Monday, March 26, 2007

With Stanley in Ulverston


To Ulverston on the Stan Laurel trail: this small, unprepossessing Lancashire town is not only the spot where one of the most original comic talents of the twentieth century first peeped from under the blankets, it is also home to the world famous Laurel and Hardy Museum, which in the very best traditions of British eccentricity is not a museum so much as a disordered cave, product of the best kind of amateur enthusiasm, blessedly free of even the suspicion of tourist attraction professionalism or visitor-friendliness, and with nothing whatever to guide the novice into the world it obsessively celebrates. Basically, if you’re not a Laurel and Hardy fan, you’ll be out, blinking into the sunlight and gasping for fresh air, in about five minutes. If you are a Laurel and Hardy fan, ask your friends to meet you outside in about five hours.
Laid out in a mad jumble in three windowless rooms is approximately ten rooms’ worth of ephemera, with photocopies alongside priceless original documents, junk and treasure, fascinating rare photographs, letters and artefacts happily co-existing with articles cut out of the TV Times. All walls and ceilings are papered with cuttings and posters, and two life-size wax figures hold court in a corner. (You can have your photo taken sat in front of them for a quid: ask the chap at the desk for a bowler.)
There is no order anywhere. Some items are labelled, usually in handwriting or perhaps typed, often hanging from one remaining staple, others are left to speak for themselves, which many of the more mysterious among them plainly do not. Things are piled in front of other things, frequently the more commonplace in front of the rarer and more intriguing. A huge sign from the nearby Stan Laurel Inn is almost completely obscured by a pile of cardboard boxes. Loose bits of paper, that had once been stuck or stapled somewhere, have come to rest contentedly upon the nearest level surface.
One room is converted into a cinema where, in real ex-cinema seats beneath a sagging ceiling papered claustrophobically with hundreds of posters and clippings, you can stay as long as you want while a non-stop programme of Stan and Ollie classics gavottes before you. We saw Them Thar Hills, Tit For Tat and Helpmates and could have stayed for dozens more: all included in the entrance fee of just three pounds.
If any subject deserves this kind of tribute, it is surely Laurel and Hardy. Something about their art inspires the kind of unpretentious, uncerebral love on which an enterprise like this is founded, it trades not in history or analysis but sheer affection, and reflects the life’s work of a man who collected anything and everything associated, however tangentially, with Stan and Ollie, then laid them out in the manner of a vandalised Egyptian tomb awaiting discovery by likeminded Howard Carters. His name was Bill Cubin; he died, sadly, in 1997, but the museum is maintained as a family tradition by his daughter and grandsons.
You are not bothered by guides or attendants, or people dressed up, thank God; you are simply left to your own thoughts and devices as you wander from one thing to the next, your eye caught first by this, then by that, while the blissful sounds of the films themselves drift in from the screening room. One dark day, perhaps, it may be bought out and turned into a serious business, run for profit, with clear layout, less sepulchral lighting or perhaps even windows, no dust, hands-on activities for the kiddies and all the exhibits behind glass. Until then, enjoy it as it is, and ever should be.
Stan's childhood home is nearby, still with its original satellite dish and PVC door. It's worth a stroll, though the irresistible mental image of the archetypal Stan, derby-hatted, loping around the corner to the accompaniment of Marvin Hatley’s Cuckoo Song on his way home for tea is, alas, a merely whimsical one: he lived here only for a few years, and was in any event in America by his early twenties.
It was there, in sunny Los Angeles, not here in dark, satanic Lancashire, that he traded a lot of boyish enthusiasm and the greasepaint in his blood (the birth certificate in the museum lists his father’s profession as ‘comedian’) for true originality and ensuing immortality, first on stage – with Chaplin in the Karno troupe – then in the movies, where a series of not wildy noticed solo vehicles led to an accidental partnership with stooge and ‘heavy’ Oliver Hardy that blossomed into perhaps the most creative (and harmonious) working relationship in Hollywood.