Last week, Mike Amos accused Bishop Auckland of "over-egging" its links with Stan Laurel, but Gillian Wales, who was Grand Vizier for The Hog Wild Tent of The Sons of the Desert – the group which celebrates those links – for 15 years disagrees

IT was local historian and theatre buff, John Land, who was instrumental in bringing Stan Laurel’s links with Bishop Auckland to public notice. Indeed, it was John who placed the bronze plaque in St Peter’s Church proclaiming that it was there that Stan was baptised at the age of 14 months.

It was at St Peter’s in 1995, some 30 years after Stan had died, that John addressed the congregation, which included members of the recently-formed Hog Wild Tent of the Sons of the Desert, and proclaimed the importance of Stan and his theatre manager father, Arthur Jefferson, in upholding the traditions of melodrama and music hall in the area.

John ended by reading The Clown’s Prayer, which was read at Stan’s funeral by Dick Van Dyke and which begins: "As I stumble through this life, help me create more laughter than tears."

John wrote a fascinating study of The Eden Theatre, which Arthur Jefferson ran for nearly ten years in two spells, in Newgate Street. The study, sadly never published, was entitled Quoth the Raven, which was inspired by Arthur's account book in which he often appended a personal observation about the acts. His comments included "Variety is dead in Bishop Auckland" when one of the touring companies failed to find an audience, and, as fans of Edgar Allan Poe will know, "quoth the Raven" was Arthur's way of saying he would never again book an act.

John instigated the formation of the Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society (never a fan club) in Bishop Auckland, but it was dapper Irishman, Stan Patterson, a no mean performer and raconteur himself, who became its first, notable, Grand Sheik. Mr Patterson saw "the boys" on their final tour in 1953 at Sunderland Empire – the tour on which the current film Stan and Ollie is based.

Laurel’s links with Bishop Auckland were nationally acknowledged in 1996 when a Century of Cinema Heritage Plaque, only awarded to 100 places or people that had made a significant contribution to cinema history, was successfully applied for by the Grand Vizier of The Hog Wild Tent. Stan's words "I remember those happy times in Bishop Auckland" were inscribed on the plaque which was ceremoniously fixed to the outside of the Laurel Building of King James’ School.

It was on that same building some years before that Mr Patterson had placed his own bronze plaque. It declared that Stan had been a boarder there in 1903 (while his parents were in North Shields). It was a plaque that Stan regularly polished and could only access by using a set of ladders that he loaded on to his car and took to the school to complete this self-imposed labour of love.

Ladders had to be utilised again some years later when the Bishop Auckland Tent placed a blue plaque on South View, a one-time theatrical boarding house in Waldron Street where the Jefferson family once stayed. Stan’s nephew tried to perform the unveiling but the curtains covering the plaque refused to open. Dave Close from Bishop Auckland Town Hall, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Oliver Hardy, had to scale a ladder and yank the curtains apart – much to the delight of the assembled crowd who obviously thought this scenario had been deliberately staged.

Sadly, John Land’s Stan Laurel Trail – a journey of around one-and-a-half miles which hundreds of visiting Sons of the Desert once tramped – now only leaves 'em laughing. With the devastation by fire of The Laurel Building and the closure and sale of St Peter’s Church, the trail itself currently proclaims another fine mess for Bishop Auckland.

Even The Hog Wild Tent has been forced out of its natural home, the Laurel Room in the Town Hall, since Durham became a unitary authority and would no longer support meetings in its events programming. Happily, a local supermarket, Asda, offered a free meeting room, perhaps recognising the importance of supporting this loyal group of Laurel and Hardy devotees.

Fortunately, the latest film has revived interest in the comedy duo and, interestingly, shows that the genius behind the iconic comedy sketches in their 190 films was Stan Laurel himself – many being based on plays that his theatre manager father had written many years before.

Bishop Auckland has good reason to be proud about its connections with Stan. Blue plaques, comically won, still adorn houses associated with the family, The Hog Wild Tent still meets regularly to laugh at the antics of Laurel and Hardy as they have done for almost 25 years and Bob Olley’s iconic statue still stands on Theatre Corner (Stan would have laughed at the way that health and safety experts refused to allow it to go on a plinth for fear it would distract motorists and then plonked the Angel of the North on a hill looking down on one of Newcastle's busiest roads).

The motto of the Sons of the Desert is "two minds without a single thought" but Stan Laurel proved he was anything but the stooge he purported to be. Fittingly, his statue stands on the site of his father’s Eden Theatre. His figure balances on a pile of film canisters, the topmost of which bears the title of Laurel and Hardy's 1930 classic, Hog Wild.