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THIS WEEK Arrival of Reverend Tony Windross as Priest in Charge at St. Nicolas church, Pevensey

COMMUNITY JUST THE TICKET: New film season begins at Bay Hotel in Pevensey Bay

EVENTS Booted and Suited for 2018: All systems go for Vehicles of Yesteryear in Pevensey Bay

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

The accidental discovery of information about a lost Tony Hancock script is leading organisers of a pilot arts and literature festival here in Pevensey Bay, to begin to think that they may have struck pure comedy gold.—Bay Life, 4 March 2018

Hancock’s Lost Half Hour

The accidental discovery of information about a lost Tony Hancock script is leading organisers of a pilot arts and literature festival here in Pevensey Bay, to begin to think that they may have struck pure comedy gold.

Talking to Lynda Leventon, who as a child, lived at the Bay Hotel between 1954 and 1971, organisers realised that in one of her memories about famous people who had stayed at the hotel in Pevensey Bay, they had hit on an original account.

They believed the account was unlikely to have appeared in any of the books and biographies about Tony Hancock or the blogs.

Lynda (whose parents Stan and Muriel Love were landlords at the Bay Hotel) recorded in a phone interview that she remembered coming home to the hotel as a child, aged about 10, and ‘seeing Tony Hancock having a drink with her father and then getting ready to go swimming in the Bay at 4:00pm, as late in the year as October.’

The anecdote seems to have been worthy of note.

Not only could organisers identity the comic genius, voted in a BBC 2003 poll as the listeners favourite comedian, as being a frequent visitor here, according to Lynda ‘sometimes staying as long as a week’, they could also begin to investigate more about the account.

Tony Hancock in the 1950s and early 1960s, became a national celebrity. He had a major success with his BBC series Hancock’s Half Hour, first broadcast on radio from 1954, then on television from 1956. His last BBC series in 1961 contains some of his best remembered work including “The Blood Donor”.

Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the show lasted for seven years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form.

From 1956, the show ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name.

The show starred Hancock as “Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock”, living in the shabby “23 Railway Cuttings” in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. One famous episode ‘Sunday Afternoon” has been described as “Brechtian’ in the scope of the delivery of the comedic lines written by Galton and Simpson about boredom on a Sunday afternoon in East Cheam.

The original French text of ‘Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett was composed between October 1948 and January 1949.

Comparisons have been made between the script of “Sunday Afternoon’ performed by Tony Hancock with the suggestion that Galton and Simpson were giving more than a comedic nod to the playwright, Samuel Beckett, in their script.

At the time, as Lynda recalls, it seems likely that Tony Hancock was ‘resting;’ in some way with his visits to the Bay Hotel in Pevensey Bay.

Perhaps it was the case that the pressures on him as such a star at this point in his life, and the speed with which this recognition was reached on a national and international basis was acute.

The view offered by Lynda, that he was probably utilising the Bay Hotel as a way to get away from everything, seems to fit, particularly since Hancock’s Half Hour began in 1954 and came to be such a huge success.

Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney, in June 1968. He was found dead in his flat with an empty vodka bottle and a scattering of amylo-barbitone tablets.

In one of his suicide notes, he wrote: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”. His ashes were brought back to England by satirist Willie Rushton, and were buried in St. Dunstan’s Church in Cranford, west London.

Spike Milligan offered the wry comment in 1989: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.”

The work of Tony Hancock, along with the scripts of Galton and Simpson are now seen as being at the pinnacle of British comedy. In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favourite British comedian.

“What an extraordinary face he had”, Lynda remembers.

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society hearing the story about Tony Hancock in Peveney Bay contacted Bay Life.

Tristan Brittain-Dissont, archivist for the Tony Hancock Society said, “I was interested in your piece  about the Bay Hotel and its connections with Tony. If we could help with the exhibition that is being planned, please let me know. Also, I wondered if you would be willing to pass on my details to Lynda Leventon – I would be keen to interview her for our magazine”.

The two parties are now being put in touch.

Julie Warren, social media contact for the Goons Show Preservation Society also got in contact with Bay Life to indicate that she found the story ‘very interesting’.

