On the 2 November 1954, a 30-year-old comedian named Tony Hancock embarked on his first starring vehicle for BBC radio, Hancock’s Half Hour, scripted by two writers aged only in their twenties, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
Seven years later, the one-time support actor of Educating Archie (the finest ventriloquist show in the history of British radio) was so famous as to be generally known by his surname only, with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour achieving viewing figures of 20 million.
The persona created for the comic by Galton and Simpson was one Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, who dressed like a West End leading man of the previous generation and who was desperate to impose himself upon the world. The radio and television Hancock craved to become an MP, a poet or anyone of note and the fact that he had no such talents, and that the outside world regularly fails to recognise his self-avowed status, is irrelevant as the dream was all. The Half Hours were also frequently pre-occupied with time itself, with Hancock attempting to fill the void by joining a poetry society, becoming involved with local politics, planning a carnival – anything to stave off the boredom of his existence.
Hancock’s fictional address of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, often appeared as a seedier version of John Betjeman’s Metro-Land – less “Gaily into Ruislip Gardens, Runs the red electric train” and more of a “picturesque polluted river, down which float impressive mounds of detergent foam”. For a figure who believed he was “a man of calibre”, a house in the affluent suburb of Cheam may have been out of reach but property adjacent to the railway lines in the outer reaches of East Cheam was affordable. Tony Hancock was a fan of Jack Benny, whose sitcom had the star surrounded by disrespectful acolytes, but while the American comedian lived in fairly comfortable circumstances, Railway Cuttings was a large and crumbling Victorian villa populated by the crooked, the inept and unemployable.
From the outset, Hancock was keen to employ “legitimate actors” in his supporting cast and by 1956 the radio show had established its classic format. Bill Kerr was the dense Australian lodger, Hattie Jacques, a leading lady of the Players’ Theatre, was Miss Pugh, the aggressive and disrespectful secretary and Kenneth Williams, then a rising star of West End theatre was either the bureaucrat or the next-door neighbour from hell. Hancock’s main antagonist was “Sid”, as played by Sidney James, then an almost ubiquitous presence in British films (he made 10 pictures in 1953 alone), often as a crook. When Hancock’s Half Hour was made for BBC television in 1956 – the radio version continued until 1959 – James was the main cast member to be transferred to the new show and although Hancock constantly stated that he “did not want a double act”, to the viewing public they were just that. James’ finest moment was the 1957 Christmas Special, Hancock’s 43 Minutes, explaining to the star that he had gambled the show’s entire budget for what was meant to be a variety spectacular, leaving Hancock to deal with acts that anticipated Britain’s Got Talent.
James was dropped for the last BBC TV series in 1961 but although episodes such as The Blood Donor (“A pint? Have you gone raving mad?”) demonstrated that Tony Hancock may not have needed James, he immeasurably benefited from the masterful support of one of the great post-war character actors. In The Reunion Party, James’ character has now transmogrified from the spiv of the early radio shows to the hero’s cynical best friend, watching in mild alarm as Hancock spends about 10 weeks’ wages on a party for wartime colleagues he has not seen for over a decade. This self-aggrandising but genuine sense of generosity met with outright indifference from two of the three comrades who bothered to attend. Hancock despised overt pathos and the look of despair that flashes across his face is as sad as any of Galton and Simpson’s scripts for Steptoe & Son precisely because it was so understated.
In 1962, Hancock parted company with his writers after six radio series, seven television series and one uneven but frequently brilliant film, The Rebel. Of Hancock’s post-Galton and Simpson work, his 1962 film The Punch & Judy Man had a melancholy charm and a sequence set in an ice-cream parlour that Jacques Tati would have been proud of but Hancock’s life would soon descended into an utter despair. What Bob Monkhouse once described as “the Hancock Story”, one of an alcohol and black depression ended with a suicide on 24 June 1968. Hancock’s last work was a sitcom for Australian television and the three surviving examples are so toxic that they should be wiped without hesitation.
Sixty years after the first radio broadcast, Tony Hancock’s legacy can be seen throughout British television comedy – the delusions of Basil Fawlty with his Marks & Spencer-tailored provincial interpretation of David Niven and David Brent’s dreams of minor celebrity, the pomposity of Dougal of The Magic Roundabout and Captain Mainwaring and the anger of Reginald Perrin.
The 37 surviving tapes of the TV Hancock’s Half Hour initially seem rooted in a lost England of woodbines, Teddy boys, and Formica-clad coffee bars. Yet because Galton and Simpson’s scripts are so firmly rooted in time and place and because of Tony Hancock’s genius for comedy acting, his trials are universal – in a country where almost every “technological advance” will inevitably wear an “out of order” sign within two weeks, one can imagine him doing battle with recalcitrant self-service check-outs. Tony Hancock was, and always will remain, the Malvolio of the outer suburbs, heralded by Wally Stott’s lugubrious tuba theme, self-important, deluded – and immortal.
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