(born Lawrence Geoffrey Stephens
in Birmingham on 16 July 1923 – died 26 January 1959 ) was a BBC radio scriptwriter, most popularly known for co-writing The Goon Show
with Spike Milligan. Stephens was a regular writer of the show for the first two years, and then returned to The Goon Show
to assist Milligan, during the latter's tougher moments. From his association with Milligan, Stephens became involved with Associated London Scripts (ALS), and was said to have been "one of the most eye-catching characters, in the earliest days of the company...he played a significant cameo role in the first phase of success for ALS".
Trained as an accountant, Stephens distinguished himself as a jazz pianist before the onset of World War II. Following service in the war, during which he served as a Commando captain, he returned to England, and began writing for British comedian Tony Hancock before Hancock became famous, and was best man at Hancock's first wedding. Milligan once remarked that "Larry and Tony were like brothers". In 1952, he developed a new show for Hancock, which was designed to run for a full half hour without musical breaks, called Welcome to Welkham
. The show was aired by the BBC, but with Brian Reece, instead of Hancock. A single episode was broadcast but this received relatively poor audience feedback .
Undeterred, Stephens wrote for a number of popular comedians and shows in the 1950s. He continued to write for Tony Hancock's breakthrough programme, The Tony Hancock Show
. Aside from his work on The Goon Show
, Stephens also wrote for other popular television series such as The Army Game
and Bootsie and Snudge
According to a BBC Radio 4 programme on Stephens' life, it was while working on the second season of The Goon Show
that Stephens, doubling both as a key contributor and as Milligan's agent, began to drink so heavily it affected his work. McCann (2006) states that Stephens' partnership with Milligan "foundered initially in the early 1950s - when he was drinking more than four bottles of rum and a couple of bottles of whisky each week". In February 1954, the BBC asserted that Stephens had violated the terms of his contract by failing to deliver scripts for The Goon Show
on time, and that, thereafter, his work would only be considered on spec. Insulted, Stephens refused to have anything further to do with The Goon Show
. He joined the writing staff of The Army Game
, but two years after the BBC cancelled his contract, Milligan managed to rehire Stephens for The Goon Show
on the condition that Milligan, not the BBC, pay his salary. Per McCann (2006), Stephens was
Logical, perceptive and clever, he could capture Milligan's quick little ideas before they shot straight out of sight and then place them into a relatively coherent structure. His own keen visual sense - he would even illustrate his scripts with vivid little drawings of certain goons - helped sharpen some of Milligan's characterisations and stimulated his already rich and lively imagination. Milligan would throw out all kinds of hit-or-miss suggestions; Stephens would retrieve the ones most likely to work. Milligan would sometimes get distracted or paralysed by all of the comic possibilities; Stephens would often find the most effective way to get him back on track and moving forwards.
Stephens was probably at his busiest during 1956, during which time, apart from co-writing The Goon Show
, he also supplied the story and helped shape the screenplay for The Case of the Mukkinese Battle Horn
, and made countless last-minute re-writes of various comedians' scripts, innumerable gags for a wide range of Variety shows and quite a few unofficial edits of troublesome television scripts. Stephens' heavy drinking had aggravated his high blood pressure, and he died on 26 January 1959; the official cause of death was a cerebral haemorrhage brought about by chronic hypertension .
Stephens' death has long been a subject of surmise and conjecture, partly since during the first two years of The Goon Show
he shared more credits for writing than anyone but Milligan, but subsequently wrote very little. Many Goon Show
fans believe that Stephens died while having dinner with Milligan. Another theory, advanced by Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Spike Milligan, states that he died in a car while going out to dinner with his wife, Diana, and Milligan. McCann (2006) states that Stephens and his wife were on their way to dine out with Milligan. It was most likely that Stephens' death was the reason that The Goon Show
episode, "Dishonoured - Again" (broadcast on 26 January 1959) was a remake of the show "Dishonoured" (broadcast on 14 December 1954) .