The remarkable story of a WWII Commando who transformed British comedy.
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: the ‘lost’ script for Vacant Lot, 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:
Tweaking, checking and polishing
Thursday, 11 October 2018
I wanted to let you know what's been going on in the month since we hit 100%.
Vacant Lot, the sitcom Larry Stephens wrote for Tony Hancock, had a couple of sell-out performances at the end of September, at Stourbridge Town Hall and at the British Library. I was at the British Library event and took part in a Q&A session with members of the cast and crew afterwards. It was a really…
There's good news and there's more good news!
Friday, 24 August 2018
The major news is that Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons is now 97% funded! We're just a few pledges away from making a book. Three cheers for us!
More good news
The performance of Vacant Lot, (the sitcom Larry Stephens wrote for Tony Hancock) at the British Library on the 20th of September is sold out which has made me very happy. I'd like to say a big thank…
Ssssh! Don’t tell anyone!
Tuesday, 31 July 2018
I almost didn't tell you what I'm about to tell you as I wanted to keep it all to myself! I made a rare trip to London just over a week ago to a venue that will appeal to all comedy fans...
I'd been wanting to visit the Museum of Comedy in the vaults under St George's Church for quite a while as it has a fabulous range of items on display from a radio owned by Spike Milligan to Freddie Starr's…
All I did was write an update. What happened next blew my mind.
Wednesday, 4 July 2018
I've got a few bits of news to share with you and if you're a fan of The Hunger Games, you're in for a double treat!
1. THE FINAL PUSH
I'll start with the best news: Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons is now 70% funded! This is an important milestone to reach because, as I've mentioned before, Unbound lore states that books hitting this target almost always go all the way…
Classic Comedy Tour of London
Thursday, 21 June 2018
There are all sorts of London tours: Jack The Ripper walking tours; Afternoon Tea bus tours; and even speedboat tours but as far as I know, there isn't a tour that covers the classic comedy of the 1950s! For those of you who'd like to visit locations where The Goon Show was written and rehearsed or where material for Tony Hancock was dreamt up, here are some suggestions for places to visit:
For One Night Only! London performance for Tony Hancock’s Vacant Lot
Friday, 8 June 2018
Following its successful premiere in Wolverhampton in November 2017, Vacant Lot, the sitcom written by Larry Stephens for Tony Hancock in 1952 (see previous update) is to get another airing. The two episodes will be performed at the British Library (yes, THE British Library!) as part of its 'Season of Sound' in September 2018. James Hurn (Dead Ringers, Band Of Brothers) will once again be Tony…
Get your kicks - we're on 66(%)!
Tuesday, 8 May 2018
In the words of Bobby Troup (sort of!) we're definitely en route as we've just hit 66%. Unbound lore tells us that projects which reach 70% go on to become published books so we're less than 4% away from that magic number now. If you know anyone who would be interested in Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons but hasn't pledged yet, please urge them to support the book. And if you could tweet, post and…
Mr Stephens in the restaurant with a headache?
Tuesday, 1 May 2018
Larry Stephens' Wikipedia page reads, "Stephens' death has been a subject of surmise and conjecture" and then goes on to detail various locations where it may have happened and various people he may have been with. There are so many different possibilities that it ends up sounding like a game of Cluedo!
A week ago, I met up with someone whose parents were close friends of Larry's and who spent…
Spike Milligan Book Competition Winner
Friday, 6 April 2018
Thanks to all of you who entered the competition. I found it very difficult to pick the three finalists as the captions you suggested were all so funny and/or clever. In the end, I had to ask my Facebook friends to help me choose. The winner was then selected through a Twitter poll and the caption with the most votes was that of *drum roll*...
Ewan wins It Ends With Magic…
Wednesday, 28 March 2018
Thanks to everyone who's entered the caption competition so far - you've been keeping me giggling, guffawing and other words beginning with g-ing.
I was at an Essex Book Festival event last weekend, listening to Sally Magnusson discussing and reading from her new novel, The Sealwoman's Gift. At the end of a thoroughly entertaining evening, Sally very kindly autographed two Glarnies bookmarks…
Win a book signed by Spike Milligan
Thursday, 22 March 2018
We've reached 60% funding which means it's competition time!
