Published: 00:01, 02 February 2019
Two years ago, on a boat moored at Bristol, Rob Lewis was led below deck to come face-to-face with his idols. Sort of.
As a consultant on the film Stan & Ollie - an affectionate biopic of comedy legends Laurel and Hardy - he was about to sit down and chat with its two stars.
"My God, it made my heart flip," says the 64-year-old from his home in Gillingham. "I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck."
After a life of devoting his spare time to the legacy of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, he was introduced to actor John C Reilly and Steve Coogan - in full costume.
"John C Reilly was Oliver Hardy. Even his voice was convincing," he recalls.
"Steve Coogan was really nice as well chatting away, but he only had to have minor changes to his appearance. John was unbelievable.
"He'd undergone this prosthetic make-up and looked just like Ollie. When he shook my hand he just said 'oh don't worry that's my fat glove' - he even had gloves on to make his hands look fatter."
Mr Lewis has, since 1977, been one of a team behind Helpmates - one of the affiliated appreciation societies devoted to the duo and part of the global Sons of the Desert fan network (a club derived from one of their feature length movies and whose constitution was created in co-operation with Stan Laurel himself).
And for more than 30 years he has run the Laurel & Hardy Magazine which has subscribers around the world - including several honorary members, among them the actors behind Star Wars icons Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader; Mark Hamill and Dave Prowse who are huge fans.
Over that time, he has met and befriended family of the pair; staying at the home of Stan Laurel's daughter and even inadvertently introducing her to her future husband; meeting Oliver Hardy's widow, Lucille and a host of co-stars - even Hal Roach, the producer of the stars' glory years films.
In addition, he has staged conventions across the South East.
Many have taken place in Kent - with events over the years at such venues as Leeds Castle pulling in hundreds of fans.
Today, it attracts around 300 people each year when it block books the Holiday Inn in Chatham for a weekend of movies, experts and chat each November - with one year member Ernie Wise coming down to enjoy the fun.
Former print worker Mr Lewis, who publishes the non-profit magazine, was one of three experts on Laurel and Hardy to act as consultants on the movie.
And his efforts did not go unrewarded by those behind the film at BBC Films and eOne.
He explains: "Because I helped them out with some publicity ideas, I went up to the eOne offices for a meeting and asked if they could provide some postcards or posters for the raffle for my convention.
"They went one better. They hired out Cineworld in Rochester and showed the film, for free, to the conventioneers back in November - two months before the film's release.
"They even sent two security guards all dressed in black - they stood there and faced the audience all the way through to make sure no one took any photographs or video.
"At the end it got a huge round of applause."
Now he hopes the film will spark a new generation to discover Laurel and Hardy's mercurial talents.
"Back in the late 1970s and early 80s they used to regularly show Laurel and Hardy on the BBC and there was a lot of interest,” he reflects.
“This film has come at the right time as interest was just starting to dwindle slightly. You have to bring the public back into the fold and this movie has regenerated the interest.
"In 2017, fellow movie consultant Ross Owen, a friend of mine, came up with the idea of putting Laurel and Hardy films back on the big screen. I wasn't convinced it would work, but he screened Way Out West all over the country and it was a complete sell out.
"I went to Bluewater and introduced the film to the audience and ended up having to jump between two screens because the first had sold out so quickly.
"We knew the interest was out there, we just had to pull it all together, and that's what this movie has done."
During a tour of UK theatres in 1947, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were booked to play a week of shows in Margate.
During a spell of hot summer weather, the stars arrived in the town by train and were transported to the St George's Hotel in Cliftonville, where they would stay during the shows at the town's Winter Gardens.
Starting on August 18 the pair were met with standing ovations and rave reviews.
They caught a train on August 24 to end their stay in Kent - travelling for further performances in Coventry.
The St George's Hotel was demolished in 2007.
During the 1947 UK tour, Stan and Ollie were invited to re-open the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway.
After travelling down by regular train, the pair performed a couple of skits to entertain the crowds - and the gathered news crews - before riding the light railway. The duo then lunched with dignitaries at the Jolly Fisherman in Greatstone before returning for tea at the railway's restaurant at Hythe.
To celebrate this event, with the help of Rob Lewis , the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway will be holding a Laurel and Hardy day on May 25 this year.
Source: AJ Marriot's Laurel & Hardy: The UK Tours
Who were they?
Born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in 1890 in Ulverston, Lancashire, Stan Laurel's mother was an actress and a father a theatre manager - so it was perhaps unsurprising he pursued a career on stage.
Performing professionally in music hall and panto from the age of 16, he joined theatre impresario, and slapstick pioneer, Fred Karno's acting troupe. Among the other performers was Charlie Chaplin, who Stan was understudy to.
The troupe headed to the US for a coast-to-coast tour and Stan would never look back - changing his name to Laurel, so legend has it, after being informed Stan Jefferson, at 13 letters long, was unlucky, and migrating to the US.
Two years younger, Norvell Hardy was born in 1892 in Georgia. The youngest of five children, he quickly realised he preferred the lure of theatre to education.
A talented singer, he adopted the name of his father and as Oliver Hardy he set out to make his name in the movie industry - although his friends knew him best by his nickname Babe.
After appearing together in a number of silent movies separately - including 1921's The Lucky Dog where they performed in the same cast for the first time - they both found themselves signed to the Hal Roach studio.
With strong audience reaction to the duo the studio started teaming them up.
As movies introduced sound, they emerged as a winning duo beloved by audiences worldwide creating more than 100 short films and a number of feature-length movies too such as Way Out West and Swiss Miss. Their theme music, Dance of the Cuckoos, remains instantly recognisable today.
After splitting with Hal Roach in 1940, the quality of the duo's work started a steady decline and they made their last movie together, Atoll K, in 1951.
The duo continued to tour together but poor health for both began to take its toll.
Following a series of strokes, Oliver Hardy died in 1957. He was 65.
Stan Laurel, who never performed again following his partner's passing, died following a heart attack in 1965. He was 74.
More by this authorChris Britcher