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Lost Hancock scripts buried in the archives are brought back to life

By Heather Large | Wolverhampton entertainment | Published:

They have laid buried in the BBC archives for decades but now two long lost radio scripts written for giant of post-war comedy Tony Hancock will be performed for the first time next month.

Comic genius – Tony Hancock delighted a nation with his TV and radio work but not all the work written for him was ever recorded

They were penned by acclaimed West Bromwich-born comedy writer Larry Stephens in 1952 but never recorded.

Entitled Vacant Lot, the series focused on life in the dull faded fictional seaside town of Churdley Bay, where the blundering, slightly pompous and barely tolerated Hancock aspires to better his lot.

Despite featuring a supporting cast of colourful characters, and with such actors as Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Carry Ons Kenneth Connor all mooted for roles, no recordings of Vacant Lot were ever made.

Recently rediscovered, they will now be heard by audience at a special event on November 4 organised for the Funny Things festival in Wolverhampton.

The comedy extravaganza kicks off on October 23 running through to November 5 at more than 100 venues.

The scripts, which will be performed at the Light House Media Centre in conjunction with Birmingham Comedy Festival, are for two episodes of Vacant Lot.

In the first, after accidentally auctioning off a prized clock, would-be councillor Hancocks election chances look grim. The audience will find out whether he can track down the buyer and save himself from ruin.

Miriam Karlin and Tony Hancock rehearsing in London for a radio play

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The second episode sees, in a drive to promote tourism, Mayor Ambrose Tripfield calling on Hancock for assistance. But a copywriting gaffe looks set to destroy the reputations of both Hancock and Churdley Bay.

As well as Hancock, who was born in Hall Green, Birmingham in 1924, Stephens wrote with such future legends as Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes.

He also penned material for Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Bernard Braden, Dickie Valentine, Jon Pertwee, Graham Stark and Arthur Askey.

A promising jazz pianist whose musical career was cut short by the war, he was instrumental in the phenomenal success of The Goon Show and also wrote for TVs top-rated The Army Game.

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Best man at Hancock's first wedding, Stephens created scripts for Tonys many stage appearances as well as his ATV series, The Tony Hancock Show. He died suddenly in 1959, aged just 35.

Moving from stage to radio, Hancock appeared regularly in such popular BBC series as Workers' Playtime, Variety Bandbox, Educating Archie and Calling All Forces, which featured material by young writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The duo would go on to pen the seminal Hancock’s Half-Hour, which crossed over to TV in 1956.

But attempts to work with other writers and change direction during the sixties largely failed, and Hancock committed suicide in Australia in 1968.

Producer of The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot is Dave Freak from Birmingham Comedy Festival.

It is the festival company's third stage production following two sell-out revivals of The Goon Show, which it toured this year to significant acclaim.

Mr Freak said the show is being produced as if it was a radio recording and it's believed that there were only ever two episodes written.

"As far as were aware, we are performing everything, which is just the two episodes. A full series was never commissioned, as everyone moved onto other projects, so its unlikely that writer Larry Stephens left other completed scripts.

"Larry wrote the scripts for radio in the first place, so were just staying true to the source. The cast will be performing script-in-hand, but there will be theatrical / visual elements to their performances, as the supporting actors take on the characteristics of those they're playing.

"The radio format worked brilliantly for our recent revival of The Goon Show, and some of our cast will be returning for Vacant Lot.

"As no recordings were ever made at the time, these performances will be the first time anyone, outside of the BBC in the 1950s, has heard Vacant Lot.

"Until relatively recently, the scripts had laid buried in the BBC archives – so no one had even read them for decades, which explains why it's only ever mentioned in passing, and often poorly or incorrectly referenced, in some Hancock biographies," he added.

The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot will be performed at the Light House Media Centre 2pm and 7pm on November 4.

There is also a question and answer session with members of the cast and project team, along with Stephens’ biographer and cousin Julie Warren, at 3.30pm.

This will be followed by a screening of Hancock film The Punch and Judy Man at 4.40pm.

Tickets are available online at lighthousemediacentre.savoysystems.co.uk or from the Light House box office on 01902 716055.

Black Country writer instrumental in Goon Show was close friend of comic

Best man – Writer Larry Stephens

He was a promising jazz pianist whose musical career was cut short by the Second World War.

But West Bromwich-born Larry Stephens went on to become a leading comedy writer working with some of the biggest names in the business.

After serving as an officer with the Commandos he moved to London and became friends with Tony Hancock, later writing much of his stage material.

He was instrumental in the phenomenal success of radio comedy The Goon Show, which starred Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine and was broadcast by the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960.

Another success story was TVs top-rated The Army Game and he also wrote with such future legends as Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes as well as penning material for Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Bernard Braden, Dickie Valentine, Jon Pertwee, Graham Stark and Arthur Askey.

In 1952, he convinced the BBC to let him create a new comedy series for his friend, rising radio star Hancock. He penned two episodes of Vacant Lot, which are due to be performed for the first time at the Funny Things comedy festival in Wolverhampton next month

Speaking about the scripts, producer of the new show, Dave Freak, from Birmingham Comedy Festival, said: “They were written by Larry as a star vehicle for Hancock, and the series would have been Hancock’s first major staring role. They were single 30-minute stories at a time when many radio comedy series usually included musical interludes or were sketch or variety-based formats.”

No recordings of Vacant Lot were ever made and a full series was never commissioned. It is believed that no one outside of the BBC has heard the scripts before.

Best man at Hancock’s first wedding, Stephens, who died suddenly in 1959, aged just 35, also created scripts for his ATV series, The Tony Hancock Show.

Heather Large

By Heather Large
Special projects reporter - @HeatherL_star

Senior reporter and part of the Express & Star special projects team specialising in education and human interest features.

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