Ahead of his month long stint at the Edinburgh Festival in August the actor Jeffrey Holland found time to talk to me about his one-man show which comes to Kettering Arts Centre in September.
In, …and this is my friend, Mr. Laurel, he plays one of Hollywood’s most endearing comedians from the era of the black and white films.
“I have always held a high regard for Stan Laurel,” he said; “and now 30 years after I had the idea I have reached the age where I can fulfil my ambition.”
It is a long way from the insecure person who was introduced to the physical world of acting at the age of 16. Jeffrey and his friend Peter attended a church youth club but both were looking for something else to do. It was Peter who suggested they should join the local dramatic club, the Co-op drama club, in Walsall, for under 21s.
Recalling that moment in time Jeffrey remembers exclaiming – “What? Do you mean act?” He considered this to be an outrageous suggestion but the drama club soon found it had two new members.
“I was the victim of raging hormones,” Jeffrey said: “I was six feet tall then, I still am, but at age 16 I was tall, spotty, wore thick-rimmed Buddy Holly style glasses and I had no self-confidence, my self-esteem was zero. Getting up in front of a bunch of people was the last thing on my mind. I remember asking Peter why would I want to do that but when he said there were lots of pretty girls there I asked right away “What time do you want me?”
“The first night we were given a script to read and after I had said one line I heard some laughter. I read a bit more and there was more laughter and I thought to myself: “People like what I am doing; I’ve found something I’m pretty good at”. Not only that, I did take one or two of the girls out!”
Laughter has always been a factor in Jeffrey’s life. It can be traced back to those days that many children who grew up in the 1950s often remember fondly. It was the time when the younger generation took over the local cinema to enjoy the Saturday morning picture shows when images of Mickey Mouse, Flash Gordon and masked cowboys flashed across the screen – but it was the Laurel and Hardy comedies that had one nine-year old transfixed. Jeffrey was hooked
He said: “They were just two silly characters any small boy could get drawn to and I got attached to them.”
Now, a few decades on, Jeffrey is getting to play his hero – Stan Laurel in the one-act play he co-wrote with Gail Louw. It has been delighting audiences across the UK since its debut performance in 2013 and which played to packed houses at that year’s Edinburgh Festival.
The play was two years in the making following the extensive research undertaken by the dedicated actor. It meant sitting through hours of Laurel & Hardy films (no hardship for the devoted follower) and reading copious numbers of articles, reviews and insights about the comedic duo who delighted, and still do delight, so many people.
Jeffrey said: “I found out so much about him and the play reveals to the audience many things of which they had previously been unaware. Stan was the brains behind the act, it was he who wrote most of the scripts and did most of the directing. Although other directors were involved they knew Stan knew what he wanted and for the most part, they left it to him. After shooting Oliver used to go off and play golf, which he loved, but it was Stan who was in the cutting room editing the film to make sure the laughs were in the right place, and the spaces for the audience to laugh and not miss the next gag were there. His timing was perfect.”
In the play Jeffrey pays homage Laurel and Hardy, at some points taking on both roles. It is set in the bedroom of Oliver Hardy who is unable to move or speak following the stroke that would ultimately lead to his death. Maybe not the most obvious scenario but it allows the audience to be drawn into the lives of cinema’s iconic comedy movie pairings.
“I want people to hear the story I can tell them,” said Jeffrey: “the money they made, the women they had – and Laurel had many – and all the things they did to become successful. After the interval I hold a question and answer session and I always get people asking me for even more details about them.”
It is a riveting play but being in a one-man show has its perils as Jeffrey found out to his cost in the debut performance at the Camden Fringe. Being on your own on stage the actor said you have to give yourself mental cues, an image if you will, that will lead you from one paragraph to the next. Forgetting a line, known in the industry as freezing, happened once, but never again, when a member of the audience laughed at one particular line in the play.
“I thought I must make a mental note of that,” said Jeffrey, “ready for next time. However, before I knew it, I had no clue as to what came next and had to call up to the gallery where the prompt was sitting and ask for my next line. Not sure why they thought so but when I apologized to the audience at the end of the show no one had noticed, that all thought it was part of the show, but I’m still not sure how that would have fitted in!”
There are plans underway for a biopic of Laurel and Hardy and while Jeffrey would relish the part he is convinced producers/directors et al would go for a more convincing lookalike than himself. He is no stranger to the screen and counts himself very fortunate to have been living in the era of shows penned by David Croft and Jimmy Perry. Jeffrey may be remembered best for his role as Spike in Hi-de-Hi (specifically written with Jeffrey in mind) but for him, his favourite character was James Twelvetrees in You Rang M’Lord.
“It was a fabulous part,” he said: “it was a huge lot of fun. He was the biggest snob in the house, it was a straight role in a comedy show.
“I also had parts in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Oh Doctor Beeching! and even Dad’s Army, but missed out on ‘Allo, ‘Allo as I was already in Hi-de-Hi. However, I got to play René on stage in the 25th anniversary tour.”
Although equally at home on television and radio, for which he said you don’t need to learn lines or wear makeup, Jeffrey’s true passion is for ‘live’ theatre. It is the adrenalin rush when the house lights go down and the stage lights fade in that brings out the real actor. This ‘real’ actor has trodden the boards from repertory companies and touring productions to the West End. This has landed him serious parts in Shakespearian plays, lighter roles in comedy and versatile parts in musicals as well as being a regular cast member in pantomime – Jeffrey is listed as being one of Britain’s top five Dames.
He said: “I think most actors will say that being on stage is best. It’s a great leveller, you need some ability and a bit of luck but I am fortunate to be doing the job I love and making a living at it. If I wasn’t doing this I don’t know what I’d be doing. When I was still at school I had a small job in a wine merchants where I learned all about the different grapes and colours, which was fascinating, so I might have become a wine merchant myself but I have always loved what I am doing now.
“No one from Laurel’s family has seen the show, but I do know Stan’s daughter lives in America and although she is now getting on in years I would like to perform the show in the States where she could come along and see it – I would love to know what she thinks of it. I know the Laurel & Hardy Fan Club (Sons of the Desert) members and their friends come and see the show and they love it.”
If you want to know more about Laurel and Hardy and the chemistry between the two friends – …and this is my friend, Mr. Laurel – is for you, and it comes to Kettering Arts Centre on Saturday, 12th September. Access our event page here.
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Tickets for events are available from Waterstones, High Street, Kettering, by post from Becky at St Andrew’s Church (cheques made payable to “PCC of St Andrew’s Kettering”) to St Andrew’s Vicarage, Lindsay Street, Kettering NN16 8RG