IT has been hard to escape the publicity for Stan & Ollie, the new film about Laurel & Hardy’s later years. It stars Steve Coogan, as Stan, and John C Reilly as the larger one.

The film opens in 1952, when the comedians are in the twilight of their careers. Their tour has reached Newcastle where the fading stars book into a hotel beneath the Tyne Bridge and the receptionist remarks how they are only playing small venues these days.

But the film follows the growing popularity of their last tour as they are fondly rediscovered by audiences.

But what about Stan’s early years in County Durham? Is there enough material to make a film about them?


Arthur “AJ” Jefferson became the joint manager, with Thomas M Thorne, of the Theatre Royal in Princes Street, Bishop Auckland. AJ was a man of theatrical mystery – as he grew older he seemed not to age, although opticians in Bishop Auckland worked out from their records that he was probably born in 1856. He may even have come into the world in Darlington where he could have been the son of a builder, although he claimed to be descended from a famous 19th Century American actor, Joseph Jefferson.

AJ came to Bishop Auckland from Ulverston, in Cumbria, where he had been manager of a tent theatre. His new wife, an actress named Madge Metcalfe, also came from Ulverston where her parents – who hailed from Hawes in North Yorkshire – still lived.

AJ and Madge took rented rooms in High Tenters Street as they tried to revive the ailing Theatre Royal. It had been built as a music hall in 1871, beside a field on which tented theatres performed, but it had struggled due to poor management and the harsh economic conditions in the Durham coalfield.


Heavily pregnant Madge returned to her mother, Sarah, in Foundry Cottages, Ulverston where, on June 16, Madge gave birth to Arthur Stanley Jefferson. He was known, to avoid confusion with his father, as Stan. Stan was a poorly baby and his parents immediately baptised him for fear he would die at any moment.

They returned to Bishop Auckland to continue their careers while grandmother Sarah coped with the sickly infant.


With the theatre holding its own, AJ became sole proprietor, and he and Madge took up residence in 66 Princes Street. It was from this house that on October 21, 14-month-old Stan was “received into the church” – a second baptism – in St Peter’s Church, almost directly opposite.

This was a rare visit for Stan to his parents. Either they tried to make up for the hurried baptism when their baby was at death’s door, or they recognised the PR potential of a cute baby when you are desperate to promote your theatre.


The Theatre Royal was doing well enough to attract West End stars like Kate Vaughan, the inventor of the famous “skirt dance” in which colourful projections of birds and animals were thrown onto her huge skirt as she glided around the stage.

Sir William Eden, of Windlestone Hall, Rushyford, attended the theatre, adding to its respectability, and in the summer allowed it to be renamed the Eden Theatre in his honour.

AJ starred in his own play, The World’s Verdict, which debuted in Shildon, toured Belgium and arrived back at the Eden Theatre in triumph. Stan, though, largely remained in Ulverston.


The Jeffersons were upwardly mobile enough to rent a double-fronted house called South View in Waldron Street, which was only a prompt’s call away from the Eden. In the house on December 16, Madge gave birth to their fifth child, a daughter.


On January 3, baby Beatrice Olga was baptised at St Peter’s Church. Stan, by now four-and-a-half, was visiting for the holidays and so at the same ceremony, he too was “received into the church” – effectively a third baptism.


AJ had acquired interests in theatres in Consett, North Shields and Blyth, and on July 2, he announced that after seven years in Bishop Auckland, he would give up the Theatre Royal and move to Dockwray Square, North Shields, to concentrate on his northern theatres and his own writing and performing.

For the first time in North Shields, Stan permanently went to live with his parents. He was already showing an interest in the theatre, so AJ converted the attic into a stage for him, although in a vigorous fight scene, the young actor knocked over a paraffin floodlight and nearly burned the house down.


AJ had taken on the Metropole Theatre in Glasgow and moved his family north of the border. However, in January, 11-year-old Stan enrolled as a boarder at the King James I Grammar School back in Bishop.

"I can remember as clearly as yesterday when I was at school in Bishop Auckland, a certain teacher named Bates," Stan reminisced to his biographer, John McCabe, in later years. "After the kids had gone to bed, Bates would come and take me into his private study where he and a couple of other masters were relaxing with a bottle. Bates would then have me entertain them with jokes, imitations, what the hell have you – anything for a laugh.

"I don't think playing to Bates and the other masters helped my education as I was given a lot of privileges – and a lot of my backwardness in class was overlooked, which I've regretted many times since."

Stan continued: "Those were happy days at Bishop Auckland. I remember one of those teachers was a German who didn't seem to like me at all. He had the habit of carrying a pencil crosswise in his mouth, and when I couldn't answer his questions in class, he used to go into a frenzy.

“He'd chew that pencil into pieces and spit them out of his mouth in disgust.

"One night in Bates' study I gave an imitation of the German master.

“This killed Bates who demanded I do it over and over again. Well, the German master was present, and it sure didn't kill him. He really became my enemy after that."


Perhaps because Stan was doing more clowning than learning at the grammar school, in July, after 19 months, he was moved to Gainford Academy.

Gainford Academy had been founded in 1818 by the Reverend William Bowman on High Green, and by the middle of the 19th Century had gained a good reputation for sending scholars to leading universities. It had more than 80 boarders, and in 1880 built its own theatre overlooking the green.

However, as the century wore on, the academy struggled to compete with Barnard Castle School which had moved to its purpose-built premises in 1884 and was cheaper. Therefore, in 1889 the Bowmans sold their properties on High Green, and moved a dozen or so boarders into North Terrace (behind the village’s corner shop).

It was in North Terrace, then, that Stan lodged – but only for a few months. With the academy, which closed in 1914, in decline and his tomfoolery on the rise, Stan returned to Glasgow to study theatre management under the watchful eye of his father.


Stan sailed to America with Fred Karno’s troupe of travelling, slapstick comedians – and never came back. He became understudy to Charlie Chaplin for a while, and made his first silent comedy film, Nuts in May, in 1917. However, Bishop Auckland had not seen the last of him…


As Stan’s star rose – by the early 1920s, he was making 20 silent comedies a year – so his father’s began to wane. The Empire Theatre also went into decline, struggling against the economic conditions, the influenza epidemic and the competition from the newly popular silver screen that Stan could be seen on – Bishop’s early cinemas were the King's Hall, in Newgate Street, the wooden Lyric Picture Theatre, in Newgate Street, and the converted Hippodrome theatre in Railway Street. Mining villages like Coundon even had tin huts that showed films, stopping the need for people to go into Bishop for entertainment.

In desperation, the Eden’s owners turned to the only manager who’d ever made a success of it: AJ. He was remarried after the death of Stan's mother, Madge, in 1908, and returned to Bishop Auckland claiming to be 60 – the local opticians consulted their records and worked out his fibs.

He started putting on the old style variety entertainments, with once famous actresses from London’s West End coming up to reprise their roles from years ago. It didn’t work – the cinema was the trend, with its new breed of film stars, including, of course, Stan Laurel (he’d changed his name because “Stan Jefferson” had an unlucky 13 characters in it).

Indeed, at the end of his shows each night, AJ would stand outside the Eden in his top hat and say farewell to his departing patrons, and say: "Have you been to the King's Hall this week to see my lad?"

AJ left Bishop Auckland in 1925 to run a theatre agency in London, and in 1926, Stan teamed up with Oliver Hardy. The Eden Theatre became a super-cinema, and was demolished in 1974. Now a statue of Stan, unveiled in 2008, stands on the site.