Happy birthday, Larry Stephens
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
Episode 18 of the second series was broadcast on 27 May 1952 and can be found on page 22 of that week's Radio Times.
Today, 16 July, marks the 98th birthday of Larry Stephens, arguably one of the unsung heroes of 1950s British comedy.
He died in 1959 at the age of 35. His early death robbed us of a truly talented comic mind who had contributed a huge amount to the Goon Show. He also brought Tony Hancock his first big break – and was best man at Hancock’s first wedding – and contributed to other successful shows such as The Army Game.
For many years, Stephens was consigned to a footnote in Goon history. There are several reasons for this, one of which was the destruction of many of his personal records, but unfortunately Spike Milligan also seems to have, on occasion, downplayed Stephens’ contribution.
Last year saw the publication of It’s All In The Mind: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens, by Julie Warren, Stephens’ cousin. The author has diligently researched Larry’s early life, army records, scripts, BBC archives and what remains of his personal effects to piece together a bittersweet story of an undoubtedly talented man haunted by the horrors of his war experience.
See the Bibliography page for a link to purchase the book – it’s a fascinating read and an important one, recognising as it does an almost forgotten man.
In common with most other ‘50s comedy writers and performers, Stephens fought in the Second World War – but his experience was even more gruelling and brutal than those that saw action in North Africa or Europe. Trained as a commando – among the first group of men to be brought into this new regiment – he was deployed to Southeast Asia and saw action in Sri Lanka and Myanmar as the Allies pushed back Japanese forces. His regiment sustained heavy losses, including Stephens’ friends. The commandos who made it back were awarded battle honours in 1957 in recognition of their important contribution to the liberation of Myanmar.
It was during this experience that he adopted – and passed on to the men he led – a phrase that has since passed into Goon folklore: “It’s all in the mind.”
Despite the horrendous conditions and experiences, his letters – preserved by the Imperial War Museum in London – also show his great sense of humour, and even hint at Goonish qualities.
Upon demobilisation Stephens moved to London to work initially as an advertising copywriter, but soon moved to scriptwriting. He was among the Goon crowd at the Grafton Arms – where he was taken by Hancock – and soon teamed up with Spike Milligan and Jimmy Grafton to work on material as the gang tried to persuade the BBC to give them a chance. He co-wrote Bumblethorpe with Milligan and Peter Ling, and went on to write for Arthur Askey, Jon Pertwee, Dick Emery, Kenneth Horne and Derek Roy among others.
Stephens contributed to at least 125 episodes, either as sole writer or jointly with Milligan or Maurice Wiltshire. In her book, Warren contends that he may have contributed to even more, as record keeping has been less than accurate in the intervening decades and there is plenty of evidence of Stephens’ ideas in scripts for which he does not have official credit.
Warren’s book credits Stephens with 137 scripts, including 10 as (probable) sole writer. Among those are episodes such as ‘The Red Fort’, ‘The Policy’, and ‘The Stolen Postman’ from the eighth series.
Seagoon: Major, it's no good. We've got to attack the Red Fort. It's the key to the whole of India. Bloodnok: All right then. I want three brave men and a coward. Seagoon: I'll be the coward sir. Bloodnok: Too late, I've already volunteered. You'll have to be the three brave men. You're just the right size I think.
(from ‘The Red Fort’, Series 8 Episode 7, broadcast 11 November 1957)
Graham McCann’s 2006 book Spike & Co, which records the history of Associated London Scripts (ALS), describes Stephens as “one of the most eye-catching characters” at the company who “played a significant cameo role in the first phase of success for ALS”. (ALS was co-founded by Milligan and Eric Sykes, among others, and its writers were responsible for a significant proportion of the radio and TV comedy output of the 1950s and 1960s.)
For Milligan, Stephens was a perfect co-writer. Warren’s book cites a BBC memo from then-producer Dennis Main Wilson, describing Spike as an ideas man and Larry as a brilliant writer of situation and character, meaning Stephens could take Milligan’s wild ideas and tame them into a coherent whole.
In the mid-1950s Stephens fell out of favour with the BBC and stopped writing for the Goon Show. The Beeb was annoyed at too many late scripts and apparently concerned at reports he was drinking heavily. This failed to consider the immense pressures on Stephens: he was handling contract negotiations on behalf of Milligan as well as himself, and was being roped in to edit and tidy up many other scripts on top of his weekly obligations to several shows.
Milligan brought him back in at the end of sixth series of the Goon Show, and he continued to contribute to the show until the ninth series. ‘The Seagoon Memoirs’ (Series 9 Episode 7), co-written with Wiltshire, was his last Goon Show script.
Larry Stephens was also the original Goon cartoonist: his scripts were often covered in doodles, and anyone who has read the official Goon Show script books will have seen his illustrations of Goons. He also helped Secombe and Sellers with their joke adverts – some of which featured his drawings (see image above).
Stephens died on 26 January 1959 when he collapsed at dinner with a friend (Milligan has claimed it was him, but there appears to be scant evidence for this). He had suffered a brain haemorrhage brought on by chronic hypertension. He had made significant efforts to improve his health in the previous couple of years, but it was still too much.
I’m glad to be able to write so much about Stephens more than 60 years after his death. A huge part of that is Julie Warren’s book, and I encourage readers to seek it out.
As Warren told the Express & Star last year: “Without [Larry Stephens], British comedy world have been very different. We could now be living in a world without the Carry On films or Monty Python, and we may never have heard of Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan.”
You can hear Warren in conversation with Tyler Adams on his thoroughly enjoyable Goon Pod podcast, available in several places including Spotify.
Through Julie Warren’s book I have finally got to the bottom of the ‘more coal’ story. I previously wrote that this first series sketch was meant to send up the meaningless nature of most catchphrases, and this is true. What Warren’s book adds is that the actual phrase was: “More coal, Larry. Larry – more coal.”
Spike: More coal, Larry. Larry – more coal. Peter: Who is that? Harry: That is a catchphrase that we’re trying to establish in the show. Peter: Catchphrase? I say – you there, say it again. Spike: More coal, Larry. Larry – more coal. [Pause] Peter: Hmmm. Is that supposed to be funny? Harry: No, of course not. You have to repeat it several thousands of times before it catches on. But in a few years’ time, you’ll be able to switch on your radio and hear this – [FX: Door opens] Spike: More coal, Larry. Larry – more coal. Orchestra: (Mad laughter for several seconds, then break into thunderous applause)
(from Series 1 Episode 15, broadcast 6 September 1951. Taken from It’s All In The Mind by Julie Warren, published by Unbound 2020.)
I’ll let Larry himself have the final word, via an advert place in The Stage from 29 May 1952:
Larry Stephens photo sourced from Wikipedia. Book cover sourced from Unbound. Doodle and advert sourced from the British Newspaper Archive.