Rebel with a failed cause ... Tony Hancock ...Remembering a forgotten and tragic comedian ...
Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, England, (some sources incorrectly say Small Heath, a different Birmingham district) but from the age of three was brought up in Bournemouth, where his father, John Hancock, who ran the Railway Hotel in Holdenhurst Road, worked as a comedian and entertainer.
After his father's death in 1934, Hancock and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel then called The Durlston Court (now renamed Hotel Celebrity). He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage (moved during World War II and now located in Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire) and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, but left school at the age of fifteen.
In 1942, during World War II, Hancock joined the RAF Regiment. Following a failed audition for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), he ended up on The Ralph Reader Gang Show. After the war, he returned to the stage and eventually worked as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, a venue which helped to launch the careers of many comedians at the time, and worked on radio shows such as Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox.
Over 1951–52, for one series, Hancock was a cast member of Educating Archie, in which he mainly played the tutor (or foil) to the nominal star, a ventriloquist's dummy. His appearance in this show brought him national recognition, and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show, "Flippin' kids!", became popular parlance. The same year, he made regular appearances on BBC Television's popular light entertainment show Kaleidoscope. In 1954, he was given his own eponymous BBC radio show, Hancock's Half Hour.
Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour lasted for seven years (including television) and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and from 1956 ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name. The show starred Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock living in the shabby "23 Railway Cuttings" in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. Some episodes, however, changed this to show him as being a successful actor and/or comedian, or occasionally as having a different career completely such as a struggling (and incompetent) barrister. Radio episodes were also prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.
Sidney James featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also included regulars Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister, Andrée Melly and Hattie Jacques. The series rejected the variety format then dominant in British radio comedy and instead used a form drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humour coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Owing to a contractual wrangle with producer Jack Hylton, Hancock had an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran in 1956 and 1957 either side of the first BBC television series.
During the run of his BBC radio and television series, Hancock became an enormous star in Britain. 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 key facets of 'the lad himself' were evident. "Sunday Afternoon at Home" and "The Wild Man of the Woods" were top-rating shows and were later released as an LP.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sidney James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between them. James' character was the realist of the two, puncturing Hancock's pretensions. His character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock's apparent gullibility during the radio series, but in the television version there appeared to be a more genuine friendship between them.
Hancock became anxious that his work with James was turning them into a double act and the last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without James. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, 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 instalment is The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking its position. Both of these programmes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available ever since.
Returning home with his wife from recording the "Bowmans" episode, featuring a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, despite going through the car windscreen, but he did suffer concussion and he was unable to learn his lines for "The Blood Donor", the next show to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script). Viewers of the programme may notice that he is not always looking at the other actors, but in another direction entirely. Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.
Up until the Hancock series, every British television comedy show had been performed live. Hancock's highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that, starting from 1959 Hancocks Half Hour, the programmes were recorded before transmission.
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 difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, "It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. ...Self-analysis - that was his killer."
The usual argument is that Hancock’s mixture of egotism and self-doubt led to a spiral of self-destructiveness. Cited as evidence is his gradual ostracism of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Sidney James, and finally his scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson. His reasoning was that to refine his craft, he had to ditch his catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well known oily catchphrase 'Good evening'. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, they knew it was just Williams doing a funny voice.
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. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, and admired Michael Foot above any other politician.
The break with Galton and SimpsonHancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel, where he played the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain the film was not well received in the United States: owing to the existence of a contemporary television series of the same name, the film had to be renamed, and the new title, Call Me Genius, inflamed American critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock "even less comical" than Norman Wisdom.
His break with Galton and Simpson took place at a meeting held in October 1961, where he also broke with his long-term agent Beryl Vertue. During the previous six months the writers had developed without payment three scripts for Hancock's second starring film vehicle in consultation with the comedian. Worried that the projects were wrong for him, the first two had been abandoned incomplete; the third was written to completion at the writers' insistence, only for Hancock to reject it. Hancock is thought not to have read any of the screenplays. The result of the break was that Hancock chose to separately develop something previously discussed and the writers were ultimately commissioned to write a Comedy Playhouse series for the BBC, one of which, "The Offer", emerged as the pilot for Steptoe and Son, played by two straight actors, Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett; it was later to become the basis for the hit U.S. television series Sanford and Son which starred Redd Foxx. To write that "something previously discussed", which became The Punch and Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.
