Express & Star

Tribute to writer Larry Stephens who shaped modern comedy

He was an unsung hero of post-war British comedy writing for some of the biggest names in entertainment.

Larry and Diana’s wedding which was attended by Tony and Cicely Hancock

Midlands-born Larry Stephens penned stage material for Tony Hancock and also co-created The Goon Show with Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine.

But sadly his life was tragically cut short at the age of just 35 after he suffered a brain haemorrhage caused by hypertension in 1959 meaning his name is not as familiar as other stars.

Now his life story has been told for the first time by Julie Warren, his first cousin, once removed, in a new book titled It’s All In The Mind - The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens.

Julie, who first began researching his career 10 years ago, believes his contribution to the world of comedy was hugely significant.

Larry Stephens

“Without him British comedy world have been very different.We could now be living in a world without Carry On films or Monty Python and we may never have heard of Tony Hancock, Peter Sellars or Spike Milligan,” says the 51-year-old. Larry was born in West Bromwich in 1923 and by the age of four had moved to Quinton where he attended Quinton Infant and Junior School and then After finishing his education at Birmingham Central Grammar School before starting work as an estate agent’s clerk.

His first love was music and he was a jazz pianist with Dennis R Hinton and His Band at venues across the Midlands, including many in Shropshire. But the outbreak of the Second World War was to cut his promising career in music short. He was an officer with the British Commandos and served in Burma and India.

“I wonder how they coped being so young and being thrown into such as a scary situation. It’s bad enough going off to fight knowing you could be killed but they were in the jungle with tigers, leeches, snakes and other things that wanted to kill them as well,” says Julie.

Three of the the Goons, from left, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan

To help keep his spirits up Larry would write plays in his role as entertainment officer for his unit.

After the war, he finished his service in 1947 and returned home to Quinton before moving to London. His time in Burma, however, has taken its toll and Julie, who lives in Wickford, Essex, says Larry’s confidence suffered as a result.

“The war really changed him. He was more withdrawn and became quite a private man. His emotions came out in his writing,” she said.

A turning point came when he was introduced to Tony Hancock by his agent Phyllis Rounce.

Tony Hancock

They got on like a house on fire and Larry, who later married catwalk model Diana Forster, ended up becoming one of his main writers.

It was Hancock who introduced him to Sellers, Secombe, Milligan and Bentine and together they created the hugely successful radio comedy The Goon Show.

During its nine-year run, Larry used his own experiences and acquaintances as themes and characters within the show.

Julie’s research saw her discover two long-lost radio scripts in the BBC archives, which had been penned by Larry for Hancock in 1952.

Julie with actor James Hurn playing Tony Hancock

These were performed for the first time at the Funny Things festival in Wolverhampton in 2017.

She also delved into Larry’s personal archive of letters, photographs and artwork and interviews with his many notable friends, family members, comrades and colleagues.

The virtual assistant, who specialises in research, also found out that he had also written lines for The Ladykillers, which starred his friend Sellers. Her book will be published by Unbound on April 16.

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