A brand new and exclusive performance of two long lost radio scripts from the 1950s, written for comedian Tony Hancock by acclaimed comedy writer Larry Stephens, will be performed at Funny Things on the 4th November.
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 Vacant Lot lay buried in the BBC archives … until now.
Recently rediscovered the Birmingham Comedy Festival for Funny Things proudly present the much-belated premiere of a forgotten slice of British comedy history from two West Midlands comedy heroes performed live by actors.
We caught up with producer and Birmingham Comedy Festival organiser and Vacant Lot producer Dave Freak to find out more about the project.
You are performing two episodes but how many are there?
As far as we’re aware, we’re performing everything, which is just the two episodes. A full series was never commissioned, as everyone moved onto other projects, so it’s unlikely that writer Larry Stephens left other completed scripts.
You are producing the show as if it were a radio recording – what made you choose this style of performance?
Larry wrote the scripts for radio in the first place, so we’re 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. Incidentally, actors of the period, like Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, and Kenneth Connor were mooted at the time for certain roles. The ‘radio’ format worked brilliantly for our recent revival of The Goon Show, and some of our cast will be returning for Vacant Lot.
You have the exclusive right for the UK premiere of the scripts – will the event at Funny Things be the actual premiere performance?
Yup! 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).
What do you think we’ll learn about Hancock and Stephens through this new performance?
People’s perception of Tony Hancock is almost solely based on the Galton and Simpson TV and radio stuff – which is brilliant. However, during the fifties, Hancock appeared in loads of other radio shows, but very little recordings exist. So this gives us an all too rare glimpse into an earlier Hancock, a pre-fame Hancock if you will. Vacant Lot was written especially for him by Larry Stephens, his best friend – who also wrote stage and TV material for him – and you can really hear Hancock’s voice when you’re reading the scripts. It’s a lost piece of British comedy history! After this premiere, some of those Hancock biographers are going to have to re-write their early chapters …
VACANT LOT EVENTS
The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot
Saturday 4 November
2pm-3.15pm and 7pm-8.15pm
Light House Media Centre
Vacant Lot: Episode One – After accidentally 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.
The Lost Hancocks Q&A
Light House Media Centre
Find out more about The Lost Hancocks, the story behind their original creation and eventual rediscovery, as well as their belated staging, 65 years after they were conceived. With members of the cast and project team, along with Larry Stephens’ biographer (and cousin) Julie Warren, whose new book, Glarnies, Green Berets and Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens, tells the full story of the Black Country boy who helped reshape post-war British comedy.
The Punch & Judy Man
Light House Media Centre
Starring Tony Hancock, Sylvia Syms, Ronald Fraser, John Le Mesurier, Hugh Lloyd. Directed by Jeremy Summers. Written by Philip Oakes and Tony Hancock.
In a snobbish seaside resort, Delia (Syms), the wife of Punch and Judy man Wally (Hancock), dreams of social acceptance. So when he’s invited to perform at a celebration gala attended by Lady Jane Caterham (Barbara Murray), it looks like Delia may get her wish. But the sullen Wally refuses …
Based on an idea by Hancock, his second (and final) big-screen starring role is filled with echoes of his own life – from the south coast location (a background shared with The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot), to marriage difficulties.
An understated and introspective comedy, ripe for reappraisal.
Cert: U, 1963
The original puppets from the film will be on display in the Light House Gallery, on loan from the National Puppetry Archive.