Like father like son: Arthur Jefferson, the father of comedian Stan Laurel

17 October 2017
arthur-jefferson-62878.jpg Arthur Jefferson, father of comedian Stan Laurel
Author Danny Lawrence tells the story of theatre actor and playwright Arthur Jefferson, whose many talents would provide the inspiration for his son Stan Jefferson, the man who became the creative half of the comedy partnership Laurel and Hardy.

Laurel and Hardy have always been loved and admired. Even so, they are current enjoying a remarkable renaissance. Their films are back on TV. Jeffrey Holland’s one-man performance And This Is My Friend Mr Laurel was critically acclaimed at the Edinburgh Festival.

Thanks to initiatives by Scotland’s Ross Owen, Showcase Cinemas recently showed a season of Laurel and Hardy films, and London’s Leicester Square Vue will soon put on another special Laurel and Hardy Event. Look out too for Steve Coogan, following his starring role with Judy Dench in Philomena, on cinema screens playing Stan Laurel: the man who is every comic actor’s hero, not only because he was a supreme comic actor but because Stan was the creative mastermind behind those classic Laurel and Hardy comedies.

The life of Arthur Jefferson

Stan Jefferson (as he was known then) launched his career from Glasgow when just 17. That much is well known. Much less well understood is why he was in Glasgow at all. After all, he was born in Ulverston, and spent his formative boyhood years in North Shields. The answer is to be found in the theatrical career of his father Arthur Jefferson.

Arthur Jefferson. Man of the Theatre and Father of Stan Laurel is a genuinely ground-breaking, first-ever biography of this flamboyant, multi-talented theatrical figure. Inevitably, his contribution to the world of entertainment has been over-shadowed by the international stature of his son, Stan Laurel.

In Arthur, we have an excellent example of the provincial theatre lessees who provided Victorians and Edwardians with their main source of entertainment. But, crucially, Arthur was also a fine comic actor and a major influence on his son Stan - just as Stan in turn has been a major influence on successive generations of comic actors.

Acting, however, 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 Home from the Honeymoon as a teenager and it was Stan himself who wrote the screenplay for that crucial early Laurel and Hardy film, released as Duck Soup.

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The childhood years of Arthur Jefferson

The book tells a powerful human-interest story, set against the background of the major changes in the entertainment industry over a 100-year period. Arthur’s upbringing was most unusual and is described in intriguing detail. His family life and circumstances are so extraordinary that they would make a wonderful subject for the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?

Arthur was both a victim and a beneficiary of the double standards practised by so many outwardly-respectable Victorian men. But, 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.

The book describes the many ups and sometimes tragic downs in Arthur’s life, including his family background; acting career; the reception given to 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 including, of course, Stan Laurel.

A career in theatre

Arthur took on the lease of Glasgow’s Metropole theatre in 1901, whilst already running a successful little theatrical empire in north-east England. He would have remained an absentee lessee had unforeseen circumstances not obliged him to leave England in 1905 to (temporarily) escape his creditors.

Sadly, Arthur’s time in Glasgow was far from happy. His creditors caught up with him, his  wife Madge died in tragic circumstances and he was soon left alone when his four children went their separate ways. Three of the four, however, do have strong links with Scotland. Gordon, the eldest, ran the Glasgow Coliseum for a while; worked on submarines on the Clyde during the First World War; and toured Scotland both as an actor and with his own popular play.His wife and daughter were still living in Scotland when they died in 1951.

Stan’s association with Glasgow and the Panopticon on Trongate is already well known but is explained more fully in this book than ever before. Stan’s sister, Beatrice Olga, also launched her show business career from Glasgow at the age of 17.

Arthur chose to leave Scotland in 1912. He remarried, opened a theatrical agency in London, but remained in charge of the Glasgow Metropole until 1922. It was during the opening decades of the twentieth century, whilst still a theatre manager and dramatist, that Arthur had to confront the huge challenges to local, live, intimate theatre from global, silent and later 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 such celebrities as Charles Dickens, Sir Henry Irving, Bram Stoker and Mrs Patrick Campbell.

Sadly, by living so long, his passing went unnoticed by the theatrical world of post-war Britain.

Danny Lawrence is the author of Arthur Jefferson. Man of the Theatre and Father of Stan Laurel (Brewin Books Ltd). Publication date Thursday 19 October 2017. ISBN: 978-1-85858-576-5; £16.95; 320 pp. (incl. 87 B&W images); size 240mm x170mm


Danny is also the author of The Making of Stan Laurel. Echoes of a British Boyhood (McFarland, 2011) Facebook page; website.