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Tony Hancock

From Academic Kids

Anthony John Hancock, best known as Tony Hancock (May 12, 1924June 24, 1968) was a major figure in British television and radio comedy in the 1950s and 1960s.

Contents

Early Life and Career

He was born in Birmingham, England, but raised in Bournemouth where his mother and step-father ran a small hotel formerly known as the Durlston Court, but now known as the Quality Hotel. He was educated at a boarding school in Swanage and Bradfield College, Berkshire. He left school aged 15. In 1942 he joined the RAF Regiment and following a failed audition for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) ended up with The Ralph Reader Gang Show. Following the war he gained regular radio work in shows like Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox, and in 1951 he gained a part in Educating Archie, where he played the tutor and foil to the real star, a ventriloquist's dummy. Here he developed a catchphrase — "flippin' kids" — that was to earn him real recognition. In 1954 he was granted his own BBC radio show: Hancock's Half Hour.

Hancock's Peak Years

Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the show lasted for five years and over a hundred episodes, featuring Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister and Hattie Jacques. In the radio series the James character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock's apparent gullibility, rather than be the friend of the television series.

Hancock was an enormous radio star. Like few others he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes. His character changed slightly over the series but even in the earliest episodes "the lad himself" was evident. Later episodes were regarded as classics, even in their time. "A Sunday Afternoon At Home" and "Wild Man of the Woods" were top rating shows and were later released as an LP.

"A Sunday Afternoon At Home" is not only the very best of the Hancock ensemble pieces but it is also a near perfect evocation of those 1950s afternoons. A time when things really were "all shut up" as some sort of puritan and/or wartime rationing hangover.

Hancock's experiences were based in reality and on observation and no more so than in this episode. Comments about English cooking and the TV service of the day may seem rather broad today but for the time they contained more than an element of the truth. Grown men did like watching the Flowerpot Men; partly because of the novelty of just watching television, remember this was the time of the potter's wheel and the fish tank!

Perhaps it is the degree of authenticity in the observation that convinces us that the rest is true. Of course a fountain pen is no good for writing on newsprint. Does this fact help us to believe that Miss Pugh's gravy does not move about?

Of course it rains during the episode adding to the gloom and enabled Hancock to get a laugh with the line "you wait, in a minute it will go dark and we will have to put the lights on". The fact that he could get a laugh from such a line shows how much Galton and Simpson had moved the goalposts in British Comedy.

From the "Look Back in Hunger" playlet in the East Cheam Drama Festival Galton and Simpson showed they were up to date with the British theatre. Were they mimicking or precursing Pinter with the sighs and silent pauses of this episode? The pace of the episode must have been groundbreaking in the days of fast talking Ted Ray, frantic Life with Lyons, et al. when every second of airtime had to be filled and "dead air" the cardinal sin.

With Galton and Simpson cranking out scripts at the rate they did it is little wonder that continuity was not given top priority. Life in Railway Cuttings (incidentally it was Railway Cuttings that was mythical, not East Cheam itself, it is next to Carshalton) seems to vary as much as the house itself. Not only is Hancock either unemployed or a hopeless actor/comedian (here he is a popular radio star on a par with Ted Ray) but the dimensions of the actual house seem to change to accommodate the cast. In later episodes Railway Cuttings appears to be a two-bedroomed terrace, here it seems to have at least three bedrooms and Miss Pugh lives in. In other episodes she "comes round" presumably from her own domicile.

Listeners at the time either did not notice or did not care. To be fair the ephemeral and non-commercial nature of the radio in those days meant that recordings were not available and the audience had to rely solely on their memory of who lived where or did what in which episode. There were not numerous repeats and reruns on other channels, cassette tapes were unknown and records issued irregularly. Certainly the domestic situation could only be described as strange. Hancock had the none/comedian job situation, Sid we assume was on the fiddle in some way. Bill is virtually unemployable, his relationship to the others and origins unexplained. Miss Pugh is Hancock's secretary, (who apparently has such a loose job description that she cooks Sunday lunch) although how she got paid or what she did for the unemployed Hancock is another of life's mysteries. However it probably is no more mysterious as to how today's sitcom character can afford transatlantic trips, car journeys across America and seemingly unlimited holiday time for all their adventures. How did Kramer make a living? How can Homer keep his job at the power plant while being a clown, Mr Plow, boxer, astronaut etc? It is a tribute to the skill of all these writers and players that the audience still accepts the situation and willingly suspends disbelief.

Although many of the situations described are alien to us today (Late starting TV and Cinemas showing old films, shop shut, pubs closing early) the human reaction to unfavourable situations remains constant.

It is doubtful if there still are people who find patterns not intended in the wallpaper – Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen and numerous makeover clones have put a stop to that. In the not too distant past some clever publishers made quite a little industry of the "hidden picture" phenomenon – would they have been able to do that if there were still had bunches of grapes wallpapers rather than magnolia walls with a dado rail to stare at? Is staring into space a lost art? The frustrating experience of someone not seeing what we think we are seeing and the final "wait till you want me to see something" perfectly encapsulates the wearisome nature of such a futile enterprise.