In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock played a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; after Billie Whitelaw withdrew, Sylvia Syms played his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier a sand sculptor. The depth to which the character played by Hancock had merged with that of the actor is clear in the film. When Hancock first read the script, he looked at Phillip Oakes, and his only comment was "You bastard..." Hancock knew that the film was going to be about him, and the film owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth.
Later yearsHe moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, did not value their work, and the two men severed their professional relationship. The principal writer of Hancock's ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio and television series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock's first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers assisted, including Terry Nation.
Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with the second series of Steptoe and Son written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favour Hancock's series. Around 1965 Hancock made a series of 11 TV adverts for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the adverts with Patricia Hayes as Mrs Cravatte in an attempt to revive the Galton and Simpson style of scripts.
Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by then alcoholism had affected his performances. After hosting two unsuccessful variety series for ABC Television, The Blackpool Show and Hancock's, he was contracted to make a 13-part series called Hancock Down Under for the Seven Network of Australian television. This was to be his first and only television series filmed in colour; however, after arriving in Australia in March 1968 he only completed three programmes.
Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney, on 24 June 1968. He was found dead in his Bellevue Hill apartment with an empty vodka bottle by his right hand and amphetamines by his left.
In one of his suicide notes he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to the UK in an Air France hold-all by satirist Willie Rushton and in reference to his fame and knowing love of cricket, his ashes travelled back in the first class cabin.
Spike Milligan commented in 1989: "Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he's got rid of everybody else, he's going to get rid of himself and he did."
DVD Review: Tony Hancock Movie Collection The Rebel (1961) The Punch And Judy Man (1963) Growing up, Tony Hancock was just a name to me - he died before I was born and his TV shows from the 60s were rarely seen on TV. In fact, my first encounter with his work was through an afternoon TV showing of one of his films, The Rebel, which has been reissued on DVD along with Hancock's other movie appearance - The Punch And Judy Man - as The Tony Hancock Collection. And the set is well worth picking up. The main reason for purchasing this DVD set is definitely The Rebel from 1961. Written by Galton and Simpson (his TV writing team and later, the people behind Steptoe and Son), it's a satire on both the art world and the emerging beatniks. Hancock plays Anthony Hancock, a middle-aged man stuck in a dead-end office job, but with aspirations to make his mark in the art world. After being disciplined at work for excessive doodling and getting an ultimatum about his art clutter off the landlady (played by Irene Handl), he decides to pack up his easel and head to Paris for the sake of his art.
Arriving in Paris, he meets Paul, a talented artist who offers Anthony a room and a place to work. By a stroke of luck, Anthony's infantile paintings grab the attention of the beatnik community and hip Parisian society - forcing his more talented roommate to give up, ditch his work and head back to London. When an art agent calls round, he spots Paul's work as genius. Anthony is then faced with the dilemma of living a lie behind Paul's work or coming clean over ownership. The film is a gem - a great plot, sharp script, well-acted and a top-notch supporting cast - look closely and you'll spot Oliver Reed, Nanette Newman, Jean Marsh and cult favourite Sandor Eles in bit parts as artists and beatniks. But above all, it's the ideal vehicle for Hancock to ham it up. This movie is worth the price of this set alone. Which is just as well, because The Punch And Judy Man, whilst not being a bad film, has nowhere near the same impact. This film was co-written by Hancock himself and although it was made two years later than The Rebel (in 1963), seems to be from at least 10 years previous. Hancock this time plays Wally Pinner, the local punch and judy man in the mythical seaside town of Piltdown. While he's happy on the seafront doing his show and antagonising the mayor and his cronies, his wife is keen to social climb - offering Wally's services for the Mayor's gala evening against his will, setitng up the film's climax. It's a pleasant-enough film, slow-paced, at times sentimental, sometimes very funny - but overall, the story doesn't really last the pace, the characters lack depth and the finale is a bit of a mess. But it's still the kind of film you'd probably enjoy watching on a rainy Sunday afternoon. You can pick this set up for around £12, so even if you treat the second film like an extra, you're still getting value for money here. For me, The Rebel is a must-own for fans of 60s British cinema, throw in another Hancock movie and a fine DVD commentary from Galton and Simpson (with Paul Merton) and it's worth every penny. by Cinedelica
Tony Hancock, By John Fisher
Reviewed by William Cook in The Independent
Friday, 12 December 2008 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.
