Hardy annuals: To some, they're just a couple of comedians who hit each other and fall over. But not to the Sons of the Desert. Mark Wareham reports

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Everywhere they went they were mobbed by thousands of screaming, adoring fans.' Pop music did not exist in 1932, and yet a large, round American and a short, thin Englishman had just arrived in Britain and walked straight into the arms of hysteria.

Laurel and Hardy - The British Tours recalls the ecstatic reception that hailed the duo on their first tour. A J Marriot has put the book together over six years of exhaustive research, obsessively documenting details such as a full account of their travel arrangements from interviews with waitresses, taxi drivers, receptionists and hoteliers.

Such detail will not surprise the Sons of the Desert, an organisation devoted to the comic chumps. Each branch, or 'tent', must carry the name of one of their films, and is run by a Grand Sheik, a Vice-Sheik and a Grand Vizier along the lines of the semi-masonic organisation in their film Sons of the Desert. Their motto, as chosen by Stan, runs 'Duae Tabulae Rasae In Quibus Nihil Scriptum Est' - 'Two Minds Without A Single Thought', which says a lot for Stan's sense of self-mockery, not to mention his powers of insight. The organisation, he said, should have 'a half-assed dignity' about it.

According to John Ullah, Grand Sheik of the Birmingham Laughing Gravy Tent and proud owner of a pair of Stan's green socks, the Sons attract all sorts. 'There's this one woman who can name every single Laurel and Hardy film if you just quote one line at her. She went on that You Bet programme with Matthew Kelly and named them all in a few seconds.'

The first American tents date back to the early Sixties - there's now a tent in a Connecticut prison called Pardon Us, and a millionaires-only tent in San Diego. Britain's first tent, Helpmates UK (founded 1975), meets this Saturday, and high on the agenda will be the fate of The Rogue Song, one of two missing Laurel and Hardy films. A three- minute clip did turn up in the Prague Film Archive recently. 'Unfortunately,' reports The Laurel & Hardy Magazine, 'it does not contain any footage of the boys.' Helpmates co- founder, Malcolm Stuart Fellows, believed that 'with the opening up of the Iron Curtain, there might have been something there. Stalin was a fan. I always thought it might turn up in some obscure place like Albania, but there's been nothing. Still, we live in hope.'

Other live issues include the ongoing debate about Ollie's birthplace (on the site of an empty lot in Harlem, Georgia, though a letter to the magazine points out that 'the news media think it more glamorous to say the site is now a laundromat') and the question of Stan's offspring - the Daily Mail rang up the society recently and asked whether there was any truth in the story that 'Stan Laurel is Clint Eastwood's father'.

The meeting will be attended by 300 members, a figure which pales in comparison with the four-day international conventions in the US. 'It's about time we had it in England,' complains John Ullah. 'At the last Vegas meeting, there were bids from New York and Blackpool. New York got 107 votes, Blackpool got one.'

Helpmates UK: 63 Wollaston Close, Gillingham, Kent. Laughing Gravy: 164 Gravelly Hill, Birmingham B23. 'Laurel and Hardy - the British Tours' (0253 391572)

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