IN 1953, comic legends Laurel and Hardy arrived in Cobh to rapturous applause.
As they stepped off the SS America liner from New York, before commencing a tour of Ireland and the UK, they were overwhelmed by their welcome.
It is a scene that is carefully replicated by actors Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in a new film, Stan & Ollie, which recounts the latter years of the iconic film duo.
Coogan and Reilly were in Dublin last Friday with the director of the film, Jon S. Baird, and met the press in the Olympia Theatre, a place where their real-life counterparts performed several shows.
Ireland played an important part in the final chapter of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s career in the 1950s.
“It is a very emotional scene when they get to Ireland.” director Baird told the Evening Echo. “When they got to Cobh Harbour the church bells rang out the Dance of the Cuckoos, which was their theme tune.
“They were both overwhelmed by the love that they experienced, particularly Hardy, who was overcome with emotions when he saw how much the people appreciated them.
“Ireland was very important to them, they played here several times.”
Laurel later recalled: “The docks were swarming with many thousands of people. It’s a strange, strange thing our popularity had lasted so long.
“You’d think people would forget, but they don’t. The love and affection we found that day at Cobh was simply unbelievable.”
Both Coogan and Reilly spoke about the significance of playing two men who are very still much-loved by fans. Laurel and Hardy made 107 film appearances between 1927 and 1950, successfully managing the transition from silent film to ‘talkies’.
“These aren’t just characters that we are playing,” says Reilly, who plays the American Hardy.
“These are real people who really meant a lot to us and really influenced our own comedy careers.
“Making the film, we were able to give them their due, something that didn’t happen in their lifetime.
“Every time we talk about the film, we are actually talking about our heroes. They were fascinating people and getting the chance to play them was an honour.”
According to Steve Coogan, who plays English-born Laurel, the key to the success of the movie was capturing the chemistry between the comedians.
“Whether you like Laurel and Hardy or not, what really makes this film work is the story of love and friendship between two men,” he said.
“They worked their entire lives together, they spent all their time together. They had a great friendship and that was something myself and John had to recreate in a few weeks. We had to find our Stan and Ollie, and luckily I think we did that.”
Reilly agrees that understanding the bond between these two men was vital to bringing the film to life.
“Men can love each other in a platonic way, but we often don’t see that on screen. People use the word bromance to sum up what they had, but I don’t like that word. It makes it sound silly that men can love each other, but of course they can.”
Both actors have been nominated for awards for their portrayals of the comedy icons, but in different award ceremonies, something that Reilly says he would like to see change.
“People are missing the point. They were the perfect partnership, and for us, as actors, there is no Stan without Ollie.
“It is how award shows are today, but really there should be a category for partnerships.”
Reilly and Coogan both have Irish roots and were delighted to have the opportunity to come to Ireland to talk about the film, and to speak from a dressing room in the Olympia Theatre.
“This might have been the dressing room they used,” says Reilly, looking around, “and that is a really special feeling.”
Coogan was born in Lancashire but his mother was from Mayo, while in the 1950s, his paternal grandfather, who was of Irish stock, established a dance hall for Irish immigrants in the north-west of England. The ‘Alan Partridge’ star also spends a lot of time in West Cork.
Reilly was born in Chicago and his father had Irish roots.
When Laurel and Hardy landed in Cork, they were greeted by the Lord Mayor, Patrick McGrath.
Adrian Patrick Gebruers, who celebrated his 40th year as Carillonneur of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh in 2010, recalled the day the stars arrived, as a 10-year old student at St Joseph’s Primary School.
“The thought that our favourite film comedians might be a stone’s throw away down town while we scholars sat in our classrooms was more than any human beings could be asked to endure,” he said.
“We therefore took advantage of the morning yard break to petition the school principal to allow us out to see the film stars.”
Brother Eugenius duly waved his hands in surrender and granted the children a morning off school.
It was Adrian’s father, Staf, then carillonneur at the cathedral, who played the Laurel and Hardy theme tune on the massive bells.
Laurel later said: “As the cathedral bells started to ring out our theme song, Babe (Hardy’s nickname) looked at me, and we cried.
“Maybe people loved us and our pictures because we put so much love in them, I don’t know. I’ll never forget that day. Never.”
Struggling through the massed crowds on Cobh pier, Laurel and Hardy insisted on being taken direct to the cathedral to “thank the bell-ringers” for the momentous welcome.
It was an occasion where the already excited 10-year-old Adrian got to see his heroes close up. “When Ollie went to take my father’s hand to thank him, the accumulated emotion of that whole morning seemed to suddenly spill over the poor man and words failed him.
“Tears began to roll down his cheeks as he engulfed dad in his not inconsiderable embrace.”