Futility seems to be the key to "Sunday Afternoon". What are Sundays for? Certainly for children in 50's it was a question that regularly occurred. There was nothing to do and nothing ever happened. There was church and Sunday School. Little or no playing out "because it is Sunday" and we might disturb the rest day of the neighbours. External entertainments, like TV and Cinema were rationed. Virtually no shops were open, those that were sold papers or food. There was almost no professional sport played, and if it was it was rarely televised. Even a Sunday afternoon outing was not possible for most of the population, if not because they did not have cars, then because they did not have money.

Galton and Simpson's masterly writing encapsulates all of this in under 30 minutes. The show does begin to flag when Kenneth Williams appears but the earlier exchanges must rank among the very top moments of radio comedy in any era.

Hancock's television career as star began in 1956, initially on ITV, but it was the BBC-TV version of Hancock's Half Hour (later Hancock) that established him in the medium.

The classic Hancock characterisation referred to himself as "Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock" — being a larger-than-life version of Hancock's real self. In the TV series the regular cast was reduced to Hancock and James, allowing the humour to come from the interaction of the two men. James was the realist of the two, but also with an unpretentious personality who would puncture Hancock's pretensions. Hancock was to become anxious that his work with James was turning them in to a double act, and the last BBC series in 1961 was without James. Despite the contemporary criticism of Hancock, many consider this to contain the best of Hancock's BBC work.

Two of the episodes of Hancock's last BBC television series are probably his best-remembered work. The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood. This contains famous lines such as, "A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful!" (The doctor's response: "You won't have an empty arm... or an empty anything!") Another well-known episode is The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays a ham radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a ship in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking its position. Both of these episodes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available ever since. The original TV versions have since been released as part of VHS and DVD compilations, and the soundtracks have also (a little confusingly) been released on CD.

Shortly before recording the original version of "The Blood Donor" Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, but his confidence was shaken and he was unable to learn his lines, with the result that the recording was made with Hancock using teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script) so that he could read the lines instead. Viewers of the programme may notice that he is not looking where, logically, he ought to be. Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.

Hancock was the cause of two important milestones in comedy. The first was that he was the first TV artist of any genre to be paid more then £1000 for a single half-hour program. Second was the way that comedy was made.

Up until Hancock’s TV series, every comedy show was performed live. In the Jimmy Edwards series 'Whacko', in which he played the Headmaster of a Public School, the scenes were intercut with shots of the school clock. This was because the studio only had one set of cameras, and the insert shot of the clock gave them ten seconds to move the cameras into position on the next scene. Temperamentally, Hancock's highly strung personality made this impractical, with the result that the programmes came to be pre-recorded, initially as telerecordings and later recorded on 2" video tape. The cost of this horrified the executives at the BBC, but they agreed to give it a try. All of a sudden, making a sitcom became more like making a film. The difference this made to the flow and continuity was immediately apparent, as well as the ability to do location shots. With a few years it had become standard practice to work in this way.

International Dreams and Introspection

Hancock also starred in the 1960 film The Rebel (a.k.a., Call Me Genius in the USA) where he plays the role of an office worker turned artist who meets international acclaim after moving to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. The film was not well received in the United States; owing to a conflict with a contemporary series the film had to be renamed and this inflamed American critics. Hancock was later to dismiss the film as crude and its failure was a contributory factor in his disastrous break with his writers, Galton and Simpson, after the last television series for the BBC. This was famously the worst decision of his career.

Hancock always dreamed of being a major international star, but tradition holds that he failed to realise how uniquely British his style of humour was — too uniquely British, that is, to have universal appeal. This was demonstrated by his second starring vehicle, The Punch and Judy Man (1962), in which he plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life. Sylvia Syms plays his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier plays a sand sculptor. The film's humour is bittersweet and understated and was perfectly tailored to a particular British audience of the time. The vast American entertainment industry, whose moguls were used to a more brash style of humour, dismissed it as slow-moving and dull. His BBC shows were, however, frequently broadcast in Australia and Canada.

In early 1960 Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions — but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later depression.

Hancock’s self-doubt led to self destructiveness — he slowly sacked all those who rose to stardom with him -Bill Kerr, then Sid James, Kenneth Willaims and Hattie Jacques, and finally his script writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. His reasoning was that to be truly international he had to ditch the catchphrases and become realistic. His classic example, once you had launched him on this subject, was Kenneth Williams. He argued that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth, who would come on with his well known oliy' Good Evening' catchphrase. Hancock said the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, they know it was just Kenneth doing a funny voice.

So he slowly got rid of all his friends. His final TV series, was performed with ordinary actors playing the comedy parts, and by doing so, he created a new way of doing comedy. After the last BBC series he sacked Galton and Simpson. As compensation, the BBC gave them a series of one off comedy shows, one of which was called 'The Rag and Bone man', the forerunner to the epic, classic comedy Steptoe and Son, played (as Hancock would have approved) by two straight actors, Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett.

