Buoyed by the recent trip to The Laurel & Hardy Museum in Ulverston (CLICK HERE for the Blog) , I thought it was time to up the ante somewhat and take the 400-mile round-trip to the Holiday Inn, Chatham, for the Sons of the Desert: Helpmates UK Tent’s Laurel & Hardy Convention.
The Sons of the Desert is the name of the international Laurel & Hardy Appreciation Society, an association that I’ve been a member of for about thirty years, off and on. Yet, in all this time, I’ve never been to a convention…until now, that is!
For those that had booked convention tickets in advance, we received an invitation to attend a special, exclusive screening of the new Stan & Ollie biopic, which the event organisers had miraculously managed to arrange to be shown at a local cinema in Chatham on the previous Friday evening. This was a BIG deal as the movie doesn’t go on general release in the UK until early January. However, I was unable to get to Kent a night earlier, so it was with regret that I had to let this opportunity slip through my fingers. I would have to wait until the new year, like everyone else, to see the movie, but no matter! There was still the convention to look forward to…
The trip south was, for the most part, fairly easy-going and uneventful – in fact, the hours flew by and we soon found ourselves checking in to the convention hotel at about 10:30 a.m. and had enough time to have a sit and a drink in the lounge area before the doors to the convention opened.
The welcome from the ‘Helpmates UK Tent’ was very warm indeed and I felt immediately at home among fellow Laurel & Hardy geeks…err.. enthusiasts. My first call was to the salesroom – a very dangerous place for me to be left unsupervised – but I showed great restraint and only bought about six items (!!!).
The convention’s theme was ‘Trouble and Strife’ and so the majority of the boys’ films being shown throughout the day, in the two Film Rooms, had a focus on Stan & Ollie and their wives e.g. ‘Should Married Men Go Home’, ‘Hog Wild’, ‘Blotto’, ‘Thicker Than Water’, ‘Our Wife’, Oliver the Eighth’, etc etc. The films ran all day and well into the evening and were interspersed with rare clips and special interviews etc to ensure we all saw something we hadn’t seen before. One such interesting item I watched was an interview that’d been filmed two days previously with Barry Cryer, who spoke about his experience going to watch Laurel & Hardy on stage. He also spoke about a man he’d met years ago who had worked as a theatre stagehand when the Fred Karno troupe, including Charlie Chaplin and Stan Jefferson (Laurel), came to town. His take on the personalities of Chaplin and Laurel was quite enlightening.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I’ve always loved watching Laurel & Hardy comedies at home, but sitting with a room full of people and sharing the laughs is a completely different experience and one I won’t forget. I can’t recommend it enough.
In addition to the Film Rooms, there were four authors launching and signing copies their new books, including Danny Lawrence (‘Arthur Jefferson: Man of the Theatre and Father of Stan Laurel‘, ‘The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood’), Roger Robinson (‘Laurel & Hardy in Southend’, ‘Laurel & Hardy at the London Palladium’) and Antony and Joanne Mitchell-Waite (‘Like Two Peas in a Pod‘). All authors were happy to chat and sign copies of their superb books all day long and Danny Lawrence also gave a fascinating illustrated presentation about his extensive five-year research into Stan Laurel’s father Arthur Jefferson.
During the day, I chatted with Dave Tomlinson about his display of Laurel & Hardy autographs and he was particularly informative on the subject of how to spot fakes. This was a great display and he even had a small and enticing selection of autographs for sale. I have to admit, this is my holy grail! I would LOVE to own a signed photograph of the boys, but sadly I didn’t have about £350 to spare on the day. But, one day….one day…!!
After speaking with Dave, I then spotted a small room with an exhibition that just plain blew me away! I have to say this was my favourite part of the whole convention and made the trip completely worthwhile on its own. On one side of the room, professionally framed were original theatre posters advertising Laurel & Hardy live on stage in various UK towns and cities, during their tours in the 1950s. On the other walls were the most wonderful collection of original autographed photographs I think I will ever see. Owned by Mark Hammond (The Lucky Dog!), they were all beautifully displayed, some framed by the majority were in protective sleeves and bound in display folders and consisted not only of autographs of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, individually as well as together but also signed photographs of nearly all the boys’ co-stars. Familiar faces such as James Finlayson, Tiny Sandford, Anita Garvin, Mae Busch, Billy Gilbert and even their producer Hal Roach and Supervising Director Leo McCarey were to be found, to name but a few. There must’ve easily been over a hundred autographs, all with gorgeous black and white or sepia photographs and on the opposite page a list of the films that the individual in question had appeared in. I could’ve (and probably did) spend hours looking through the binders. It was a good job they were in protective sleeves as I was salivating like a Dogue de Bordeaux that’d just caught a whiff of its favourite snack!
The convention concluded with a raffle (I failed to scoop a prize !!) and a short performance by a French duo paying homage to Laurel & Hardy. Respect is due for making the trip over from France to perform for the assembled ‘Sons’ and fair play for helping to keep Stan & Ollie’s names out there in front of people.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the convention and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the boys’ work. The hosts extremely welcoming, I made some new friends and the event was very family-friendly. It was lovely to be able to sit and watch films on the big screen and laugh along with everyone else in the audience. It is in moments like these that one is able to get a very real and tangible sense of the love and affection that fans hold for the two ‘gentlemen’, and gentlemen they were, on the screen.
It was all over rather too quickly for my liking. We’d all had such an enjoyable time and we all said we’d love to come back again next year – so, I think that kind of says it all really. Huge thanks to Rob Lewis and all the Helpmates who made this such a fun event. We hope to see you next year…