The Entertainers: Charles Sturridge and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

WHEN a film based on the mystery of the Cottingley Fairies was released this week, it set our super sleuth Lancashire Evening Telegraph reporter SIMON DONOHUE off on the trail of a fascinating tale of coincidence and intrigue:

IT IS a mystery that might have flummoxed Sherlock Holmes himself.

How could two old boys whose studies at a prestigious East Lancashire school were separated by almost 100 years be united in a modern day film about a family of imaginary fairies?

The answer - as the master detective's creator and former Stonyhurst pupil Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might have said - is elementary.

Fairytale: A True Story was unveiled at two glittering premieres in Bradford on Sunday. It tells the now legendary story of the Cottingley Fairies which were created by two Yorkshire schoolgirls and went on to baffle the world.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who entered college at Stonyhurst, Clitheroe, in September 1870, after a spell at nearby Hodder Place, is one of the movie's main characters.

The film was directed by 1960s Stonyhurst graduate Charles Sturridge.

Sturridge, most famous for directing the epic Granada TV drama Brideshead Revisited, joined the Burnley-based Theatre Mobile company in 1972 and went on to a string of acting roles before switching to directing.

His first professional role was the lead in ITV's major drama series Edward the Seventh.

The Oxford University graduate was guest of honour at the Bradford launch. He said: "I saw a wonderful opportunity to make a film about all kinds of magic - from the spectacular stage magic of Houdini, to the magic of cinema and from the magic of childhood, to the magic of fairies and twist them all together. "When I began to understand what it was possible to do with this story, one thing became very clear. I wanted to take the extraordinary elements of childhood and juxtapose that sceptical eye of the adult world."

Cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths were the girls whose claim to have photographed fairies living in their garden set in motion a chain of events neither they nor the great minds of their time could stop.

Fleet Street journalists, photographic experts, their parents, Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were all given a reason to believe in a world of magical wonder.

Indeed, the film is drawn, from among other things, on the case written to back the girls by Sir Arthur, who had become obsessed with the spirit world and the head to head with Harry Houdini that followed.

Doyle was born on May 25, 1859, and entered Stonyhurst College's Hodder Place on September 15, 1868, remaining there for two years. He entered the main college on September 1870.

Peter O'Toole plays the part of Conan Doyle with Harvey Keitel as Houdini. A strong supporting cast includes Bob Peck and Paul McGann.

Stonyhurst's present day director of admissions Peter Anwyl said it was remarkable that the two old boys should be united.

He added: "The girls' story quickly spread throughout the world and aroused incredible controversy with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle advocating the case for the two girls. The famed escapologist. Harry Houdini, however, cast a more sceptical eye."

Sir Arthur's work of fiction!

DOYLE features in the Stonyhurst College archives - compiled by a man who would rather remain anonymous when talking about past pupils.

He said: "At Stonyhurst, Doyle was always known as A.C. Doyle, not Conan Doyle. "He had a prize in most years but was never placed high in his classes.

"However, what few people realise is that he was actually a good deal younger than many of his fellow class mates."

What is remarkable are the references that Doyle made to Stonyhurst in his work.

One picture from the time includes the man who is believed to have influenced Sherlock Holmes' arch enemy Moriarty.

But his writing about the college was not always appreciated. In his biography, he claimed to have edited the Stonyhurst magazine...which did not emerge until after he graduated!

Doyle played cricket at Stonyhurst but never made the first XI. He left from Rhetoric, the top class, on August 3, 1875 but later played cricket for Stonyhurst Wanderers, a team of former pupils.

Converted for the new archive on 14 July 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.