Last night's viewing - My Hero: Ben Miller on Tony Hancock BBC1
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Wednesday 28 August 2013
It was the smaller corners of this tribute to a comic genius that made My Hero: Ben Miller on Tony Hancock worth watching. We already knew the larger story, of Hancock's dry, doleful wit, of his radio and TV success, his thwarted ambition to be a serious actor and, later, film failures, and of his drinking and untimely death from an overdose at the age of 44. What was more interesting, beyond Miller's gushing praise of the comedian, were the small, surprising things that he discovered as he spoke to those who had worked with Hancock.
We heard that he froze with stage fright in his first two auditions; that he was such a nervous young performer that he was only kept on in the Army's stage group because he was such a nice guy to be around; that he was a loner, even in the days when he played at the kind of men-only clubs that opened with dancing girls and an on-stage nude; that he rehearsed tirelessly for Hancock's Half Hour, sometimes until two in the morning; and that when he walked away from the show, the BBC called him a "moody perfectionist with a great interest in money and no sense of loyalty to the Corporation" (according to a report in the BBC archive).
Many of Miller's own memories sounded like homilies: when he sat down with his father as a boy one Christmas to watch The Blood Donor, "I honestly don't think I've seen anything so funny in my life"; and that he had watched Twelve Angry Men at least 30 times. His personal recollections were not nearly as interesting as his journey to meet the people who knew Hanncock, including the writers of Hancock's Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were spry old men now, remembering Hancock's friendship with his one-time co-star, Sid James, his work ethic and also his nerves before a show. He would get so anxious that he would "dry heave and retch" in his room, said Simpson.
Most of the people Miller met delivered a small nugget of gold for Hancock fans, though there was one strained encounter with a ventriloquist's dummy, Archie, with whom Hancock had worked on the 1950s comedy show Educating Archie. After a stilted conversation with Archie, Miller said, "It was so good to meet a performer who worked with Tony", which sounded pretty corny, given that he was talking about a puppet.
He also found the wife of Derek Scott, with whom Hancock performed one of his first double acts in Piccadilly, as well as the man who now lived in his house and a group photograph of a slim, smiling Hancock in his Army stage troupe.
Miller's journey also took him to the places in which Hancock had lived and worked, such as the Bournemouth hotel where he grew up. Walking around its corridors and rooms, Miller noted that a certain sensibility could be detected within its walls that might have nurtured Hancock's "sheep-like despondency". "Everything is muffled and quiet… and boring..." There were a few quietly poignant moments in Miller's trip down Hancock's memory lane. One was his parting word on the honesty in his hero's comedy and his willingness to "let us in" that made his work so profound. The other was an archive interview in which Hancock himself spoke humbly, but ardently, of his perfectionism. Asked if he was "happy", he ducked the question and said: "I've been fortunate… My whole purpose is to perfect the talent – however small – that I have got."
To know the befuddlement and alcoholism that he would later suffer, that he would have doctors on hand backstage to administer his pills and that these would render any more perfecting of an immense talent impossible, was truly tragic.
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