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Tony Hancock: Funny man

The leap from Hancock giving blood to an incontinent old woman in 'Little Britain' looks like comedy evolution in reverse

Brian Viner
Saturday 24 December 2005 01:00 GMT

As if the late Tony Hancock didn't have enough to get melancholic about, as he looks gloomily down from the celestial version of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, almost 40 years after committing suicide, it emerges that one of his most avid fans is Pete Doherty, the troubled lead singer of Babyshambles born more than a decade after Hancock ended it all in an Australian hotel room on 23 June 1968.

Hancock left a suicide note containing a bleak assessment of his 44-year-old life: "Things seemed to go wrong too many times." Doherty, while happily not of an obviously suicidal bent, might empathise. At any rate, he has undoubtedly become more famous for his drug dependency, his visits to rehabilitation clinics, his run-ins with the constabulary and his bumpy relationship with the beleaguered supermodel Kate Moss than for his music. So we can be forgiven for having failed to notice that some of it is actually inspired by Hancock, and that Up the Bracket, the debut album by his former band The Libertines, was named after a typical Hancock caution: "Watch it, mate, or I'll have you, with a punch up the bracket."

Moreover, while many of us can quote appetising little morsels of Hancock's best dialogue, scripted for him by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Doherty can apparently recite great big chunks. He is by far the most improbable of the contributors to a television documentary, The Unknown Hancock, to be shown on BBC2 on Boxing Day, in which he sings his own song "Lady Don't Fall Backwards".

Doherty's song is named after the whodunnit Hancock withdraws from East Cheam Library in an episode of Hancock's Half Hour called The Missing Page. This was a reference to Hancock's appalled discovery that the last page of "Lady Don't Fall Backwards" had seemingly been torn out, denying him the satisfaction of discovering the murderer's identity. All Hancock fans know the premise of The Missing Page, but not many of them are Doherty's age.

The episode was first transmitted on 11 March 1960; Doherty was born on 12 March 1979. It is rather wonderful that a young contemporary of the creators of Little Britain is helping to keep alive Hancock's influence on popular culture, an influence that nigh on half a century ago was at least as powerful as Little Britain's is today. Not even 368 Mandela House, Peckham home of the Trotter brothers in Only Fools and Horses, is a fictional address as iconic as 23 Railway Cuttings was in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

What Hancock failed to realise, alas, was that Galton and Simpson, who in 1956 had helped him to effect a seamless transition from radio to television, had played as big a part as he had in making it iconic.

Hancock's Half Hour had been a massive hit on the radio and nobody seriously thought that he could become an even bigger star on screen. Indeed, there was some concern that, like the silent movie idol John Gilbert whose allure faded overnight when talking pictures revealed him to have a squeaky voice, Hancock might not belong to the new medium, that his jowly, lugubrious features might be better suited to radio.

But Galton, Simpson and of course Hancock himself were to prove the doubters dramatically wrong. As Mark Lewisohn puts it in his magisterial Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, the television version of Hancock's Half Hour remains "the yardstick against which all subsequent British sitcoms have been measured". And if Hancock's Half Hour can be said to be the finest of all British sitcoms, as lots of old-timers and Pete Doherty claim, then it seems significant that the American series Seinfeld is widely regarded as its American counterpart. For they are both sitcoms in which nothing much happens, revolving around someone whose real personality shares a name with, and has become almost indistinguishable from, his comic alter ego. One is driven by Tony Hancock's moody introspection; the other by Jerry Seinfeld's guileful wit.

The difference between them is that Seinfeld polished every if and but in his script, whereas Hancock, for all his brilliance as a performer, was entirely beholden to his writers. And just as Morecambe and Wise would later become 50 per cent less funny on being parted from their best and most prolific writer Eddie Braben, who was contractually prevented from jumping ship with them from the BBC to ITV in 1978, so would Hancock live to regret - and die regretting - that he severed his association with Galton and Simpson.

Before he did, they had gone along with his wish to ditch his Hancock's Half Hour sidekick Sid James. They then created a new vehicle for him, trimmed to 25 minutes and simply called Hancock. It ran for only six episodes in the early summer of 1961, yet several of them - notably The Radio Ham and The Blood Donor - still rank among the greatest comedy programmes ever made.

Without wanting to sound too mildewed, or indeed Meldrewed, the leap from Hancock giving blood - "a pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful" - to the incontinent old woman drenching the floor of the supermarket in Little Britain looks perilously like TV comedy evolution in reverse. To take a more positive view, the more obvious comic descendants of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock are latter-day losers such as Victor Meldrew of One Foot in the Grave and The Office's David Brent. Even more neatly, for those who enjoy tracing comedy lineages, there was clearly something of Hancock's pomposity in Arthur Lowe's portrayal of Captain Mainwaring in Dad's Army, which coincidentally began scarcely a month after Hancock's desperately unhappy death. And to compound the coincidence, Joan Le Mesurier - the wife of John Le Mesurier who of course played Mainwaring's second-in-command Sergeant Wilson - had left her husband to move in with Hancock, whom she nursed through his final, painful years.

