An event without pathos: This year sees the 25th anniversary of the suicide of the East Cheam sage. David Nathan attended the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society's AGM

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The Independent Culture
EXTRACTS from the minutes of the annual general meeting of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society, held at the Durlston Court Hotel, Bournemouth, boyhood home of the lad himself:

In view of the fact that this was a special AGM, consequent upon this year being the 25th anniversary of the death by suicide in Australia of Anthony John Hancock, also known as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, of Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, there were a number of special guests.

Chief among them were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writers, who, by placing the real man and his aspirations in fictitious situations created a comic fiction of a hilarious and lasting nature.

Also present was Graham Stark, comedian, character actor and photographer, who first met our hero when they entertained His Majesty's garrison on Gibraltar and who later worked with him in radio.

Dennis Main Wilson, who was instrumental in introducing Mr Simpson and Mr Galton to Tony, and later produced the radio half-hours, attended, despite suffering from a very bad dose of influenza. A resolution congratulating him on his gallantry was postponed until it could be determined whether he had infected the other guests at the top table.

However, it was generally hoped by a substantial majority of those present, and with very few abstentions, that he would make a full and quick recovery.

George Fairweather, a veteran of 82, former Bournemouth postman and barber, organiser of entertainment for the troops during the Second World War and Mr Hancock's mentor, was another guest.

The present writer was invited because of Hancock, a biography written in collaboration with his widow, Freddie, and still in print 24 years later (from BBC Books via any good bookseller).

Dan Peat, president of the Tony Hancock Appreciation society, read out a number of apologies, including one from Freddie, who was unable to be present on account of the fact that she lives in New York.

The present writer observed to anyone who was listening that he was sure Hancock would have heartily enjoyed the fact that Mr Peat was an undertaker from Romford.

Mr Stark recalled how, after the Royal Air Force had stopped feeding him and he was starving in a basement and living off cups of oatmeal soaked in water, our hero got him a job in Derek Roy's radio show, Happy Go Lucky, playing a boy scout in the Eager Beaver patrol, the scoutmaster being played by Tony himself. Mr Simpson recalled: 'We were selling jokes to Derek Roy at five shillings a time. On a good week we would split all of 35 shillings - 17s 6d each (75p in today's money but enough then to buy a couple of pints, two packets of fish and chips, two tickets for the back row at the pictures and the bus fare home).

Mr Wilson made it clear that he had a very low opinion of the show's writers and that when he took over after the original producer suffered a nervous breakdown, he found himself with 10 minutes of sea-sick jokes.

'Ten minutes of sea-sick jokes]' he said before retiring to bed, unable to play any further part in the proceedings because of his influenza.

The account was taken up by Mr Simpson: 'Dennis said 'You're writers, aren't you?' We said, 'Er, yes,' and he said, 'Well write the show then'.'

Mr Galton interjected: 'Write the show] We couldn't. But then we thought we'd better do something and whatever we wrote it couldn't be worse than the stuff they had.'

Mr Simpson: 'Luckily we had two weeks to produce each of the three shows, so we spent every hour that God sent on them. What we did was pretty crappy, but it was better than the crap they had and so we established ourselves as writers.'

Mr Stark then described the kind of material they had written, such as ' ' 'Ere, you're good on motor bikes aren't you?' And Tony would say of course he was. Then I'd say, 'Simple, the wall of death, dead easy.' And when I had talked him into doing it and just as he was about to roar off, I'd say, 'But don't look behind you, the lion doesn't like it.' Now that may not be very funny in itself but it was Hancock's 'Cor, stone me]' that got the laugh.'

Mr Galton observed that six months later they were writing Hancock's Half Hour.

The suggestion to announce it as 'H-h-h-Hancock' came, Mr Simpson disclosed, from Mr Wilson. Mr Hancock had not been keen on the idea.

Mr Stark recounted the story of how Maurice Chevalier had appeared on the show. 'He was at the London Hippodrome,' he said, 'getting thousands a week. Dennis rang him up and asked him to do a spot on the show for 150 guineas.'

