Stephen Fry calls them "a constant joy". John Cleese says they're "wonderfully, wonderfully funny". And even Steve Martin agrees that "they're hard to top". Even though this month sees the seventieth anniversary of the first film officially branded a Laurel and Hardy film, it seems that Stanley Laurel and his best friend Oliver Hardy remain as much an inspiration to modern comedy as they were to their contemporaries.

"I think that the comics of today can't help but be influenced by Laurel and Hardy," says Lee Evans, the Perrier Award-winning comedian, and now darling of the Hollywood studios. "I grew up on all the greats... Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and, of course, Stan and Ollie. You watch their stuff, and you just think 'wow'! Comedy owes those boys a lot..."

"Oh yeah," says Steve Coogan, "I'd agree with that. It's absolutely timeless, classic stuff. I've always been a fan, and I always will be. It's hard not laughing at their stuff, isn't it? The genius just shines through, I think."

There's no doubt that their happily slapstick ways have had an effect on some of television's sitcom greats. The best-loved comedy sidekicks of the '70s, '80s, and '90s - the influence of Laurel and Hardy it is not hard to spot in their performances - each confirm Evans' theory.

"I absolutely admit that Stan Laurel, for one, was a great influence when I was developing my character", says Tony Robinson, whose hygienically-challenged right hand man to Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder has made him one of the most-celebrated comic characters of the last twenty years. "Baldrick wouldn't have been half the man he was if it hadn't been for Laurel and Hardy. Not that he was much of a man anyway... but maybe that's the point..."

Andrew Sachs, who, as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, suffered more than his fair share of pratfalls and pitfalls, would agree. "Physical comedy wouldn't be what it was without them. I realise this now. Stan and Ollie's phenomenal inventiveness and dazzling technique make me green with envy. Furthermore, I try not to laugh at them, but fail regularly..."

And it goes further. Father Ted, widely thought to be perhaps the best sitcom of the 1990s, owes much to Stan and Ollie. "God, yeah," says Ardal O'Hanlon, award-winning stand-up and the show's incessantly stupid Father Dougal Maguire. "When you look at some of the stuff we did you can almost see Stan and Ollie in that situation. They were an influence, of course they were, and I think they were to almost any instance of physical comedy you'd care to mention. Like when Dougal and Ted tried to carry that piano up the stairs and it... oh... no, that was Stan and Ollie in Music Box. Well, anyway, you can see how easy it is to confuse Father Ted with Laurel and Hardy..."

Music Box, the only film ever to have won the duo an Academy Award, sees the ever-accident-prone duo struggle to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a hill, and still seems to strike a particular chord whenever mentioned.

"I think that's the one that most people remember," says Neil Cole, one half of rising double act Hitchcock's Half Hour, winners of the 1998 Hackney Empire New Act of the Year Award, and whose intense physical performances have had them compared to the likes of Stan and Ollie. "Music Box is just a classic piece of comedy, no matter when you see it. Laurel and Hardy could write timeless stuff; things that are still funny today. Comedians still have a lot of respect for them... especially double acts."

Armstrong and Miller, in fact, the Perrier-nominated "comic pairing" currently writing a new sketch show for Channel 4, have never made a secret of their love for Stan and Ollie. "It still surprises me how cripplingly funny they are," says Xander Armstrong. I think it still surprises almost anyone working in comedy today, in fact. The most important thing about them is that they are totally accessible to anyone, regardless of age. People grow up loving them."

"They are the archetypal double act, if you think about it, and they make every other double act fade away when you compare them" says Ben Miller. "Every double act in existence is compared to Laurel and Hardy, which is a bit unfair in a way, because they are without doubt the classic, blueprint double act. It's brilliantly constructed; Oliver Hardy is incapable, but Stan is so incapable that he makes Ollie look good - "

" - And there's Ollie thinking he's quite smart," says Armstrong, "but the very fact that he's chosen Stan as his mate just turns it round... the logic just ties up in a whirlwind! Certainly the best double act ever..."

Now facing a revival of sorts with screenings up and down the country of two of their best-known films - Way Out West and, of course, Music Box - there's even an official website for Laurel and Hardy. And comedian Frank Skinner will host a gala premiere on September 3rd, at Leicester Square's Prince Charles cinema. Suddenly, it's all happening for the boys, once again...

"It's about time we said 'cheers' to 'em," says Whose Line Is It Anyway star Stephen Frost. "They were definitely an influence on me and my comedy. I started out in a double act, so I loved that side of things; the slapstick element. The best thing I remember them doing - it always makes me laugh - was in Swiss Miss. They were up in the mountains, crossing a rope bridge and carrying a piano. Behind them was this huge gorilla, like a great big Yeti, and Stan just said 'Mind the monkey!'. That's the best line ever. And all you have to do is look at Vic and Bob and some of the other major stars of our time to see the influence they've had on modern comedy. They were - are - just brilliant."

The playful pratfalls and sheer physicality of Laurel and Hardy would also seem to prove once and for all that humour *can* travel. And successfully.

"In Australia I would always watch open-mouthed," says the former Big Breakfast presenter Mark Little, also a popular stand-up comic. "I've been asked to go to a premiere of one of their movies at a screening in London, and I can't wait to see their stuff on a big screen. Certainly as a comedian it was work by those guys that inspired me. They didn't mind throwing themselves about a bit, and showing real courage in their comedy. When I finally make the films I'm going to make, that subconscious influence that those guys had on my mind will really come into play. They're like your mates, y'know?"

Affection like this constantly comes into play with Laurel and Hardy, or 'the boys', as they're - yes - affectionately known. More so than any other comedians, it's Stan and Ollie who are cited as the world's best. This, it's thought, could well be because almost everyone seems to have grown up with them.

"When I was a kid," says impressionist Alistair McGowan, "Laurel and Hardy films seemed to be shown every summer holiday and every Christmas. I watched them all - again and again. More than anything these films made me want to act and to make people laugh. I suppose I really wanted to be Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy.

"My top ten comedy moments would probably all come from their films. The relationship between the two of them was so special, and it'll probably never be bettered. They are already the double act of all time... I wouldn't dare impersonate them!"

"But I would say that the reason we can relate to them so well, and the reason there's such outright affection," says Rob Newman, the stand-up comedian turned best-selling author, "is that they're the forces of anarchy. They'll go into some uptight republic, or the world of work, and just do what's been called the 'spontaneous revolt of human genius'. It's anarchy, pure and simple. It takes a lot out of the human soul to fit into the square peg all the time, and here are two men who clearly don't do that. They just don't fit, and perhaps that's why they hang out with each other all the time. They're the last two left..."

Arthur Smith once said that the funniest, cleverest one-liner you could ever think up will never be as funny as a bucket landing on someone's head.

"I think that's true, and I think Laurel and Hardy have proved that to the world..."

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