The lad himself Simon Callow welcomes a fellow devotee's account of his own boyhood hero
Simon Callow The Guardian, Saturday 27 December 2008 Article history John Fisher gives a touching picture of himself as a seven-year-old boy in the Gaumont Southampton, glimpsing Tony Hancock - then an up-and-coming radio star - hurling himself about the stage with hilarious precision; thereafter, he followed him through his brief but momentous career, and was numbed by the news of his lonely, early death. But when the first book about Hancock appeared - a lurid account by his second wife, the publicist Freddie Ross - Fisher was utterly shocked by the unlovely details of his hero's decline.
Something of this innocence betrayed haunts the present book. Fisher, a comedy producer for television as well as a biographer, charts the comedian's rapid rise with jaunty brio, vividly recounting plots, analysing gestures and turns of phrase. But you sense that he is dreading the inevitable appearance of the snake in comedy's garden of Eden. When it all starts to go wrong for Hancock, Fisher gallantly finds a redeeming moment here, a nicely timed gag there, but he gazes on helpless as the man he refers to again and again as "the lad himself" slips deeper into the morass of alcohol and self-laceration. The final days are almost unbearable to read about because the author is so upset himself, as if Hancock were a personal friend bent on a course of doom. In truth, Fisher is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to offer an explanation for it. He seems oddly uninterested in certain critical moments in his subject's life. We know nothing, for example, of Hancock's amorous inclinations as a young man; suddenly, he's married. Later we hear a great deal about his alcoholic benders with his wife, Cicely, but we have very little sense of what they meant to each other when young. Even odder, Fisher announces almost en passant that when Hancock was at the early height of his radio fame with Hancock's Half Hour, he suddenly decamped to Paris, to be replaced for a couple of episodes by Harry Secombe. Fisher offers a cursory explanation, but the enormity of the gesture - the career-breaking recklessness of it - goes virtually undiscussed. In fact, Fisher is not really interested in analysis of character: it is the work that matters to him, the how and the what rather than the why. He gives us a thorough account of Hancock's early life in Bournemouth, where his parents, who were intermittently in show business, bought a hotel where Hancock helped out. His father died; he was sent to public school and walked out at the age of 14, then tried to follow in his father's footsteps as a comedian and failed at the first hurdle; he attempted a succession of hopeless jobs; then his first faltering successful steps on stage. The breaks and the disasters are duly recorded against the background of a vivid account of the variety theatre of the day. Eventually, after a dreary war as a clerk in the RAF, Hancock was discovered, like so many others, by Ralph Reader of the Gang Show and, equally inevitably, found his way to the Windmill Theatre, where he learned "to die gracefully, like a swan". His confidence was growing; people began to sense that he had something special. He got into radio as a running character in Peter Brough's Educating Archie. His catchphrase "Isn't it sickening?" was on everyone's lips, soon followed by "Flippin' kids!"; an innocent age indeed. The crucial event in his life as a star was when he met the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who uncannily channelled the essence of the man Hancock into the character Hancock - boastful, aspirational, intolerant, out of place almost everywhere he finds himself, but none the less possessed of a certain grandeur. This character is surely one of the great inventions of 20th century comedy, the love-child of two writers and the actor they served. Just as surely as Archie Rice or Jimmy Porter, Hancock (as created by Galton and Simpson) expressed the age - the post-war accidie, the sense of vanished dreams, of alienation and angst, the rage against conformist greyness - but through the rumpled and familiar form of the man the writers in an inspired moment christened Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock. (In one of a million astonishing details in the book, Fisher reveals that Hancock was seriously courted to play Jimmy Porter in the film of Look Back in Anger). As a boy I was besotted with Hancock, especially after his transition to TV, for which medium his