Mr Simpson took up the story: Dennis told Chevalier that he wanted four minutes solo, a little bit with Tony Hancock (which he and Mr Galton would write) and then eight minutes on his own. 'Chevalier cannot work in eight minutes,' Chevalier said. 'Chevalier needs an hour.' 'But the whole show is only an hour long,' Dennis said. 'Zat is your problem,' Chevalier said.

'So Dennis gets permission to do an extra hour's recording and Chevalier did his whole act. But only eight minutes of it went out over the air.'

Mr Stark: 'He was so good that the orchestra bowed him.' (That is, the fiddle players applauded by tapping the strings with their bows.)

Mr Stark: 'We recorded at the Garrick Theatre. Suddenly I find myself standing next to this man, Chevalier. I can't speak to him; he's God. He keeps popping boiled sweets into his mouth and he feels he owes me an explanation. 'I have just given up ze smocking,' he says. Then he looks at Tony who is at the microphone and says: 'I laik ze way you work togazzer. You don't bozzer about ze leetle laughs, but wait for ze big one.' Then he gives me the most amazing exposition on comedy. It was magnificent, a privilege. I've forgotten every bloody word of it.'

Mr Stark opened a note from a member of the audience and revealed that it was from a lady member of the cast of a show he was in some 30 years ago. Mr Simpson hoped that it was not a paternity order.

Mr Stark then addressed the assembled company on those memories of Mr Hancock with which he had already entertained the top table. His speech was greeted with prolonged applause.

Mr Simpson indicated that the applause was sufficient, otherwise Mr Stark might have started to talk again or, at the very least, would have expected to be paid. At this point a number of awards were made. The Tony Hancock Award went to Nigel Grant for producing four issues of the newsletter Railway Cuttings. Another award went to George Fairweather, who began his speech of thanks with 'Your Royal Highness - sorry, that was the place I was speaking at last night.'

The guests each received a handsome glass tankard engraved with the words 'Hancock's 1/2 Pint'.

Members took an opportunity of a break to attend to the calls of nature and obtain the guests' autographs on books, record sleeves, photographs, menus, bits of paper and the back of a painting of Sid James which was auctioned for pounds 101.

Mr Simpson, asked if he minded signing his name so many times, said that he didn't and, what is more, could take any amount of adulation.

Mike Pepperrell, who is in show business himself, being an usher at the Playhouse Theatre, then presented a tribute to Bill Kerr, one of the regular members of Hancock's Half Hour. We also enjoyed his recently videoed reminiscences of Hancock's Half Hour. Film excerpts were shown wherever appropriate.

This was followed by an Australian television interviewer asking Freddie about her life with Tony - they were in the throes of a divorce when he died - which finished with a chat with one of the studio television crew who had had a drink with him the night before he ended his life.

Then we reached the highlight of the evening, six television Hancock's Half Hours. After this, your minute- taker went to bed. According to Mr Peat, who followed shortly afterwards, some stayed up until 4.30am.

It is right to report that this was an event without pathos, something that Tony rejected. 'Comedy according to cookery-book recipe,' he once said. 'Mix the ingredients, add a soupcon of sentiment and top with a sprinkling of pathos. Very nasty]'

As they say at all the memorial services, we had not come to mourn Hancock but to celebrate him.

Though not strictly part of the minutes of this most successful meeting, it perhaps should be noted that the elderly waiter at breakfast had become so imbued with the comic spirit that he cried 'Holy ghost]' as he delivered the toast and, as he put down the teapot, uttered the words: 'That will be three and threepence three farthings.' No doubt this has some jocular local meaning. What was very obvious is that he too would have liked to have been a comedian and clearly shared that mixture of aspiration and desperation that Tony embodied and, whenever he found it, cherished.

Had he lived, Tony Hancock would have been 68 next month.

Tony Hancock Appreciation Society (annual subscription pounds 6), 126 Romford Road, Forest Gate, London E7 8DF.

(Photograph omitted)