How would you like to win a first edition of It Ends With Magic, signed by Spike Milligan? The book is based on Spike's own family and tells the story of army life in India. What makes this particular copy of the book special is that it has been dedicated by Spike to Larry Stephens' first cousin, Edna (aka my mum!). The book was published…
Return to Churdley Bay
Monday, 12 March 2018
In July 1952, Larry Stephens approached BBC Producer, Peter Eton, with a suggestion: he had come up with an idea for a comedy series, entitled Vacant Lot, to star Tony Hancock as a blundering and pompous auctioneer and estate agent, in a fictional seaside town called Churdley Bay (see September 2017 update).
I have always wondered if Churdley Bay was based on anywhere in particular. Hancock biographers…
Fans of fans (and veils)
Tuesday, 13 February 2018
I was flinging myself around at the weekend, failing to look graceful, and it occurred to me that Larry and I shared an interest in Eastern dance (although his interest was of a somewhat different nature to mine!).
I started belly dancing lessons a few weeks ago and we're currently learning how to dance with veils. While I was getting tangled up for the umpteenth time, an image popped into my head…
...and a cuddly toy?
Thursday, 1 February 2018
Q: What do the following have in common?
- A decomposed owl;
- Whisto, the wonder shave-cream;
- A framed portrait of Jim Spriggs;
- Summer season at Bearwood.
If you answered, "conveyor belt items in a nightmarish version of the Generation Game," it's a good answer but it's not right. (Bearwood is a place in the West Midlands rather than a cuddly toy!) These truly splendid phrases are…
In the words of Bon Jovi: "Woah. We're halfway there."
Tuesday, 16 January 2018
Happy New Year everyone!
We reached a significant milestone over the festive period and I'm pleased to say that Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons is now 52% funded. Hoorah!
You may recall I mentioned the piece I wrote for The Guardian's 'Snapshot' back in November. I received a letter c/o The Guardian at the weekend from someone who saw the article. Her stepfather was a friend of Larry's and…
Extra! Extra! Read All About It!
Thursday, 30 November 2017
You may have seen my name in the Mirror. It read nerraW eiluJ.
I have a few bits of news to share with you from the last week or so. My name wasn't in the Mirror (I 'borrowed' that joke from an old Goon Show episode, by the way) but it was in the Guardian. I wrote about Larry for 'Snapshot' which is in the Family section of the paper every Saturday.
- The Tony Hancock Appreciation…
Tony Hancock Sitcom Script Competition Winner
Monday, 20 November 2017
It seems that everyone wants to own a piece of comedy history as I had lots of entries for the Vacant Lot competition. There are only five of these highly sought-after signed script pages in existence: one will shortly be on its way to the competition winner; I'm keeping one for myself (because I deserve it!); and the remaining three have now been added as new Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons pledging…
Christmas Gift Certificates + new Secret Santa pledge level
Wednesday, 15 November 2017
What better gift for someone at Christmas than the chance to be immortalised by having their name included in every edition of Larry Stephens' biography?!
I've made some gift certificates for those of you who want to pledge for Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons on behalf of someone else for Christmas. There are three different designs (click on the pictures to see larger versions) and each of them…
Fan of classic comedy? You'll want to win this prize!
Tuesday, 7 November 2017
Vacant Lot, the radio sitcom Larry Stephens wrote for Tony Hancock in 1952, had its world premiere in Wolverhampton on the 4th of November 2017. A Birmingham Comedy Festival production for Funny Things, it was performed 'script-in-hand', just as it would have been when it was first created, so it was like being transported back in time to a BBC Radio studio in 1952.
James Hurn played Tony Hancock…
Attend a world premiere and help to make comedy history!
Tuesday, 24 October 2017
It's not every day you get the opportunity to attend the world premiere of a sitcom, 65 years after it was written - unless you're lucky enough to own some kind of time machine, of course. Tickets are selling fast for Vacant Lot (see previous update) and there is a real buzz building as the performance date approaches. If you live in the Midlands, you can't open a newspaper at the moment without…
Goon Show Anagram Competition Winners
Monday, 9 October 2017
Thanks to all of you who entered the competition. The winners are *drum roll*...
Bill Froog, Jonathan Street and Richard Montagu
If you weren't lucky enough to win this time, fear not as there will be more competitions in the future!
There has been quite a lot of interest in the forthcoming production of Vacant Lot with articles appearing on Chortle, Wolverhampton’s Express…
Goon Show Anagram Competition!
Wednesday, 27 September 2017
As we're just a single pledge away from reaching 35% funding, how would you like to win a copy of Memories of Milligan signed by Norma Farnes? Or The Goon Show Compendium Volume Six, Series 7, Part 2 on CD? Or perhaps you'd prefer London Entertains, Climb up the Wall and Calling All Cars on a Region 0 DVD?
