Larry Stephens, who hailed from West Bromwich, will probably be an unfamiliar name to most, but fans of comedy history will be familiar with his work, on famous shows such as The Goon Show and The Army Game.
The writer, who was a close friend of Tony Hancock, is set to be rediscovered by comedy fans thanks to a biography from author Julie Warren, which is currently looking for backers via publisher Unbound. As part of Warren’s research, she came across two scripts for an unmade sitcom called Vacant Lot. It was likely to feature Goons stars Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, and was written as a vehicle for Hancock to star in.
Those scripts were performed as part of Funny Things, at Wolverhampton’s Light House Media Centre, with the production being done in association with Birmingham Comedy Festival. An acclaimed cast of James Hurn, Janice Connolly, Mark Earby, Linda Hargreaves, Jimm Rennie and Richard User brought the episodes to life, helping to create the fictional seaside town where Hancock’s lead character worked as an auctioneer.
The scripts themselves made for intriguing curios; plots we’d recognise now as sitcom tropes, and a detectable whiff of Hancock’s own voice, which audiences came to love a few years later, peeking through. Some of that was due to the performance of James Hurn in the Hancock role. Hurn has plenty of experience in this area, with it being far from the first time he’s donned the famous homburg hat, including his own one-man shows paying tribute to Hancock – both the actor and character.
It was evident in the writing as well, though, that this was a vehicle intended for the Lad Himself, and it seemed uncanny at times how it hit similar rhythms and inflections to the Galton and Simpson-penned material which later helped make Hancock a star of TV, radio and (briefly) film. Based on these two episodes, the show would have likely skewed more towards the silliness of the Goons than the style of Hancock’s hit shows. Whether it would have been as successful, and whether Vacant Lot would have meant that Hancock’s Half Hour never materialised, is something we’ll never find out, but this made for a fascinating artefact from the careers of a legendary performer and key writer from 1950s British comedy.
The performance was followed by a Q&A with some of the actors, Julie Warren, and Dave Freak of Birmingham Comedy Festival, which raised some interesting background on Stephens’ career and life, the way in which Hurn and Richard Usher have inhabited characters in this format, and how Stephens’ writing for female characters was perhaps ahead of its time. It was followed by a screening of The Punch & Judy Man (1963), a film co-written by Hancock himself, arguably one of the highlights of his post-Galton and Simpson career.