infinitely expressive, melted-down features seemed made. Indeed, I identified with him, recognising in him a middle-aged child not so very unlike the middle-aged child I felt myself to be. There is so often a child at the heart of great comic creation, and Hancock was gorgeously, outrageously infantile. The part was bespoke: the scripts follow the contours of Hancock's natural melody so perfectly that to read them on the page is to hear them. Fisher is exceptionally good on the interpenetration of character and man, and shrewdly observes that it was this that began to gnaw at Hancock. There were times, Fisher says, "when he felt cheated of his real identity". He began to feel that the character was merely him, and that therefore he wasn't proving himself. He started to think of himself as an artist, which, of course, he was, but a deeply instinctive one - he never read the radio scripts until the morning of the transmission, giving flawlessly timed and inhabited impromptu performances. The blitheness of radio - where scripts don't have to be learned and the actors have an easy camaraderie across the microphones - left him blissfully unselfconscious. Television, where everything had to happen for real, started the process of endless self-analysis which, his brother noted, killed him. He was invited to appear on the notorious Face to Face series in which the invisible John Freeman, shrouded in shadow, interrogated him as the camera dwelt on his face. It was a form of public confession (without absolution)which did him irreparable damage, tipping him over into a sort of anguished contemplation of his own limitations and an obsessive determination to innovate. He yearned to be an international figure, like Chaplin or Buster Keaton. This meant the dismantlement of Hancock as we knew him, the departure from East Cheam, the abandonment of his co-stars (Sid James the first to go) and, catastrophically, the dismissal of his writers. From then on - despite occasional successes such as his film The Rebel - it was a slow and increasingly excruciating professional suicide. His consumption of alcohol while on the job, which had begun when he was playing in variety theatres, began to destroy his talent: he could no longer remember lines and, most poignantly, that uniquely expressive mug became as rigid as Mount Rushmore. In life, he and his wives and mistresses plunged headlong into a sea of booze; at one point he chained himself to the railings of Primrose Hill. Often things turned violent. One wife happened to be a judo expert, so he rarely inflicted any damage on her; the other protected herself by serially (and with diminishing impact) attempting to kill herself. In Australia to shoot a TV series, he gave a dazzling read-through of the first episode, then retired to his dressing room to tank himself up on vodka and pills, and after that "he didn't know who or what he was". Finally, he did sober up, but one day he went down to get something from his neighbour, only to find him out. That sudden reminder of his aloneness was enough, it seems, to have tipped him over the edge. "Things seem to have gone wrong just too many times," he wrote, and then administered a lethal dose of the vodka and pills that had been his constant companions for so many years. The roots of this epic loneliness are hard to deduce from Fisher's pages. In them you will find a brilliant and much-needed account of Hancock's extensive theatre work and its originality, a celebration of the audacity of the television work, with its formal originality and its constantly Pirandellian playing with the frame, and a kind of voyage round the comedian's mind and the nature of his comic enterprise. But he fails to probe his crucial relationships, especially with his mother, Lily, to whom he was immensely close. She supported him financially in his early years in the business; she was the go-between when his marriages broke down; she was the last person in his mind when he killed himself. A year before, when she had come to stay with him, he had walked into her bedroom to tell her that he had just drunk a bottle of brandy in five minutes, and passed out. What was that all about? Fisher lets slip the astonishing fact that, two weeks after her son finally did for himself, Lily took a pleasure cruise to Turkey. There's something horribly complex in that relationship which remains for future Hancock biographers to probe. Meanwhile, Fisher has written an indispensable book about the man he rightly calls "the most expansively idiosyncratic of recent British comic heroes".