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Author Julie Warren writes, “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”.

Julie says, 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, It’s All In The Mind: The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens 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.

In the book, Julie Warren, takes a look at the relationship between Pevensey Bay and the fictional town of Churdley Bay. The script for ‘Vacant Lot’, one of the first situation comedy on British radio was written for Tony Hancock by Larry Stephens.
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Tony Hancock stayed at the Bay Hotel in Pevensey Bay in the fifties. There is a record of one of his stays at the hotel in the guest register for 1960.

Julie Warren was cousin to Larry Stephens. He went on to become one of the writers of the Goon Show. The BBC gives credit to the fact that ‘Vacant Lot’ was the first time in the country that the term ‘situation comedy’ was utilised in the promotion of any show.(1952). One of the points referenced in the book is the question of whether Pevensey Bay had something on an undiscovered role in the history of the Golden Age of Radio Comedy ti the fifties.

The Goon Show was littered with references to Pevensey Bay, but was there more to the role of Pevensey Bay in the birth of situation comedy with radio comedy?

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.

Julie Warren writes, “I have always wondered if Churdley Bay was based on anywhere in particular. Hancock biographers mention Eton taking Larry and Tony on a recce to Seaford and that Vacant Lot’s setting was therefore this Sussex coastal town but I have been unable to find any evidence of such a trip.

“I did, however, come across a letter written by Larry to Eton in which he mentions borrowing a guide book and describes the section on Seaford as one of the funniest things he has ever read. No doubt elements from the guide book made it into Vacant Lot but a recent announcement may have thrown up another strong contender for Churdley Bay’s location.

Julie says, “a pilot arts and literature festival is taking place at Pevensey Bay during the summer of 2018. A ‘Memories from the 1950s’ exhibition will be held at the Bay Hotel and the hotel’s registers from those years will be put on display. Some notable guests are known to have stayed there, among them Tony Hancock. The Hancocks and the Stephens often spent their holidays together so I would be very surprised if Larry and his wife, Diana, don’t also appear in the guest book.

She adds “”Churdley Bay and Pevensey Bay certainly share some features: both have a Martello tower and a shingle beach, for example. What’s more, a former owner of the Royal Hotel in the fictional Churdley Bay is called Mr Pevensey”.

The possible connections that place Pevensey Bay as part of the birth of situation comedy in this country are delicious..

Of course local seaside towns in the South East here, in the fifties with their quaint mayoral ceremonies, parochial councils, surreal elemnts and kiss me quick spirit can all claim to have inspired in some small way what we hear in the Goon Show. The seminal Goon Show led to the birth of anarchic comedy that we can still see today in the work from the Goon Show, through Monty Python and right into the work of Bexhill based Eddie Izzard.

A plaque is unlikely to be unveiled soon at the Bay Hotel in Pevensey Bay by Eddie Izzard, saying “this is the place where radio situation comedy began in this country”.

Having said that, the research in this new book, will restore The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens to a rightful place in the story of how situation comedy began in the country. The locality is part of this story.

The book will also throw some new light on the role that Pevensey Bay played in the unleashing of the anarchic spirit of comedy to the world of post-war Britain.

This spirit is still very much alive today in some of our nationally treasured shows both on TV and on the Radio.

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It’s All In The Mind: The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens 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.

Published May 2020: Author, Julie Warren It’s All In The Mind: The Life And Legacy Of Larry Stephens Unbound Books