British popular culture would probably be very different had Larry Stephens not been born. 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.
For the first time, the life and work of this unsung hero of British comedy has been thoroughly explored. Using unrivalled access to Larry Stephens’ personal archive of letters, photographs and artwork, plus interviews with Stephens’ many notable friends, family members, comrades and colleagues, Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons tells the story of a boy from the Black Country whose short life had such an enduring impact.
Stephens’ promising career as a jazz pianist was interrupted by the war, and after serving as an officer with the Commandos he moved to London and struck up a friendship with Tony Hancock, becoming the sole writer of Hancock’s stage material. Hancock introduced him to Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine and together they created the Goon Show, arguably the world’s most influential comedy programme. As one of the main writers throughout the Goon Show’s nine-year run, Stephens’ experiences and acquaintances became themes and characters within the show.
He was the first person Peter Sellers attempted to contact beyond the grave; the Best Man at Tony Hancock’s first wedding; a regular writer for one of the most popular television comedies of the 1950s; and wrote for many leading actors and comedians, including supplying one-liners for Ealing Comedy, The Ladykillers.
His marriage to a catwalk model made him the focus of malicious jealousy from those he thought were his friends and that, combined with the pressure of having to come up with funny material week after week, is likely to have contributed to his death from a brain haemorrhage caused by hypertension at the age of just 35.
-------------------Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons will also include two appendices: a ‘lost’ script for a proposed Hancock sitcom and a ‘Goonopedia’ detailing who was responsible for writing each of the Goon Show’s episodes – often different from those who were credited with having done so.
Larry had expected his medical examination to be a formality but he came away with devastating news. He later told his friends at Associated London Scripts what the doctor had said to him:
“You have the highest blood pressure I’ve ever seen. If you give up drink and cigarettes you might live for a year.”
It is impossible to imagine what a shock it must have been. Larry knew he had problems with high blood pressure but to be given just a year to live seemed ludicrous. He was writing The Army Game with Maurice and he had recently started writing another series of the Goon Show - the eighth - with Spike; everything else in his life was stable and normal. He thought back to his commando days and how he had learned that you could overcome any obstacle or physical discomfort if you really put your mind to it and believed you could. He remembered the first time he had heard the instructors bellowing, “it’s all in the mind,” at him and how he had yelled the same thing at the recruits when he became an instructor himself. That was the answer: as long as he truly believed it, he could prove the doctor wrong.
On the 28th of October 1957, the phrase, ‘it’s all in the mind, you know,’ appeared at the end of a Goon Show broadcast for the first time. It was as if Larry was sending himself a reminder to keep believing and to stay positive. The phrase was only ever included in the show when Larry was involved in writing the script; following this initial mention it is not used in any of the eight episodes from series eight that Spike wrote alone or in collaboration with John Antrobus, only in those that Larry wrote single-handedly or jointly with Spike or Maurice Wiltshire.
Larry wasn’t alone in suffering health problems as Spike was showing signs of nervous strain again. His wife, June, sent another Doctor’s note to the BBC on the 5th of November which certified that Spike was unable to work and explained in an accompanying letter that Larry would be writing that week’s show.
A mistrust of doctors and matters of life and death became significant themes in Larry’s art. He drew a doctor with medicine jars labelled ‘eeny’, ‘meeny’ and ‘miny’ on a shelf behind him; he drew another writing out a prescription and seemingly unaware that his patient had hanged himself from the ceiling. He drew Dickensian-looking undertakers with top hats and mourning veils. He wrote out a prescription for himself:
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These people are helping to fund Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens.