If I had to choose a single episode of Hancock’s Half Hour which embodied the spirit of the series, then The Missing Page would be at the top of the list. Tony was often portrayed as a frustrated intellectual – and this self-delusion is touched upon here. He claims that he only reads trashy pulp novels in-between tackling heavyweight fare such as Bertrand Russell. It’s possible to doubt this statement, although Galton & Simpson later develop the theme in The Bedsitter, where we do see him tackle a bit of Bert (albeit not terribly successfully).
Tony’s frustrated with the books on offer at the local library. He tells the librarian (played with long-suffering irritation by a HHH regular, Hugh Lloyd) that he’s checked out everything they have (“I’ve read Biggles Flies East twenty seven times!”). This isn’t quite the case though, as there’s one book – Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sarto – that’s passed him by.
G&S preface his retrieval of the book (it’s out of reach on the top shelf) with a nice literary joke. Tony asks the librarian for a number of heavyweight intellectual books and the librarian – clearly impressed – hurries off to find them. It’s a little contrived that all these obscure books are on the same shelf, but let’s not quibble about that. Tony’s delighted and uses them as a footstool to retrieve Lady Don’t Fall Backwards!
The sudden arrival of Sid stuns Tony (“you’ve never read a book in your life. You’ve run one, but you’ve never read one”). This leads into my favourite scene in the episode, indeed one of my all-time favourite Hancock moments. We’re in the era where it was considered bad form to speak in the library, so more HHH regulars (Alec Bregonzi, Johnny Vyvyan) take turns to shush him. This is a bit of a problem, as Tony’s keen to tell Sid about another exciting book he’s recently read, so he decides to act it out as a mime.
By the end, both Sid and Peggy Ann Clifford (yet another HHH regular) can’t hide the smiles on their faces. Was this as scripted or simply a spontaneous reaction? I’d assume the latter, as it’s such a joyous couple of minutes.
Although G&S have never been regarded as intellectual writers, they continue to slip in some sly literary gags, one such concerns the formulaic nature of crime fiction. Tony’s entranced by the book (“good? This is red hot, this is, mate. Hate to think of a book like this getting in the wrong hands. Soon as I’ve finished this I shall recommend they ban it”) and can’t wait to find out who the murderer is, although he reacts with scorn when Sid suggests he simply turns to the final page.
This exchange roots the book firmly in the golden age of detective fiction, a period when crime novels were an intellectual puzzle with everything neatly wrapped up in the final few sentences. Tony’s also very taken with the book’s hero, Johnny Oxford, telling Sid that from now on he’s switching his allegiance from the Saint to Johnny. Despite his name, Johnny’s not an English detective, he’s a hard-bitten American PI. The later revelation that the author, Darcy Sarto, was a British writer seems to be another gag – inferring that the ridiculous and artificial nature of the story (with suspects dropping dead at regular intervals) can be taken even less seriously when it’s learnt that the author had possibly never even been to America. Was he maybe modelled on James Hadley Chase, a British-born writer who adopted American themes very sucessfully?
Tony shares several nuggets of information about the twisty plot with us. One of the funniest is the revelation that a trail of footprints in the snow from two left shoes was an error on the part of the murderer (he’d put on a pair of shoes to lay a false trail, but hadn’t realised they were both left ones). This disappoints Tony. “I was waiting for a pair of one-legged twins to turn up.”
As the title suggests, the final page in the book is missing. Tony’s distraught – he really, really needs to know the identity of the murderer. He decides to turn detective himself and re-examines all the suspects (as does Sid). Neither are successful, so they attempt to find the man who had the book out before them. They finally track him down (a nice turn by George Coulouris) but he’s no help. The page was missing when he had the book and he’s spent the last six years in agony, not knowing either!
The mystery is solved in the British Museum, but it doesn’t cheer Tony up. It’s a nice punchline though and brings to an end another excellent episode of HHH.