It is 50 years since the death of the great radio and TV comedian Tony Hancock
He was failing to re-invent his career in Australia and he didn’t see the point in going on.
He wrote: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.”
He was only 44.
Hancock was not always miserable though he always looked it.
To remember him for his death is to forget a career as one of the most popular comedians of all time.
At his height he was the champ of comedy, featured on the cover of Radio Times an amazing seven times.
His show, Hancock’s Half Hour, had such huge viewing figures the streets were deserted.
His greatest gift was to be able to register frustration – “Stone me! What a life!” – irritation, pomposity and outrage.
His hangdog face beneath his hat looked exactly as you’d expect on hearing the show’s lugubrious tuba theme tune.
His whole act was that of a man incompatible with success.
Most of his comedy involved life giving him “a punch in the bracket” as he went from one episode to the next, trying to stave off his boredom.
Two writers will always be associated with Hancock – Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were then in their 20s.
They were working on a 1950s TV series called Happy Go Lucky when they got chatting after the show to Hancock, who had a part in one of the sketches.
Hancock said: “Did you write that?” The boys said yes. Hancock replied with two words: “Very funny.”
Tony Hancock in trademark downbeat pose, top, and bedding down with Sid James in Railway Cuttings
So was born possibly the greatest radio sitcom ever devised – Hancock’s Half Hour.
The BBC ran it for 103 episodes between 1954 and 1959 and another 60 in tandem on television from 1956.
The nation lapped up Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, a down-at-heel comic who thinks he was made for better things.
The series turned him into a national mascot.
There’s a story that an immigration official quizzed a returning tourist who had forgotten his passport, “Where do you live?” “Cheam,” said the man.
“What does the name Hancock mean to you?” “Ah, well, Hancock, you see, lives in East Cheam,” explained the man.
The officer waved him through.
Only someone British would be able to supply Hancock’s full address plus house number – 23 Railway Cuttings.
With scripts of superb quality Hancock was bottled bliss.
“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past 10… is this all to be forgotten?” he railed fabulousl
With scripts of superb quality Hancock was bottled bliss
Hancock was part of the comic furniture of most homes.
He was an astute commentator on the fuzzy, black and white medium he inhabited.
In one sketch he watches in a launderette his washing going round.
He peeks at his neighbour’s machine and says, “I’m not interested in your washing, I just thought you were getting a picture on yours, that’s all.”
It’s perhaps surprising to find that Tony Hancock was a middleclass public school boy, originally from Birmingham.
When the family moved to run a hotel in Bournemouth he was sent to prep school (the same one attended by David Croft, the Dad’s Army writer who later based Captain Mainwaring on the patriotic headmaster) and then to Bradfield – a school he would recall on radio as Greystones: “Seven of the happiest years of my life. I started off as a fag and worked my way up to head cigar.”
After a stint in the RAF, he battled his way to the top among a regiment of other demobbed and hopeful comedians all trying to make it in a drab post-war Britain hungry for laughter.
Seven years after appearing as a support actor in Educating Archie (the famous ventriloquist show) Hancock received that coveted slot on BBC radio, scripted by Galton and Simpson.
Hancock was a delightful and loveable, rather eccentric man – but a really vicious drunk
The persona that the boys created for the comic was of a small-time dreamer.
Hancock craved to be a man of “calibre” – a politician, poet or a man of substance but never made it in a world that didn’t quite share his own high estimation of himself.
In the radio show Sid James played his roguish friend Sid, who would normally put one over on Hancock before the 30 minutes was up.
Bill Kerr was the thick Australian lodger.
Moira Lister and then Andrée Melly provided some love interest while later series boasted Hattie Jacques as the secretary and thespian Griselda Pugh.
Also prominent was the West End star Kenneth Williams, playing a variety of characters including Snide, the nosy neighbour: “Oooh, don’t be like that?” and “Oooh, you’ve got a telly.”
But Hancock was not easy. First he got rid of Williams because he thought the funny voices lowered the standard of the show.
Bill Kerr was also dispensed with.
Then he sacked his agent and in 1961 even Galton and Simpson who went on to write Steptoe And Son.
Sid James was devastated when Tony felt that they were becoming too much of a double act and gave him the shove too.
So many comedians owe Hancock a debt
James was dropped for the last TV series in 1961 – retitled simply Hancock – although classic episodes such as The Blood Donor (“A pint? Have you gone raving mad?”) demonstrated that Tony didn’t need anybody else.
Except he did.
Sid, it is generally thought, made the screen Hancock a nicer person, cutting him down to size.
As far as his love life was concerned, it was a mess.
Hancock spent years flitting between Freda (Freddie) Ross, a theatrical agent, and his first wife Cicely, a Lanvin model.
He also had an affair with actor John Le Mesurier’s wife Joan.
Goodness knows how any of them put up with him.
They would, at one time, all bash him over the head with the flowers he apologetically bought them the morning after.
Hancock was a delightful and loveable, rather eccentric man – but a really vicious drunk.
He was an astute commentator on the fuzzy, black and white medium he inhabited
He hit any woman who came between him and his bottle.
Some say his habit of chronic introspection – seen to devastating effect on John Freeman’s Face To Face TV interview – left him reliant on the booze.
So many comedians owe Hancock a debt.
Basil Fawlty with all his frustrations; David Brent and Alan Partridge with their provincial delusions; even, it has been claimed, Dougall the dog from the Magic Roundabout, who when angry sounds just like him.
Not forgetting Reggie Perrin who, like Hancock, purveyed an exquisite comedy of despair in the commuter belt.
Did Hancock have a hero?
Yes, it was Birmingham’s home comic, Sid “what a performance!” Field, now largely forgotten.
Sid died young in 1950.
As one commentator wrote, “alcoholism and self-doubt were his pallbearers”.
You could say just the same for Tony Hancock.
But his death doesn’t overshadow his work which, so gorgeously funny, so true to life, echoes on down the decades.