The legacy of Stan Laurel lives on in Ulverston

Laurel & Hardy statue outside the Coronation Hall

Laurel & Hardy statue outside the Coronation Hall - Credit: Archant

It’s another fine town in old Lancashire but its connection with the world’s most famous comedy duo make it special. Mike Glover reports.

Laurel & Hardy Museum, Ulverston

Laurel & Hardy Museum, Ulverston - Credit: Archant

IT seems impossible to escape the world’s favourite comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. When US actor Mark Hamill was in the UK to promote the launch of the Last Jedi, all he wanted to talk about was his love of the thin, pale Brit, Stan, and the fat, jolly yank, Ollie.

‘It’s universal. You show their movies to people who don’t speak English and they’re funny all over the world,’ said the man better known as Luke Skywalker.

Then, Stan and Ollie keep cropping up on TV quizzes, from Mastermind to Pointless, and The Chase to University Challenge.

And later this year a new film, Stan & Ollie, is due for world-wide distribution, starring Lancastrian comedian and actor Steve Coogan as Stan, and John C. Reilly as Oliver.

Laurel & Hardy Museum, Ulverston

Laurel & Hardy Museum, Ulverston - Credit: Archant

It describes how they attempted to reignite their film careers as they embarked on what became their swansong – their second gruelling theatre tour of post-war Britain.

All this publicity is great news, of course, for Stan’s home town of Ulverston and, specifically, the museum that pays homage to both the duo and the man whose passion created the attraction.

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Coogan, who has a holiday home near Coniston, and O’Reilly visited the Laurel and Hardy museum in secret while making the film, although it was shot largely in the West Midlands and Bristol.

The museum was the brainchild of another Lancastrian, Bill Cubin, who had a collection stemming from his lifelong love of ‘the boys’. When he researched the lives of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, he discovered Stan had not been born in North Shields, as was widely thought at the time, but at his grandparents’ house in Ulverston.

In 1976, while mayor of the town, Bill uncovered the proof he was looking for – a birth certificate dated 1890 stating that Arthur Stanley Jefferson (Stan changed his name in 1931) was born in Foundry Cottages, now named Argyll Street.

The quantity of scrapbooks, pictures and memorabilia grew until his collection became a two-room museum behind the shop he ran, now the Chippy Bank fish and chip cafe, in King Street.

That was back in 1984. Bill died in 1997 but the museum continued, being run first by his daughter Marion and then his grandson Mark Greenhow.

‘I was just seven when the first museum opened and it has almost always been part of my life. I had no chance,’ joked Mark, now 40. ‘My earliest memories are of my grandfather getting out the old cine camera to play Laurel and Hardy shorts. I always loved them – it was great fun.

‘When he died I offered to help keep the museum open. Twenty years later I am still helping out,’ said Mark modestly. He is in fact the proprietor.

In April 2009 the museum moved to the old stage area of the Roxy Cinema, to coincide with the unveiling by Ken Dodd of a statue of the duo and their dog, Laughing Gravy, outside the Coronation Hall. Five years ago the museum took over the whole ground floor when a nightclub closed down.

One section of the museum tracks Stan Laurel’s connections with the town of Ulverston and there is a screen showing in a loop the 106 shorts made by Stan and Ollie, each 20 minutes long and known as two-reelers in the old days. You can sit in the 15-seat viewing area all day without seeing the same scenes twice.

There is a section dedicated to Bill’s amazing collection, which Mark calls ‘an overgrown scrapbook,’ which doesn’t do it justice. Then there is the inevitable area for merchandise and souvenirs.

Mark’s only helper is Matthew Cooper who interviewed Mark for a student project and ended up working for him. Mark’s own son, Billy, now seven, loves to come to the museum to help and Mark hopes he may one day become the fourth generation to run it.

The museum is also main organiser for Another Fine Fest, one of the many that make Ulverston the major festival town of the Lake District. This year it is on Saturday, June 16, Stan’s birthday, and will feature street theatre, comedy and parties to commemorate the town’s links with its famous son.

Even the name of the town’s Market Street florist, Floral & Hardy, reflects the lasting legacy of Stan and Ollie. The thriving shop is this month getting into its wedding mode, which takes owner Nina Dougan’s team and blooms as far away as Preston.

Flowers, trees and all things horticultural are inspiring another group in the town which swept the board at last year’s Cumbria in Bloom, winning nine awards. This year they represent the county at Britain in Bloom, judged in August. They are already busy prettying up the town in preparation with two major projects. They are helping the RAF celebrate its 100th anniversary, with blues, whites and marines dominating the displays throughout the town and they will be planting insect and bird-friendly herbs and flowers at the railway station.

This wildlife-friendly planting policy was one of the features which impressed the judges. Chair of Ulverston in Bloom is Kim Farr, a 62-year-old recently retired project manager. She is typical of the number of Ulverston residents who volunteer to keep the town thriving.

She is also on Incredible Edible Ulverston, promoting local food and drink; Ford Park Community Group; Gill Bank Action Group which is clearing paths through local woods; and the Furness Refugee Support Group, teaching Syrian refugees to speak English.

‘We came to Ulverston ten years ago from Chorlton-cum-Hardy at the other end of Lancashire,’ she said. ‘We were drawn to Ulverston as it has such a fantastic community spirit and is such a friendly town.’

Not that the friendliness should be mistaken for being a soft touch. When the local Post Office was threatened with closure last year, a vociferous campaign secured its survival.

And when a utility company tried to replace some of the town centre cobbles with tarmac, again there was uproar and the cobbles were soon returned.

It is two years since Lancashire Life revealed plans to form an Ulverston Community Enterprises organisation, again run by volunteers, to care for the Coronation Hall and indoor market.

The Hall, known as the Coro, has more visitors than ever and the money has been ploughed back into redecorating and revitalising the impressive venue, which has been the focus of the social and cultural life of the town since the First World War.

The town has its challenges. To the south there are plans for 1,000 new homes, west of Cross-a-Moor and supermarkets are queuing up to open new stores on several sites.

The biggest local employer, medicine maker GSK, or GlaxoSmithKline as it used to be known, pulled the plug on a huge expansion in July 2016. Worse still, it announced plans to stop the processes performed at Ulverston and pull out of the town.

A taskforce was formed by Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock. Its first aim is to persuade GSK it has made a mistake. If the company is determined to get rid of Ulverston, then the next aim is to make sure it survives as a thriving plant, albeit under new owners. Closure would be unthinkable.

GSK site director Phil Wilson said the 325-strong workforce is being maintained pending the decisions, due this month, with recruitment and apprenticeships continuing.

Whatever the decision, it is clear Ulverston will survive as a thriving community, far from the Another Fine Mess slogan attributed to the town’s most famous son.