To write 'The Punch and Judy Man', Hancock hired an up and coming writer called Philip Oakes, who moved in with Hancock to write. The depth to which the character of Anthony Hancock had merged with the person is clear in the film. The scene at the start of the where Tony and his wife eat breakfast in total silence is a direct observation of Tony in real life. When Hancock first read the scene, he looked at Phillip Oakes, and his only comment was 'you bastard...' Hancock knew that the film was going to be about him, in reality, and in fact the whole film is about Hancock’s memories of being a child in Bournemouth.

Hancock read huge amounts, desperately trying to find out the 'why we are here' of life. He read large numbers of philosophers, classic novels and political books, barely understanding half that he read. He would sink into alcoholic depressions, decrying it all as pointless. Its possible that in his last alcoholic depth, he finally saw himself in a cosmic perspective, and it was too much for him. In his suicide note he wrote 'things just went wrong too many times'.

Later Years

He moved to ATV in 1963 with different writers. Godfrey Harrison was the main writer of these series and had found success first on radio then television with A Life Of Bliss (starring George Cole) but had also scripted Hancock's first ever regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope). Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers assisted including Terry Nation. [1]

Coincidentally, the series clashed in the television schedule with Steptoe and Son written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Comparisons were not flattering.

Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by now alcoholism had dissipated much of his talent. Hancock went to Australia in March 1968 and he committed suicide in Sydney in June.

There is a statue in his honour in Birmingham and a plaque on the wall of the hotel in Bournemouth where he spent some of his early life..

In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, Hancock was voted amongst the top 20 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy insiders.

Personal Life

In 1950, Hancock married model Cicely Romanis, after a brief courtship. It was a turbulent relationship; Cicely was beaten by her husband, but her knowledge of martial arts meant that Hancock came off worst. Alcohol was the ultimate source of the conflict, as his wife developed her own dependency, and Hancock could not handle a woman being drunk.

The situation became more complicated as Freddie Ross (who worked as his publicist from 1954) became more involved in his life, eventually becoming his mistress. This relationship was also to be scarred by Hancock's capacity for violence. He was divorced by his first wife in 1965, and married Freddie in December of that year. This second marriage was to be short-lived. During these years Hancock was also involved with Joan Le Mesurier, the new wife of actor John Le Mesurier, Hancock's best friend and a regular supporting character actor from his television series. Joan was later to describe the relationship in her book "Lady Don't Fall Backwards", including the fact that her husband readily forgave the affair — if it had been anyone else, he said, he wouldn't have understood it; but with Tony Hancock, it made sense [2]. This is a powerful reminder of the huge personal appeal of a man whose life story alone often reads as particularly cold and cynical. In July 1966 Freddie took one overdose too many; she had been trying to shock Hancock in to reforming himself. Arriving in Blackpool to record an edition of his variety series, Hancock was met by pressmen asking about his wife's attempted suicide. His wife, he felt had tried to destroy his career. The final dissolution of the marriage took place a few days ahead of Hancock's suicide.

Hancock's first wife died as a result of her own problems with alcohol in 1969, the year after her former husband. Freddie Hancock has been based in New York City for many years.

Recordings

In the last few years, the BBC has issued CDs of the surviving 74 radio episodes in six box sets, one per series, with the sixth box containing several out-of series specials. This was followed by the release of one large boxed set containing all the others in a special presentation case — while it includes no extra material, the larger box alone (without any CDs) still fetches high prices on online marketplaces like eBay, where Hancock memorabilia remains a thriving industry. There have also been video releases of the BBC TV series, but only two Region 2 DVDs to date, the first "Hancock: The Best of Hancock" featuring five episodes from the last TV series, the second "Hancock's Half Hour: Volume One" containing the surviving episodes of the second and third TV series (none of the first series are known to exist), plus a Christmas special. Presumably if the latter is successful further volumes of remaining episodes will be released.

Episodes of the radio series may be heard on the digital radio station BBC 7 each Tuesday, for instance on-line at 19:00 London time (=GMT during the winter months) at the official BBC7 site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7).

Additional Film Appearances

Biographies

  • Tony Hancock: 'Artiste', A Tony Hancock Companion — (1978) by Roger Wilmut
Contains full details of Hancock's stage, radio, TV and film appearances.
  • When the Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock — (Arrow, 2000) by Cliff Goodwin
An extended, comprehensive biography.
  • Hancock, — (1996) by Freddie Hancock, BBC Consumer Publishing, ISBN: 0563387610

References

[1] Kettering Magazine (http://www.bodnotbod.org.uk/kettering/) Issue #2 p5 — Hancock At ATV


[2] [1] (http://home.btconnect.com/howejam/dadsarmy/books/bio_jlm_lady.htm) Lady Don't Fall Backwards by Joan Le Mesurier (ISIS, 1990, ISBN 185089406X)

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