THEY adhere to a constitution that requires them to park their camels at meetings, order countless rounds of cocktails and book return taxis to 'the desert'.

Appreciation societies for Laurel and Hardy fans were never going to be dull affairs.

Sons of the Desert lodges exist across the globe, but it is in the unassuming County Durham town of Bishop Auckland where fans of the duo can walk past the school where Stan Laurel avoided school work, or see the house where his sister was born.

It was Bishop Auckland that gave Stan Laurel his taste for the world of entertainment.

For the first year of his life he lived with his grandmother in Ulverston, Cumbria, as his parents Arthur and Madge Jefferson pursued busy lives in North-East theatre, and he was brought to Bishop Auckland in 1891 to be baptised. By the time he died on February 23, 1965, aged 74, his face was known around the world.

Stan Laurel's mother was an actress and stage designer and Arthur managed the former Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland, which was the home of his touring melodrama companies. The plays he wrote were thought to be used by Stan as the plots for his early films.

The town clearly had a big influence on one of the kings of slapstick, who was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson. Those who know what they are looking for will notice the plaques that mark the house on Prince's Street where Stan Laurel once lived, St Peter's Church where he was baptised, or the spot where the Eden Theatre stood. Gillian Wales, manager of the town hall, is also planning another plaque to mark the house where his sister was born on Waldron Street.

The Sons of the Desert group in Bishop Auckland is also doing its best to keep his legacy alive.

The societies are named after a fictional lodge that the duo pledged their allegiance to, in a film of the same name, and each tent then takes a name from one of the Laurel and Hardy films.

Bishop Auckland chose the Hog Wild film, in a nod to an ancient Bishop Auckland legend, which tells of a wild boar that rampaged through Bishop Auckland 700 years ago.

Gateshead has a Pardon Us tent, Middlesbrough a Live Ghost tent and Stockton a You're Darn Tootin tent.

Stan Patterson, the Hog Wild grand sheikh, or chairman, says: "I lived in Northern Ireland and when I came to Bishop Auckland I was overjoyed when I discovered Stan Laurel went to school here. When my son went to the school, I said, 'Is there anything about Stan Laurel there?' and he said, 'absolutely nothing.'"

Now all that has changed and two large Laurel and Hardy figures greet pupils as they walk into school and another plaque commemorates their famous old boy.

But Stan Patterson would like to see the kind of celebration of Stan Laurel that he saw in 1990 in Ulverston, Cumbria, when people came from all over the world to join in a parade to mark his birthday.

At the moment even keeping the Bishop Auckland group going is a struggle. The people charged with keeping the legacy of the North-East film legend alive are an unexpected mix. A collection of older fans of the music hall tradition and younger, dyed-in-the-wool followers of the comic geniuses.

Steven Parker, 37, who travels all the way from Chester-le-Street for the meetings, agrees.

He says: "Basically we're struggling, we have a good night, but there's only a hard core of ten people. It's a dying breed."

His grand sheikh agrees. He has been tirelessly trying to keep the monthly meetings in the town hall's Laurel Caf going, with the help of a Stan Laurel impersonator and Gillian Wales from the town hall.

He says: "We have a big screen television which shows their films and we try to attract people by having the odd quiz and maybe getting someone to speak about them.

"But it's so difficult to get people interested. We keep it going, but only just. We don't have a very big club and sometimes I feel despondent and don't know whether to carry on or not. But it's Bishop Auckland and Stan Laurel was involved in Bishop Auckland and I feel we should try harder and not give up."

But Steven is confident there are more fans out there, with the universal appeal of the humour that inspired other comic greats, such as Morecambe and Wise.

He says: "I'm just a normal guy. I love football. I love drinking, but for me one day a month it's nice to be with other people involved with Laurel and Hardy.

" It's just escapism."