ARTS / Outside Edge: Duncan Steer contemplates a dead comic's memorial

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The Independent Culture
It's 10ft tall, glum and very funny, and by this time next year, it'll be looming over one of Birmingham's main streets. It's a two-dimensional memorial to the comedian Tony Hancock (above), a huge metal computer-generated cut-out of the sage of Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, wearing a Homburg and presiding over a cup of tea.

'He only stayed in Birmingham till the age of two and a half,' concedes Dave Sandall, the Birmingham postman who founded the Tony Hancock Society in 1987. 'But his family came from here. And I do know that when he played the Birmingham Hippodrome, he stayed with his aunt in Castle Bromwich. He still had close links with the city, which come out in some of his shows. In 'The Radio Ham', he talks about his mum in Birmingham sending him a bread pudding.'

The idea for a statue came from Simon Livingstone of the charity Turning Point, whose work on drink, drugs and mental health is especially pertinent to the memory of Hancock. The comedian was 44 when he killed himself in Australia in 1968, 14 years after Hancock's Half Hour began life on the radio. 'I'd like people to remember that here was a brilliant man who died from a problem which, if the charity had been there, would have been able to be helped,' he explains.

After inviting competitive designs, Livingstone, Sandall and a committee including Hancock's brother, Roger, unanimously chose a proposal from the Brighton artist Bruce Williams. His idea was a far call from traditional town statuary: a pounds 30,000 bronze re-creation of a head-and-shoulders picture, the photographic dots replaced by glass-filled holes.

A couple of phone polls have shown some locals to be less than convinced, but the team is undaunted. 'It is modern art in a Victorian shopping area,' Simon Livingstone reflects. 'But most people who bother to ring up would be against: if you're for a thing you don't bother.'

Hancock's showbiz colleagues have been rather more welcoming: 'All his contemporaries have been in touch,' Livingstone says. 'Sir Harry Secombe. Eric Sykes. Bruce Forsyth. Lord Delfont . . .'

The final location is still to be agreed, but the City Council has guaranteed that the memorial will be erected on a major site early next year. For Dave Sandall and his 500-strong society, the memorial is a victory.

'It's a tremendous event,' he says. 'It's been an honour to represent the fans, even those who don't join the society. Tony's work will live on, but we need to jog people's memories. It's more than nostalgia. There's a piece of Hancock in each and every one of us.'

(Photograph omitted)

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