If Tony Hancock hadn't killed himself in 1968, what would he be doing today? Would he still be on peak-time television, like his variety contemporary, Bruce Forsyth? Or would he be enjoying a well-earned rest, like his old pal Eric Sykes?
This seems to be an impossible question to answer, but in Hancock's case it is even hard to guess, because of the way that his death overshadows his whole career and life. A jobbing comic in his twenties, becoming a huge star in his thirties, by the time he hit 40 most of his best work was behind him – or so it appeared. "Things seemed to go wrong too many times," read his suicide note.
On the face of it, Hancock seems to be an unlikely subject for yet another biography. His career peaked half a century ago; those admirers who enjoyed his work the first time around are now drawing their pensions, and the ration-book world that he portrayed has vanished. So what explains the enduring appeal?
Maybe that, more than any other British comic, Tony Hancock seems to sum up an era – that strange hiatus between the Suez crisis and the Beatles, a time when the old order had crumbled, but nothing had emerged to take its place. With his confusion about this frail new world and his uneasy place within it, Hancock seemed to articulate the anxieties of an aspirant but class-bound generation who had won the war and lost the peace. Quite apart from that, he was also extremely funny.
If anyone can breathe fresh life into this familiar yarn, however, it has to be John Fisher, who has devoted his career to preserving Britain's comic heritage. Fisher's erudition is beyond doubt. But Hancock's life story has been told before, and analysing comedy can frequently be a joyless business.
This is a serious, almost academic tome, weighing in at over 500 pages. Fisher chronicles Hancock's early life in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail, but once we reach that seminal sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour, his meticulous and heartfelt biography takes off. Hancock's flair for self-destruction is almost worthy of Thomas Hardy.
Although Fisher is at pains to point out that Hancock's life wasn't all doom and gloom, his boozy demise inevitably colours everything that comes before. Suicide cheapens the achievements of its victims.
As Spike Milligan said, "he shut the door on all the people he knew, and then he shut the door on himself".
So, 40 years later, what of Hancock remains? Many of the original recordings have survived, unique and irreplaceable, as Paul Merton proved with his ill-judged remakes. For anyone who cherishes those poignant performances, Fisher's book is a fascinating backstage pass.
What was the difference between Tony Hancock and his fragile alter ego, Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam?
Like the sad riddle of his suicide, that comic conundrum remains elusive. But as this thorough, thought-ful book reminds us, it is fun trying to find out.