His career had gone into terminal decline, to be followed quickly by his emotional health, as soon as he decided that he needed Galton and Simpson no more than he had needed Sid James. Reckoning that his stardom was a sure thing with or without them, he high-handedly dispensed with their services and joined ITV, where he was given the production control that he had asked for, and been denied, at the BBC. Thus he was among the first television stars to demand a production credit, although very far from being the last.

And like many others since, he found that artistic hubris exacts a big price. With other problems to deal with, he began to rely more and more on the autocue, eventually not bothering to learn any of his lines. Perhaps he knew that some of them weren't worth learning.

Producing his own shows, meanwhile, brought pressure that exacerbated his growing reliance on alcohol. And it can't have helped that Galton and Simpson were by now enjoying a huge hit with Steptoe and Son. When Hancock's agent, his brother Roger, approached them to ask whether they would consider writing his next ITV series, they politely explained that they were too busy with the Steptoes. For them, Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd's Bush, had replaced Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.

And while Hancock tried to come to terms with the realisation that Galton and Simpson could prosper without him in a way that he could not without them, he also had to cope with the fact that his erstwhile on-screen partner, Sid James, had become well established in the Carry On films. Hancock, whose dearest ambition, having mastered radio and then television, was to break into the movies, started hitting the bottle even harder. His first marriage fell apart. It was the beginning of the end.

As for the actual beginning, Hancock was born in Birmingham in 1924. His parents soon moved to Bournemouth where they ran a hotel popular with touring music-hall performers. Much taken with these variety acts, Hancock decided that he wanted to become a comedian, and embarked on a career that at its height made him the most famous and popular man in the country - rumoured to be paid more than £10,000 a programme, according to some incredulous newspaper reports of the time.

A fall from such a height was always likely to be fatal, and so it proved. In 1967, Hancock made six half-hours for ITV called Hancock's, but they were far removed from Hancock's Half Hour. The conceit this time was that he played himself as the eponymous manager of a nightclub, with June Whitfield as the hat-check girl. Whitfield had also been in on some of his greatest hits, playing the nurse in The Blood Donor, for example. Maybe that reminded him of better times. Either way, his alcoholism got worse and he was increasingly perceived as more of a liability than an asset. To nobody's surprise, viewing figures were poor and plans for a second series were shelved.

Hancock's last hope was a 13-part series, Hancock Down Under, being made by Channel 7 in Australia. This had him emigrating, and sought to play on his character's very English pomposity by bringing it into conflict with Aussie bluntness. Eight years earlier, the idea might have worked a treat. But only three lacklustre episodes had been made before Hancock, believing that a second series had yet again been discounted, went back to his hotel room and killed himself. The final twist in what is a timeless fable as well as a tragic life story is that the series producers, according to a biography of Hancock, had actually decided that they would commission a further series.

In When the Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock, Cliff Goodwin wrote: "On that final day of shooting - and unknown to Hancock - executives at Channel 7 decided that, however bad the episodes they already had in the can, it was worth taking a chance and commissioning a second series. The producer had been informed. Most of the crew knew. But no one thought to tell their star.

"I'm not claiming it would have stopped Hancock killing himself, which I don't believe he meant to do, but I'm sure it would have eased his agonies long enough to carry him on for another month or year [and] maybe even given him the confidence to return to England and make yet another new start." Maybe, but probably not.

A Life in Brief

BORN Anthony John Hancock, 12 May 1924, in Hall Green, Birmingham, son of John and Lilian Hancock.

FAMILY First wife: Cicely Romanis (model, m. 1950, div. 1965); second wife: Freddie Ross (publicist, m. 1965). Mistress: Joan Le Mesurier (1960s).

EDUCATION Bradford College, Reading.

CAREER Entertained troops in Second World War. Radio: Variety Bandbox, Educating Archie, Calling All Forces, Star Bill (1949-1954), Hancock's Half Hour (1954-59). Television: Hancock's Half Hour (1956-61), Hancock (1963), The Blackpool Show (1966), Hancock's (1967), Australian series (1972).

HE SAYS "Stone me, what a life!" - catchphrase in Hancock's Half Hour

"Nobody will ever know I existed. Nothing to leave behind me. Nothing to pass on. Nobody to mourn me. That's the bitterest blow of all." - suicide note

THEY SAY "In all the years we worked with him, there was never any suggestion that Tony had a drink problem. And he wasn't a ladies' man, either. He was the consummate professional." Alan Simpson, scriptwriter for Hancock

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