Sid’s made the acquaintance of the Count (Valentine Dyall), an art connoisseur who has commissioned him to “acquire” certain works of art. The latest acquisition will be made from the Tate Galley (Sid: “It’s not where Harry Tate used to live?”) albiet without their permission. Athough Sid is successful, he only just manages to escape the clutches of the police.
Where to hide the stolen Rembrandt? Because it’s been cut out of the frame it’s easy to tuck away somewhere, so he chooses a junk shop in Chelsea. Mixed in with all the other bric-a-brac it should be quite safe, shouldn’t it? However, this shop is a stones throw away from a small garret where Tony Hancock is eking out a miserable existence as a struggling artist. Somehow I think these two plotlines will be connected …..
What’s interesting about the start of The Artist is how long the set-up with Sid and the stolen painting goes on for. This means that we’re well into the episode before Tony makes his first appearance, although it’s worth waiting for. This is classic Hancock – the misunderstood genius, baffled as to why the world isn’t beating a path to his door.
Galton & Simpson would re-use the theme of Hancock as artist several times (most notably on the big screen in The Rebel). It’s done wonderfully here and there are so many lines you can just imagine tripping off Tony’s tongue. Here, he’s modestly reviewing his labours. “I mean it’s good stuff. You can’t grumble at that lot for an hour’s work. The public aren’t ready for me, that’s the trouble. I’m ten years ahead of me time.”
He then goes on to marvel at one of his own works (a picture of a matchstick man sitting on a horse). “The Saint on horseback. And what about that horse? Albert Munnings had to look twice when he saw it. Shook him rigid it did.” A great example of Hancock’s self delusion.
Continuity never really featured in HHH. Last week Tony was a big television star, this week he’s a starving artist, next week he’ll be something else. It’s slightly strange, but the fact that the reset button is hit every week doesn’t really matter.
His new model turns up – played by Irene Handl. One can only imagine how she would have looked after she’d changed into what the script called a 1930’s style bathing suit. It’s quite a thought though.
Popping out for some new canvases, he’s persuaded to buy some used ones from the local junk shop. It’s not ideal, but since it’s cheaper to paint over existing paintings, for the cash-strapped Tony it makes sense. Of course one of the canvases is the stolen Rembrandt but neither Tony or the shop owner realise this. Tony, art philistine that he is, views it with disdain. “Rubbish. Look at it, no idea. These amateurs, I wish they’d leave it alone. This sort of thing turns the public right off art … then they don’t appreciate blokes like me. It’ll be a pleasure to paint over this.”
When Sid and the Count learn that Tony has acquired the Rembrandt they need to get it back – but since Tony’s now painted over it, they have no idea which of Tony’s terrible efforts it’s hidden behind. This is another lovely scene, with G&S once again skewering the pretensions of the art world. The Count desperately tries to pretend that Tony’s daubs have some merit, asking him politely if one of his pictures was painted with yellow ochre and royal blue. Tony replies that no, it was Chlorophyl toothpaste (“I’m always picking up the wrong tube”).
Even better is the gag about his painting entitled cow in a field. Tony explains why it’s somewhat impressionistic. “I only had one sitting. And that was a fleeting glimpse, I was on a train.” This is simply glorious material.
The Count decides that buying all the pictures would be suspicious, so he buys one, takes it home to see if it’s the Rembrandt and when it isn’t he’s forced to return and buy another. This happens again and again, until he’s purchased twenty three of Tony’s paintings ….
Because the Count is a noted figure in the art world, everyone has now sat up and taken notice of Tony. If the Count has bought so many of his pictures, Tony must be a genius. So the establishment goes crazy for Tony and he quickly becomes one of the most famous (and richest) artists in the country. It’s another delightful dig at the nature of art and art criticism, topped by the final gag which shows the stolen Rembrandt – still with Tony’s awful painting on top – back in the same place in the Tate where the Rembrandt had originally been.
So for once Tony ends up on top, although I’ve a feeling next week it’ll all be forgotten. It’s a great pity this one doesn’t exist as it reads so well straight off the page. I’m sure Irene Handl would have been an absolute treat as would Valentine Dyall (the Man in Black). It’s yet more evidence that the television incarnation of HHH hit the ground running.