In the hectic world of variety, performers needed a niche to stand out from the crowd. ‘Stainless Stephen’ found an especially idiosyncratic one. Taking his moniker from his Sheffield origins (then centre of the U.K.’s stainless steel industry), he continued the gimmick by wearing a stainless steel waistcoat and steel-rimmed bowler hat.
Such gimmickry was ‘Stephen’s forte; in addition to his costume, the core of his act was to soliloquize in a whistling Robb Wilton deadpan, speaking all the punctuation, and adding in other asides:
“What a wonderful year 1930 was, semi-colon, said Stainless Stephen, semi-conscious. Thousands of new motorists took to the road, comma, and as a result thousands of pedestrians took to the pavements”
A little of this obviously goes quite a long way, and its no surprise that he never carried full films or shows on his own, but as a short turn on the radio, or on a 78, he was good fun. He made but one film appearance, in the all-star extravaganza RADIO PARADE (1933). While it sadly presents him out of his bizarre regalia, his 3 minute routine playing a railway guard is really quite funny and one of the highlights of the film.
Stephen’s real name was Arthur Baynes and his day job was as a school teacher, a job he continued for some time after finding success, meaning he could only make appearances at weekends and during school holidays!
Legend has it that Stainless’ lessons on Friday were always a bit light on the ground, as he spent most of the time leaving his classes to it whilst he wrote his radio material for the weekend! Baynes retired in 1952 to become a gentleman farmer in Kent, describing himself as “stainless, painless, brainless, shameless, aimless, semi-conscious and approaching semi dotage.” He died in 1957.
(On a teacher’s note, there is currently much panic over the introduction of a new punctuation and grammar test for primary school children. This would surely have been a breeze for Stainless Stephen’s classes!)