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The Great Larry Stephens Mystery

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by David Vincent (subscribe)
Occasional blogger and sometimes freelance writer, hammering away in the West Midlands.
Published June 7th 2020
The Black Country writer who reshaped comedy
The life of a forgotten Black Country writer is back in the spotlight thanks to a new book and podcast.

Although barely remembered today, West Bromwich writer Larry Stephens was one of the biggest names in British comedy, helping steer the careers of some of the most famous performers of the post-war period, including Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers.

But his career was cut tragically short in 1959, and his name has slipped from memory.

So, what exactly happened ... ?

tony hancock, the goon show, larry stephens
It's All In The Mind, by Julie Warren (published by Unbound)

Born in 1923, the jazz-loving Larry's career as a dance band pianist came to an abrupt end at the beginning of World War II when he was called up for military duty.

Ending up in the Commandos, he saw active service in the Far East - an experience which would have a lasting influence on his life and mental health.

Once demobbed, Larry gravitated from the West Midlands to London where he was introduced to Tony Hancock, then a rising young comedian just beginning his career.

The two hit it off, and Larry started writing Tony's stage material with the two pals even sharing several flats together.

It was Tony who introduced Larry to the fashionable crowd at London's Grafton's pub.

There the comedy writer met Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, who were performing sketches in the upstairs room.

When the BBC signed the four performers up for a new radio series - firstly as those 'Crazy People' and then simply The Goon Show - Larry was very much part of the team, co-writing episodes of the very first series with Spike Milligan.

Larry went on to eventually write, or co-write, over 140 episodes of the hugely popular radio series, which gained an international following.

Still repeated today on BBC Radio 4 Extra, The Goon Show reshaped British comedy, influencing everyone from Monty Python to The Mighty Boosh, and beyond.

Larry Stephens

Alongside The Goons, Larry continued to write for his pal Hancock, including material for both his many radio and TV appearances.

An in-demand writer, Larry also penned gags and sketches for many other big stars of the day, among them Arthur Askey, future Doctor Who Jon Pertwee and entertainer Dickie Valentine, as well as writing for ITV's massive sitcom, The Army Game.

But tragedy struck in 1959 when, after the recording of a Goon Show episode, Larry died, suddenly - an incident which has, for many years, been shrouded in mystery.

Despite his incredible work, today, Larry's name is barely known, overshadowed by those he worked alongside as Hancock became a huge star on radio and TV with Hancock's Half Hour (before dying in Sydney, Australia in 1968, aged just 44) and members of The Goons went on to score major TV, film and radio successes (with Sellers heading to Hollywood for The Pink Panther series, and many other movie hits).

Now, over 60 years after Larry's death, the record is set straight with the very first biography about his life: It's All In The Mind - The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens (published by Unbound).

Exhaustively researched by writer (and relative) Julie Warren, the book traces Larry's early life in West Bromwich, Quinton and Birmingham, to battles in the Burmese jungle, to his seminal work with Hancock and The Goons, as well as clearing up the mystery about what exactly happened the night he died.

To complement the book, Birmingham Comedy Festival have also produced a mini-documentary/ podcast, which briefly explores Larry's life and influence.

Entitled The Great Larry Stephens Mystery, Or How A Forgotten Black Country Writer Changed British Comedy Forever, it's available to stream now (see below).

The 30-minute podcast features an interview with Julie Warren, as well as excerpts from The Goon Show and Vacant Lot (Larry's lost radio sitcom written for Tony Hancock, which the festival premiered live in 2017).

Above: Birmingham Comedy Festival explores the mystery of Larry Stephens with their debut podcast (via YouTube).

The podcast is also available to stream via Spotify, iTunes and to download, for free, via Podbean

It's All In The Mind is out now and available from all major booksellers, in both print and digitally. For more information, see: It's All In The Mind: The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens by Julie Warren - The remarkable story of a WWII Commando who transformed British comedy.

To hear Larry's genius, you can stream classic episodes of The Goon Show via BBC Radio 4 Extra and BBC iPlayer (UK only).

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