She explained that she had written a biography of her cousin, Larry Stephens, who was one of the founding writers of the Goon Show and a writing collaborator with Spike Milligan and others in the writing.

We know that Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers were here in Pevensey Bay in the fifties.

The Goon Show is littered with references to Pevensey Bay. One episode is even entitled “the Pevensey Bay Disaster”

The possibility that Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers met each other here at some point, either by chance or by design does not seem impossible.

Of course if these emerging national radio stars were here to ‘get away from it all’ the likelihood that they met up seems, perhaps, unlikely, but we will see if any photographs or documents emerge to show that they did indeed have contact here in Pevensey Bay.

Julie says about her biography of Larry Stephens, Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens, on her fund raising website for the book, unbound…

“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”.

In a second email contact from Julie Warren, organisers of the pilot arts and literature festival stood stock still in delighted shock.

Julie said, “thanks for getting back to me. The festival sounds really exciting and it’s great that the Tony Hancock Society will be joining you. I’d be interested to know what sort of things you’ve got planned for The Goons as I’m sure the Goon Show Preservation Society will be able to help out. I would, of course, love to come along too, if possible!

“It’s a shame the Bay Hotel registers only go back to 1954 as if it was a couple of years earlier, it may have helped to solve something I’ve wondered about. In 1952, Stephens wrote a sitcom for Hancock, set in a fictional place called Churdley Bay. Churdley was located on the south coast, had a Martello tower and a shingle beach… The sitcom had its ‘world premiere’ last year.

In 1950, the lost script was buried in the archives of the BBC.

The script only emerged when Julie was doing some archive research at the BBC about her cousin, Larry Stephens.

As Julie explains in the pre-cursor to her biography,Larry Stephens was the best man to Tony Hancock at his first wedding, and Tony Hancock was the best man to Larry Stephens at his wedding, showing the closeness of their friendship.

The long lost manuscript comedy was called ‘Vacant Lot’, two episodes were scripted by Larry Stephens, but never performed and broadcast, with a decision by the BBC to shelve the project in 1951.

The script was at the start of the emerging radio comedy movement of the fifties,written at the same time ,or possibly just before, the Goon Show.

According to the BBC account of the discovery of Vacant Lot, the comedy script is also the first apparent time that the BBC utilised the phrase ‘situation comedy” in print, giving credit to the possibility that the script may represent the first situation comedy in the country.

The long lost show was put on as a World Premier at the Birmingham Comedy Festival in November 2017, with a performance of the two episodes.

publicity: Birmingham Comedy Festival 2017
The Lost Hancocks:
Vacant Lot

Two long-lost radio scripts from the 1950s, written for comedian Tony Hancock by acclaimed comedy writer Larry Stephens.

In 1952, West Bromwich-born Larry Stephens (The Goon Show, The Army Game) convinced the BBC to let him create a new comedy series for his friend, rising radio star Tony Hancock (Workers’ Playtime, Variety Bandbox, Educating Archie).

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 On’s Kenneth Connor all mooted for roles), Vacant Lot lay buried in the BBC archives … until now.

Vacant Lot: Episode One
After accidently auctioning off a prized clock, would-be councillor Hancock’s election chances look grim. Can he track down the buyer and save himself from ruin?

Vacant Lot: Episode Two
In a drive to promote tourism Mayor Ambrose Tripfield calls on Hancock for assistance. But a copywriting gaffe looks set to destroy the reputations of both Hancock and Churdley Bay.

At the time that Julie Warren contacted organisers of the pilot arts and literature festival here in the summer of 2018, little did they know that the connections with Pevensey Bay could prove prove to be of such potential value.

Was Tony Hancock here together with his friend Larry Stephens in 1951 and 1952?

This seems possible. Of course there are many’ small fading coastal locations in the South  of England’ that could have been the template for the ground breaking script and anyway, no doubt, the place is purely a fictional composite of some description.

Nonetheless, the addition of a shingle beach and a Martello Tower, and the name Churdley Bay, and you have the intoxicating possibility that some of the script ideas emanated from here.

