THOUGH it may prove akin to the youthful realisation that Santa has several billion little helpers, needs must that we recount another salutary story for Christmas.

Every year, a youngster is invited officially to switch on the lights - of which the column is a great admirer - around Ferryhill market place.

There's a big button on a table outside and a wire leading from it through a town hall window. At the crucial moment, the whole town centre should gloriously be illumined.

Last Friday morning, carol singers and what-not expectantly in attendance, a four-year-old from Dean Road nursery was given the pressing engagement. As she pushed the button, however, a solitary Father Christmas figure lit up, followed intermittently by other lights.

Town clerk Jamie Corrigan wasn't too surprised - the wire leading through the town hall window has no connection with any electricity system, past or present.

What's meant to happen, says Jamie - to whom full marks for honesty - is that he stands outside in the wet, watched from every other window by his assistants. At his signal ("I scratch my head or something") they flick myriad municipal switches. "Sometimes they might have more than one switch," he adds. "It depends how fast they can run."

The light show wasn't helped because many of the decorations were governed by a time switch, set for 4pm.

Still, despite the downpour and the fairy light fantasia, we're assured that everyone had a good time. And, as probably they say at Ferryhill Town Council, anything that turns you on.

STILL humbugging, last week's column reproduced the memorably ungrammatical invitation to Crook Rotary Club's festivities - "Carol's for all".

Carol, our correspondent had observed, is clearly a very popular girl. The choir has at least two ladies called Carol, both said to be amused. The gentlemen, like embarrassed journalists through the ages, are trying to blame the printer.

HEADING homeward for Christmas? Best leave now. A correspondent in The Guardian reports that his computer spellcheck queried GNER and offered "goner" instead. Our Chambers Dictionary defines "goner" as "a thing beyond hope of recovery".

...and spotted outside a church in Redcar: "Pray now and avoid the Christmas rush."

SO back to Hutton Conyers, to Bretton Woods and - chiefly - to Teesside-born comedian Jimmy James, a music hall great.

Conyers and Woods were James's stooges, one named after a village north-east of Ripon, the other after the venue of an international monetary conference in 1944.

"Jimmy James saw the sign to Hutton Conyers whilst driving along the Great North Road. It just struck a chord," confirms Ian Andrew, from Lanchester. Hutton Conyers was a mop-haired dimwit with a long coat and a recurring question: "Hey, are you putting it round that I'm barmy?" James, the master of timing and facial expression, usually found an answer unnecessary.

Though played by several members of James's own family, Conyers' bovine boots were also filled for three years by the young Roy Castle.

Bretton Woods became Eli Woods, played perfectly by James's nephew Jack Casey; Hutton Conyers slowly exited stage left. In a small village near Ripon, they were probably rather glad to see the back of him.

JIMMY James was born in South Bank in 1892, son of a steelmaker and amateur clog dancer, and moved to Stockton as a child. By 1930 he was appearing at the London Palladium, earning £100 a week.

"The supreme stage drunk of all time," writes Eric Midwinter in his 1979 volume Make 'Em Laugh, though James neither smoked nor drank. His vice was his love of gambling, his weakness his famed generosity.

Brian Hunter recalls an occasion in the early 1960s when he was a nurse on ward 15 at Sedgefield General Hospital, Jack Casey was a patient and Lucretia Carr, a formidable but highly-efficient matron. (She was also in charge, memory suggests, at the time of the Guinness Book of Records incident when that poor had chap had the contents of several money boxes removed from his stomach.)

"Eli" was quite ill, James a regular visitor. "He'd turn up in his astrakhan collar coat and his fedora, but never the cigarette which people expected to be ever-present," recalls Brian.

"When finally we got Jack better, Jimmy went round all the staff on the ward and gave them a ten shilling note, a lot of money in those days. It explained why he had a reputation for generosity. It may also help explain why he was always supposed to be broke."

BRIAN Hunter has also loaned a little book called Winds of Change, sub-titled Stockton Personalities.

Jimmy and Eli feature, of course. Will Hay's there (though Eric Midwinter reckons he was born in Aberdeen) and Flying Freddie Dixon, plus lesser lights like Bobby Dowsey ("a somewhat simple soul") and Stockton lass Margaret Nicholson, who in 1786 attempted to assassinate George III by stabbing him and for some reason was declared insane.

There are also a couple of pages on Ivy Close - "beauty queen and film star" - who in 1908 at the Castle Theatre, Stockton, became the first Miss Great Britain in a competition sponsored by the Daily Mirror.

She won a motor car. You read it here 92 years later.

MORE name-dropping: Redcar and East Cleveland council leader David Walsh recalls a well-known artist from those parts - recalls the guy, forgets his name - commissioned to illustrate some "City of the Future" type advertising. "The sort of thing Frank Hampson used to do with Dan Dare in the Eagle," says David.

It looked brilliant, though only the truly observant would have noticed a destination board on one of the space cruisers. It was all Teesside's favourite bus route - Eston: 63. news/gadfly.html