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A.J. Jefferson
 
Many of us will be aware of comic legend Stan Laurel’s connection to North East England.
But what of his talented father, Arthur Jefferson? Ironically, but inevitably, Arthur’s own contribution to the world of entertainment has been over-shadowed by the international stature of his son, Stan, the creative member of the hugely successful film partnership of Laurel and Hardy.
Arthur was a fine comic actor in his own right as well as a major influence on his son - just as he in turn has been a major influence on successive generations of comic performers. But acting was just one of Arthur Jefferson’s prodigious talents. He was also a successful dramatist and his plays toured the UK and abroad to packed houses for many years.
Remarkably, the first film in which the Laurel and Hardy partnership emerged fully formed in 1927 was based on a comedy sketch which Arthur had written for the theatre in 1906.
Stan had played a role in it as a teenager and it was Stan himself who wrote the screenplay for that crucial early Laurel and Hardy film, Duck Soup.
In addition, in Arthur, we have an excellent example of the provincial theatre lessees who provided Victorians and Edwardians with their main source of entertainment.
In the days before radio, cinema or television, that was more than enough to make Arthur a local celebrity but he added to his reputation with his flair for advertising and marketing, and numerous contributions to the life of the local communities in which he had theatres.
 
A new book, Arthur Jefferson. Man of the Theatre and Father of Stan Laurel, by Danny Lawrence, is a ground-breaking, first-ever biography of a flamboyant, multi-talented theatrical figure.
 
The book tells a powerful human-interest story, set against the background of the major changes in the entertainment industry over a one-hundred-year period.
It also describes the many ups and sometimes tragic downs in Arthur’s life, including his unusual family background; his acting career; the reception afforded his plays and sketches; his many years as a theatre lessee; his brief sortie into film-making, and his time as a theatrical agent.
It also discusses his two marriages, and the lives of his four children, all of whom followed him into show business.
In addition to the accumulation of rich, previously unpublished material, and the dispelling of myths, the book contains much that is new about the whole Jefferson family.
 
Arthur claimed his birthday was September 12, 1862 although there are reasons to suppose that it could have been significantly earlier.
His upbringing was most unusual and is described in fascinating detail. His family life and circumstances are so extraordinary that they would make a wonderful subject for the TV programme Who Do You Think Are.
His early life reveals just how different it was to be born in Victorian England. In his case, he was both a victim and a beneficiary of the double standards and hypocritical behaviour which was characteristic of some of its outwardly upstanding men.
Nevertheless, however unorthodox his upbringing, Arthur went on to become a conspicuous success in his chosen ‘line of business’ and mixed comfortably with people who, unlike him, had enjoyed every advantage whilst growing up.
Arthur’s connection with the North East began in 1899, when he took over the lease of the Theatre Royal in Bishop Auckland. He remained in charge for seven years but it was the twelve years he spent running theatres in North Shields, Blyth, Wallsend and Hebburn which are the most pivotal to his career.
 
For a time, he appeared to have a theatrical Midas touch but his empire was unable to withstand some unexpected events. He fought desperately to save it, and for a time was engaged in a bitter conflict with theatrical rivals, but eventually succumbed.
He and his family were obliged to leave the North East in a hurry and cross the border into Scotland.
 
Despite his time in the North East being cut short, those years tell us a great deal about the then vibrant theatrical scene and its role in the life of local communities.
During his years as a theatre lessee, Arthur had to confront the huge challenges to local, live, intimate theatre from global, silent and then sound cinema.
Ironically, it was the very success of films like those of Laurel and Hardy which all but destroyed the network of provincial drama theatres which Arthur loved so much.
 
By the time that Arthur died, in obscurity, in 1949, show business had moved on in ways that would have seemed unimaginable to him in his prime.
He had once rubbed shoulders with the likes of Charles Dickens, Sir Henry Irving, Bram Stoker and Mrs Patrick Campbell but, sadly, by living so long, his passing went unnoticed by the theatrical world of the day.
Arthur Jefferson. Man of the Theatre and Father of Stan Laurel (Brewin Books Ltd) by Danny Lawrence was published on October 19, 2017.
 
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