely clip!

While they were rehearsing on the Monday morning, PC Spiller of the Northamptonshire Constabulary invited them to accompany him out to Abington Street where a group of youngsters was standing beside the zebra crossing.

It was ‘Road Safely Week’ and the crafty cop wasn’t going to miss a great photo opportunity.

So Stan helped the kiddies cross the road while Ollie held the forerunner of a lollipop.

The pair stayed at The Plough Hotel and one morning they looked out of their window and saw a man on a wooden structure trying to paint the top of a street lamp immediately outside.

He was armed with a tin of paint and a brush and as he climbed onto the lamp-post it started to sway.

To his surprise, a voice shouted, “What are you trying to do, recreate one of our movies?”

He looked and saw none other than Stan and Ollie peering through the open window.

It’s a wonder he didn’t complete the scene by falling off and landing flat on his face on the pavement below!

The week at The New had ‘House Full’ signs out every night.

Now I can’t wait to see the new film.