Audiences forget comic giants

It's sad to say that talent, excellence and inventive theatre doesn't always equal box office success.

Andrew Clarke

It's sad to say that talent, excellence and inventive theatre doesn't always equal box office success. I was sad to learn the other day that Laurel & Hardy, one of the New Wolsey Theatre's best home-grown productions in recent years, proved to be a tough sell away from its home theatre in Ipswich.

As everyone who saw it here knows, it was a wonderfully inventive, funny and rather moving show which was a genuine cross-generational treat. The performance I witnessed was enhanced by youthful laughter as a number of youngsters brought along by parents and grandparents audibly showed their pleasure as actors Ben Fox and Christian Patterson cleverly brought the spirit of Stan and Ollie back to life.

It was one of those wonderful productions where all the elements blended seamlessly together - the writing, acting and direction to produce a magical evening which recaptured the essence of two of the 20th century's greatest comedians. It was more than a tribute show - true it recaptured the best of their routines but it also explored and explained the people who inhabited those famous bowler hats.

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The production did well in Ipswich but after its three week run went out on a national tour to other regional theatres where sadly audiences needed a lot persuading to come and re-discover this world of idiot savants and pompous wind-bags.

Any production arriving with glowing reviews and a proven track record should have audiences running into the theatre but sadly it didn't prove to be the case - the marketing teams had to work very hard to get the seats filled. This begs the question why? Can it be that younger audiences or so-called sophisticated, urban audiences elsewhere in the country no longer find Laurel & Hardy funny? Or can it be, as I suspect, that they don't know who Laurel & Hardy are? Have they become part of our forgotten comedy heritage.

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Laurel & Hardy have become victims of the inexorable rise of daytime television. In my youth summer holidays were punctuated by regular screenings of Laurel & Hardy on television - both during the day and in the early evening. It didn't matter that the films were 50 years old or in black and white - what mattered was the fact that they were funny.

Now that TV doesn't show black and white movies, this valuable part of our heritage has disappeared. The same is true of the classics from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. These giants from the world of comedy cinema are in danger of being forgotten.

Lord Attenborough tells the story of a senior executive from Universal Studios thinking that Attenborough wanted to make a bio-pic about an actor who sold photo-copiers because a US TV commercial used a Chaplin impersonator to advertise their machines. He had no idea who Chaplin really was.

British comedian Paul Merton is thankfully using his fame to try and redress the balance touring the country introducing his favourite silent screen movies and hopefully proving that although the films may be old, they may have no sound (apart from a live piano accompaniment), they are in black and white but they are hugely entertaining, funny and often moving as well.

It seems that too often audiences shy away from something that they are not familiar with and in so doing they are robbing themselves of some timeless entertainment.

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