The prizes may seem familiar from a previous update but due to a lack of entries (sob!),…
See the first performance of "Britain's First Situation Comedy"... 65 years after it was written!
Wednesday, 20 September 2017
The writers of Hancock's Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, are often referred to as the creators of the British sitcom but few people realise Tony Hancock had previously explored the genre with his friend, Larry Stephens.
In July 1952, Larry approached BBC Producer, Peter Eton, with a suggestion: he had come up with an idea for a comedy series, entitled Vacant Lot, to star Hancock as a blundering…
'Name that Goon' competition!
Tuesday, 12 September 2017
To celebrate Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons reaching 33% funding, I'm launching a competition called, NAME THAT GOON!
It seems that the majority of Goon Show fans can 'do' the voices of the characters, including HRH The Prince of Wales!
The first part of the competition is open to anyone, regardless of whether they've backed Glarnies or not but the second part is for supporters only.
Can we return this photo to its owner's family?
Friday, 8 September 2017
Thanks to everyone for your suggestions about the Larry Stephens-related mysteries I shared last week. Glarnies, Green Beret’s & Goons supporter, Karl Tiedemann's sister-in-law, identified the language on the photograph as Japanese and says that it translates to something like 'photo shop' or 'photo studio'.
I bought the photograph from eBay because of what is written on the back of it:…
Crun and Company Ltd, Licensed Clue Manufacturers
Friday, 1 September 2017
Can you help me to solve some mysteries?
While I was researching Larry Stephens' life, I came across a few things I was unable to identify. Can you put me out of my misery by providing further information about any of them please? If you click on the pictures, you'll be able to see larger versions.
1. Who is DT?
This is a photo of Larry playing the piano as a member of Dennis R Hinton…
Want two free premier theatre tickets?
Friday, 25 August 2017
I have a pair of premier tickets for tomorrow's matinee of Adrian Mole The Musical which I can't use because of the leg injury I was moaning about last week. The performance is tomorrow, Saturday 26 August, 3:30pm at the Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU
If you would like the tickets, email me on email@example.com before 7pm (UK time) this evening (Friday 25 August…
Only those who have an IQ of 135 or more will read this update
Friday, 28 July 2017
I've made a quiz!
I see lots of quizzes on social media with titles like, "1 million people tried but so far only 1 person was able to score a perfect 10" and "Only those who have an IQ of 135 or up will score a perfect 10" and they get shared around. A lot. I started thinking about how a quiz could be used to tell more people about Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons and here's what I came up with…
By Royal Command-o!
Thursday, 13 July 2017
I'll be running another competition for supporters when Glarnies, Green Berets and Goons reaches 25% funding and the prize this time will be a programme from the 1952 Royal Variety Performance. Anything you can do to help reach this milestone would be very much appreciated, be that persuading friends to support the book, sharing the link on Facebook or Twitter - whatever is within your power!…
Commando Training in the 1940s
Thursday, 6 July 2017
The Commandos were formed in 1940 after the colossal military disaster of Dunkirk when Britain's morale was plummeting. In June 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote to the Chiefs of Staff proposing the raising of a special force to enable Britain to regain the upper hand.
The Commando Basic Training Centre was located in the house and grounds of the 24th chief of Clan Cameron, Donald Cameron…
My family and other flapdoodles
Friday, 23 June 2017
Programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? are fascinating but it's not just celebrities who have interesting family backgrounds; in my experience of family history research, everyone has a noteworthy character or two among their ancestors or long-hidden secrets waiting to be uncovered. I really enjoy delving into the past (which is why I'm offering family history research as a couple of the rewards…
Goon With The Wind
Friday, 9 June 2017
While we pause between elections here in the UK, I wanted to let you know that I'll be running a supporters-only competition next week. Up for grabs will be a first edition of Max Geldray's autobiography, 'Goon With The Wind' (I think that's such a clever title!) and what's more, there's a hand-signed photo of Max taped to the inside of the book.
When the Goon Show first started as 'Crazy People…
Video billed the radio stars!
Friday, 2 June 2017
Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons launched just over a week ago so I thought it was about time I said hello.
I'd like to tell you a little more about Grafton's pub where my video was filmed. Making the video was a very interesting and exciting experience for me (not just because I got to enter a pub at 9 o'clock in the morning!) as with no one else in there, it made it much easier to imagine…
These people are helping to fund Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens.