by Allan Fish
(UK 1956-1961 1,650m & 150m) DVD2
A man of his cal-eye-ber
p/d Duncan Wood w Ray Galton, Alan Simpson m Wally Stott, Bob Sharples
Tony Hancock (Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock), Sid James (Sidney Balmoral James), Hugh Lloyd, Patrick Cargill, June Whitfield, Dick Emery, John le Mesurier, Richard Wattis, Kenneth Williams, Liz Fraser, George Coulouris, Clive Owen, Patricia Hayes, Hugh Lloyd, Hattie Jacques, Bill Fraser, Raymond Huntley, Pat Coombs, Frank Thornton,
Philip Purser once said of Tony Hancock that his appearance was “of a frog nearly, but not quite, transformed into a handsome prince by the kiss of a sub-standard princess.” Of the hundreds of pages devoted to the life, work and persona of Britain’s most beloved radio and TV comedian of the postwar decades, I can think of no more succinct and accurate description than that. Hancock was a genius, a comedy giant whose finest hours were probably on the radio, but who managed, in six glorious years, to give us at least a dozen of the finest half hour comedy episodes caught on camera on either side of the pond. Like his American contemporaries, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason, he was an egotist, and his ego would be his downfall. In 1960 he removed his co-star Sid James, as Will Hay had once done Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt, and got one more classic series, Hancock, before finally he succumbed. He could no longer remember the lines now, was reduced to reading from cue cards, drank heavily and his personal insecurities took him over. Seven years after the final Hancock went out, he was found dead in an Australian hotel. The eternal comic who made his own countrymen laugh but couldn’t do the same for himself.
Hancock’s Half Hour lasted until 1960, and starred Hancock as himself, pitted against the inimitable Sid James – again playing himself – sharing a house, 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, like Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise did before and after. James played the wide boy, the con artist, forever trying to con Hancock out of not only any money he had going but self-respect. Each episode was self-contained, each had the two playing effectively different parts, but each one was a comic gem. The one series of Hancock that followed, despite missing James, was a gem in itself, including the legendary ‘The Blood Donor’, but marvellous though that is in parts, it doesn’t really approach the genius of the earlier episodes. Hancock was forever afraid of having his thunder stolen, but his rapport with James is amongst the greatest in screen comedy. James, with what Leslie Halliwell accurately described as the “dirtiest laugh in the whole wide world” and Hancock, with his lugubrious, misanthropic, melancholic, hypochondriac persona, were a team made in heaven. There are times when they don’t quite go to cue, and they adlibbed, other times when Hancock is clearly close to cracking up, but it’s this near live effect that makes it seem all the more legendary now.
How to begin to describe the genius of Galton and Simpson’s scripts (they were finally let go by Hancock, who went downhill while they wrote Steptoe and Son and the rest, as they say, is history). How to describe episodes such as ‘The Radio Ham’, or ‘The Cold’, ‘The Emigrant’, ‘Ericson the Viking’, in which he appears in a low budget version of the Viking invasion with several men standing in for the Viking Hordes, or ‘The Missing Page’, in which he tries to figure out who committed a murder in a mystery whose last page has been torn out. Think of his returning to a Swiss hotel after an accident – “I wish to report a new tree on slope 604 – carnivorous, I fancy” – or coming into wealth and refusing to pander to charity (“I’ll get too many begging letters. If they’re anything like the ones I send out, I don’t want to know”). In his thick black astrakhan overcoat and inimitable hat, he’s an image for immortality. My favourite moment? His mime of a dark thriller to James in a library – black hat, rope and all. Favourite line? “Did Rembrandt look like a musician? Of course she didn’t.” A giant, sir. A giant.