Did Tony Hancock and Larry Stephens discuss possible ideas over drink at the Bay Hotel?

If we find the name Larry Stephens in the register of guests here in the early fifties at the Bay Hotel, evidence about the connection between Larry Stephens and Pevensey Bay would begin to stack up.

The setting of the situation comedy in a small fading coastal location which is called in the script Churdley Bay is an unmissable point.

Tony Hancock, before Hancock’s Half Hour, was written by Larry Stephens as a fading auctioneer and would be councillor.

If more information can be found about Tony Hancock here and the possibility of a link with Larry Stephens, further discoveries could put Pevensey Bay on the comedy map of the country in a new way,

Already we have pride of place in the Goon Show scripts as reference points.

The discovered Vacant Lot script written by Larry Stephens, starring Tony Hancock set in a place called Churdley Bay, as Tony Hancock in real life drank at the Bay Hotel here, is a heady mix not just of comedy gold, but places Pevensey Bay as a possible key point on the historical comedy map of the country does it not?

The first situation comedy in the country? Where might these discoveries lead? The answer would appear to be, for the present at least, to the pilot arts and literature festival in Pevensey Bay this year.

Might there be is a possibility of a second reading of the lost classic Hancock script here in Pevensey Bay?

Organisers of the festival are talking to the directors of the Birmingham Comedy Festival.

Perhaps even a reading of part of the script, here at the Bay Hotel, would resonate down the ages from 1951.

Organisers say that the possibility of seeing the script come to life again, following the world premier at the Birmingham Comedy Festival in 2017, might be an electrifying start to the idea of a pilot arts and literature festival for Pevensey.

Both the Hancock Appreciation Society and the Goons Preservation Society have expressed interest in coming to the pilot festival and being here with us at at the end of August this year as the ideas for the pilot arts and literature festival.

Is the discovery that Tony Hancock was here, staying at the Bay Hotel, swimming in Pevensey Bay in October, at 4:00pm in the early fifties the start of another small chapter in the life and works of Tony Hancock?

Julie Warren says that “British popular culture would probably be very different had Larry Stephens not been born”.

Will any more information be found to link Larry Stephens to Pevensey Bay?

The discovery by Julie Warrens of the script Vacant Lot in the archive of the BBC, as part of her research into her book,  about her cousin Larry Stephens, adds weight to the possibility that Pevensey Bay will now be seen in a new light in the context of the history of radio comedy in this country.

With the kind permission of Julie Warrens, an extract from Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens is to be published in the next edition of our newspaper, The Journal, later this month.

District Councillor Dianne Dear has been nominated by the planning group of the pilot Pevensey arts and literature festival, to be the chair of the organisation.

Val Racher, has been nominated as the business development manager for the festival, and sister Chris Racher has been nominated as the artist liaison point of contact.

Here with James Hurn (Dead Ringers) as Hancock, he introduces Vacant Lot at Birmingham Comedy Festival 2017.

Was a fictional version of Pevensey Bay at the birth of situation comedy in this country in some way?

Has Pevensey Bay just hit gold again and found for itself yet another marker on the treasure map of the history of British Radio Comedy?

Whoever comes up with the idea of a play written on the corner of the Bay Hotel in Pevensey Bay in the seminal year, 1951, might be looking at a winner of an idea.

Looks like they were all here that year. With Tony Hancock, Larry Stephens, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine all with walk on parts, maybe there is a West End hit waiting to be written.

All that would be necessary is a song.

We already know, from the son of a woman who ran the WI here in the fifties, that as a lad aged about eight, he bumped into Peter Sellers, sunbathing on the beach, so he started to sing the Ying Tong Song.

Characteristically, Peter Sellers sat up, and started to sing the song with him.

Simon Montgomery
editor Bay Life

all rights reserved

Julie Warren: Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
Birmingham Comedy Festival Birmingham Comedy Festival 2017
YouTube (below): James Hurn (Dead Ringers) as Hancock, he introduces Vacant Lot at Birmingham Comedy Festival 2017.