Remembering a post-war pioneer of British comedy.
Larry Stephens is one of the forgotten heroes of the British comedy scene in the immediate post-war period that provided so many stars if the future. Born in West Bromwich, he grew up in Quinton and went on to write for such legendary names as Tony Hancock and the Goons. Without him the subsequent development of British comedy would have been very different, yet his death at the tragically early age of 36 has meant that his contribution has largely been forgotten.
To mar the centenary of his both, the Birmingham Comedy Festival will be paying tribute to Larry Stephens on 8th October at Symphony Hall. Two 1958 scripts written by Stephens and Maurice Wiltshire will be recreated – The Seagoon Memoirs and The Moriarty Murder Mystery. The night will also include a Q&A section featuring Stephens’ biographer, Julie Warren, who spoke to us recently.
Larry Stephens is one of the forgotten men of the post-war British comedy scene, yet he was very highly-respected by the artistes he worked for. Can you tell us more about what made him so special?
“He was known as one of the best comedy scriptwriters of his generation. He had an intelligent writing style and was brilliant at creating situation and character. He also had an ability to be able to pep up comedy by supplying marvellous one-liners. Not many people know (as he was uncredited) that he contributed such lines to the film The Ladykillers. The film’s director, Alexander Mackendrick, later mentioned it in an interview and commented how good Larry had been at it.
In another example of this, in 1954 a musical comedy series called Happy Holiday was being made starring the likes of Dick Emery and Peter Sellers and apparently the actors wouldn’t begin rehearsing properly until Larry showed up at the last minute and rewrote the scripts to inject more wit into it.”
He was born in West Bromwich and grew up in Quinton. We’re very good in this area at not recognising our own talents. Should we be celebrating Larry?
“Absolutely! He was very proud of the area he came from and there are frequent references to it in his scripts. An example that springs to mind is in one of the Goon Show scripts where Peter Sellers is directed to adlib the following German curse: ‘Undt den Windsor Bearwood – gedammt, geshleitung undt twice nightly! Mit all seats bookable.’ (The Windsor was a popular theatre in Bearwood – the building is still there.)“
What first attracted you to him?
“He was my mom’s cousin and although I had a vague inkling he’d been some kind of writer, it was only when I began researching my family history I discovered he had a Wikipedia page and had been the best man at Tony Hancock’s first wedding! I realised then that I wanted to find out more about him.”
He belonged to that generation whose lives were interrupted by the war but Larry was more involved than most, serving as a captain in the commandos in the Far East. He did seem to be a bit difficult to work with. He was reputedly a heavy drinker – might that have been a result of his war experiences?
“I’m quite certain that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and drinking was a way for him to try and block out the truly horrendous things he’d seen. He’d also had it drilled into him before and during the war that he should keep a stiff upper lip and not display any emotion so everything was buried within him and clawing to get out.”
He seems to have got on particularly well with Spike Milligan, who had his own demons to contend with. Did their mutual problems mean that they were able to understand each other better?
“Spike and Larry had a very tempestuous relationship; sometimes they were the best of friends and at other times they had major fallings out and refused to speak to each other for weeks on end. They were very different characters and I think they balanced each other out well. Spike was an extrovert, full of energy, and would let all of his thoughts and feelings escape. Larry was more introverted and would only really open up to people he knew well.”
Larry died at the age of 35 and there was some mystery surrounding his death. Have you been able to shed any more light on this?
“I think the mystery stems from Spike recounting different versions of Larry’s death. In one interview he said that Larry had died in his arms in a restaurant. I was lucky enough to speak to the daughter of Larry’s friend who he had been dining with that night and after he collapsed during the meal, Larry’s friend rushed him to hospital in a taxi where he died a few hours later. Larry’s friend didn’t recall Spike even having been with them and neither did the doctor who treated him!”
I’ve read that Peter Sellers was particularly affected by his death, to the extent that he used a medium in an attempt to get into contact with Larry. Is there any truth in this story?
“Sellers mentioned in interviews with the Sunday Times and Photoplay magazine that he and Larry had made a deal that whoever died first would try and make contact from ‘the other side’. He arranged to visit a famous Medium called Estelle Roberts’ not long after Larry’s death and was convinced that he’d managed to reach him after being told a young man who was clutching his head had said to give him the codeword of ‘Fred’. Fred was a name that they delighted in for its comic possibilities and they’d even made a couple of television programmes entitled, A Show called Fred and Son of Fred.”
Which leads us onto the Symphony Hall show. Tell us what’s happening on the night.
“I’ll be taking part in a Q&A session and this will be followed by live performances – complete with sound effects and music – of two of the Goon Show episodes Larry wrote with Maurice Wiltshire: The Moriarty Murder Mystery and The Seagoon Memoirs. The Seagoon Memoirs has some of my favourite lines in – they make me laugh every time I hear them!”
And we will be reminded of what a talent Birmingham gave to the world and what a tragedy his early death was. What do you think his legacy was? How did he shape British comedy?
“He was a true pioneer and achieved so much even though he didn’t live for very long. Expressions and words that he and Spike created have made their way into the dictionary; he was involved in writing the television series that led to the Carry On sequence of films; and he was one of the originators of the Goon Show, a comedy that is cited as having influenced luminaries from Monty Python to the Beatles and the fans of which include members of the royal family, rock stars and Hollywood actors.”
Birmingham Comedy Festival presents: The Goon Show is at Symphony Hall, on Sunday 8th October. For tickets and more information, see bhamcomfest.co.uk.