CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Laurel and Hardy wreck the wrong house

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Another nice mess… Laurel and Hardy wreck the wrong house

Comedy Legends: Laurel And Hardy


Body In The Snow: Joanna Yeates


Some stories are so good, you just beg them to be true. Silent film mogul Hal Roach told one to historian Kevin Brownlow 40 years ago, for his definitive documentary series, Hollywood: The Pioneers.

Roach was shooting an early Laurel and Hardy short, a 1929 two-reeler called Big Business. Stan and Ollie are selling Christmas trees . . . in July.

They turn up at the home of goggle-eyed actor James Finlayson and get into a tit-for-tat argument on the doorstep. 

Coats are ripped, noses are tweaked, watches are smashed, windows are broken, doors are demolished, cars are blown up . . . by the time it’s over, Finlayson’s house is in ruins.

Comedy Legends showed other clips a number of Laurel and Hardy gems, all as delightfully and innocently funny as they have been for generations of fans

For the era, this was a big-budget shoot, on location at a real house, a neat suburban bungalow in Los Angeles — hired from a studio employee, with the promise that the wreckage would be repaired.

But as the crew finished filming at this smouldering bombsite, the comic chaos took another twist.

‘A car pulled up,’ Roach remembered, ‘with a man, his wife and two children. The wife practically fainted, the man the same. And that was when we realised we’d come to the wrong house.’

In Comedy Legends (Sky Arts) we saw other clips from Big Business among a number of Laurel and Hardy gems, all as delightfully and innocently funny as they have been for generations of fans.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, a Laurel and Hardy short aired daily at teatime on BBC2, with full-length features such as Sons Of The Desert and Our Relations at weekends.

Their slapstick is still incomparable, and the humour is as fresh as ever. And it isn’t simply that the sight of a fat man falling in a puddle of mud will never tire, Ollie’s world-weary looks to camera and Stan’s crumple-faced sobbing still seem somehow completely contemporary. It’s astonishing to realise they were born in the 19th century.

Gong giveaway of the night:

Not one but two back-slapping ceremonies were on show, with the National Television Awards (ITV) and the Mercury Prize Live: Album Of The Year (BBC4). Apart from the nominees, does anyone really care about these self-satisfied junkets?

Children today, once they get accustomed to the strangeness of the pre-war clothes and the flickering black-and-white film, will still find their surreal antics hilarious. Bring back Stan and Ollie!

Barry Cryer presented the tribute, opening with a story of his own. He saw the duo on their only visit to England, in 1953, at a theatre in Leeds. ‘They were the Beatles before the Beatles,’ he said. ‘We queued round the block. They got a standing ovation — and they hadn’t done anything yet!’

Touches like that bring even the most familiar history to life.

That’s what was missing in the two-part account of the Joanna Yeates murder investigation, Body In The Snow (C5). This was the first time we had heard from detectives involved in the 2010 case, which began as a search for a woman who vanished from her Bristol flat after a drink with colleagues, and became a murder hunt after her body was discovered in a roadside bank of snow on Christmas Day.

But nothing the police had to say increased our understanding of the inquiry. All the details have been raked over repeatedly, not least in the 2014 drama starring Jason Watkins as the initial suspect who had been wrongly accused — The Lost Honour Of Christopher Jefferies.

Jefferies was interviewed and seemed archly amused by some of the proceedings, but added little to what’s been said before.

One of his close friends, the actor Clive Panto, was another contributor — though here the most interesting detail wasn’t mentioned. Mr Panto had a bit-part in The Lost Honour, as a solicitor. How that came about, and what the experience was like, we weren’t told. But there’s always a story if you look.

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