It began with a letter to a radio show but spawned a national cult which interrupted pop concerts. Recently moved to York, author Stephen Curran reveals how he went viral
I was sitting in a cinema, waiting for the film to start, when I heard my first “STEPHEN!”. It came from a few rows behind me: a girl calling out as the lights went down. From elsewhere in the room came the hoped-for reply: “Just coming!”
I didn’t tell them it was my name they were shouting.
Six months previously I had sent an email to Adam Buxton and Joe Cornish’s rambling, eccentric and very funny show on BBC 6 Music, in response to a request for examples of “juvenilia”: creative endeavours the listeners had undertaken when they were children (other examples given included a fanzine about Arnold Schwarzenegger and a book of poetry called “Say it With Snails”).
My contribution concerned an Action Man-inspired comic strip I had written when I was roughly six, with a lead character I named after myself. It was called “STEPHEN!”
Finding the title particularly ridiculous, Adam & Joe began to riff on the idea of a Bourne-style movie franchise based on the comic, featuring the stunts, punch-ups and love scenes typical of the genre. People in trouble, they speculated, would call out for “STEPHEN!”, eventually receiving the rather weak reply: “Just coming!”
And that was that: a very entertaining five minutes of radio but nothing more.
Then, a few weeks later, I was directed to a video someone had posted on YouTube: a beautifully animated trailer for the fictitious franchise, featuring Adam & Joe’s made-up call-and-response. There were fan made posters, too: lovingly drawn spoof film advertisements and logos.
Soon after that came reports that listeners to the show had begun to shout the “STEPHEN!” to each other in the street.
Over the next few years Stephenage (as it came to be known) grew into something of a phenomenon. At music venues, cinemas, student unions and shopping centres across the land people were calling out the catchphrase, hoping to elicit the requisite response from like-minded people.
Soon it had extended further beyond the reach of the radio show itself. Reports of successful Stephenage came from New York, Australia, New Zealand and high up a mountainside in Borneo. My name was emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs, badges, bags and caps. So popular did the practice become at music festivals that in the Guardian newspaper’s A-Z of Glastonbury “S” stood for STEPHEN!
Eventually things started to get out of hand. Comedian Richard Herring and Natasha “Bat for Lashes” Khan complained that audience members were calling out during the quieter parts of their sets, prompting calls for “responsible Stephenage”.
At a string of dates in the UK the prominent American folk band Fleet Foxes were left bemused, with their singer asking from the stage who this “Stephen” person might be.
For me, the whole thing peaked when Adam Buxton appeared on Channel 4 news to be interviewed about the proposed closure of 6 Music (which, thanks to the campaigning of the station’s devoted listeners, never happened). After asking him to explain the significance of the name on Adam’s shirt, Jon Snow closed the segment with a hearty “STEPHEN!”.
It was a surreal and exciting experience which is now mainly in the past (although I’m told Stephenage still regularly occurs in the studios of Al Jazeera in Doha). Adam Buxton is presenting his own show on Sky Atlantic. Joe Cornish is fast becoming a big name in Hollywood, working with Steven Spielberg and directing films like 2011’s Attack the Block.
I have made good on my childhood self’s literary ambitions and published a novel (Visitor In Lunacy, available now from Amazon, since you ask). Still, it’s nice to think that in some way our lives will always be linked.
As for now, my own STEPHEN! T-shirt still lies neatly folded away in a drawer here in York, ready to be taken out again if ever the call comes.