Hancock (BBC 1961)

L-R - Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock, Ray Galton
L-R – Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock, Ray Galton

Introduction

Hancock, broadcast on the BBC between May and June 1961, was Tony Hancock’s last series for the BBC and was also the last one written for him by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

From 1954 onwards, Hancock had enjoyed great success with Galton & Simpson’s scripts, both on radio and on television.  There had been six series of Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio – between 1954 and 1959 – as well as six television series, which ran from 1956 – 1960.

But by 1961 Hancock was restless and wanted changes.  Sid James had been present in virtually every television and radio episode, but he was dropped from Hancock, at Tony’s request.  And when this series had finished Tony Hancock dispensed with Galton & Simpson as well.  For many people this marked the start of the long downward spiral in Hancock’s personal and professional life which ended with his suicide in Australia in 1968, at the age of 44.

Among those who insisted that the ties Hancock severed led directly to his untimely death was Spike Milligan, who said: “One by one he shut the door on all the people he knew; then he shut the door on himself.”

Harsh criticism of Tony Hancock can be found in the following cartoon from Private Eye in June 1962, drawn by Willie Rushton.

private eye june 62

But whatever happened after Tony Hancock left the BBC in 1961, between 1954 and 1961 he, along with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, created some of the finest episodes of situation comedy ever seen in any country.  And their final series, thanks in part to Tony’s insistence on changing the character slightly, ensured that they ended their creative partnership on a high.

Hancock (Broadcast on BBC Television between 26th May – 30th June 1961)

Galton & Simpson like to tell the story that Hancock asked them to write an episode where he was the only character seen.  They thought it wouldn’t work and decided to write something to prove to Tony that it was impossible.  The result was The Bedsitter and it proved to be an excellent showcase for Hancock and one of the best things that G&S ever wrote.

When G&S started to write for Tony, they tended to craft elaborate plots which usually hinged on Sid trying to con Tony into doing something.  Over the years they pared down the storylines so they became less fantastic and more mundane.

The most mundane episode of the radio series has to be Sunday Afternoon At Home.  This isn’t a criticism – it’s a beautifully judged picture of a typical Sunday afternoon where there’s nothing to do except kill time.  In that episode though, Hancock had Sid James, Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams to spar with, but in The Bedsitter there’s nobody but himself.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Nothing much happens – Tony attempts to read some Bertrand Russell, loses interest and then attempts the more hard-boiled charms of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards.  But even that proves to be a problem, as he concedes:  “It’s a waste of time me reading, I can never remember anything. I’ve got too much on my mind, you see, nuclear warfare, the future of mankind, China, Spurs.”

Later on, a misdirected call offers the chance of a date, but in the end it comes to nothing.  Hancock though maintains a brave face: “That was a lucky escape! I nearly got sucked into a social whirlpool there, diverted from my lofty ideals into a life of debauchery! The flesh-pots of West London have been cheated of another victim! Eve has proffered the apple and Adam has slung it straight back at her!”

One of the strange things about the G&S series is that unlike most sitcoms there was never any attempt to maintain even a basic level of continuity.  Hancock’s status would change week by week – one week he could be penniless and unknown and the next – as we see in The Bowmans – he may be the popular star of a top-rated radio series.

“Hello me old pal, me old beauty.”

A none too subtle swipe at a popular rural radio soap opera,The Bowmans certainly gives Hancock full reign to unleash his country accent, which is great fun.  It’s also a rarity in that we see Hancock finish on top for once.  His character is killed off from the soap, but public opinion forces the producers to bring him back as his own twin brother and then he takes great delight in ensuring the majority of the villagers fall to their deaths down a disused mine shaft!

The Radio Ham is not quite a solo performance likeThe Bedsitter, although Hancock does spend the majority of the episode alone in a room by himself.  He does have company though, via the ham radio he’s built.  Substitute the internet for the radio and it seems right up to date.

Re-recorded for LP release in 1961, The Radio Ham has quite rightly become one of the classics of British sitcom.  Comedy rarely gets better than this, with so many quotable lines.

The Lift is an episode that it’s possible to imagine in any series of HHH.  Like The Train Journey from series 5 it has a similar premise – take a group of disparate characters who are trapped together (in a train or a stuck lift) with Hancock at his most annoying and wait to see what happens.

Noel Howlett, Jack Watling, Hugh Lloyd, John Le Mesurier and Colin Gordon are among the unlucky people who have to share a lift with Tony.  It’s not an episode that innovates, like The Bedsitter, but it does what it does very well.  And it’s helped no end by the fine performers stuck in the lift with Hancock.

Doctor: I'm a doctor. Hancock: Yes, we all know you're a doctor. You've been talking about nothing else since we've been here. I don't understand you. I don't go around telling people what I am all the time. Doctor: I think we've all reached an opinion as to what you are.
Doctor: I’m a doctor.
Hancock: Yes, we all know you’re a doctor. You’ve been talking about nothing else since we’ve been here. I don’t understand you. I don’t go around telling people what I am all the time.
Doctor: I think we’ve all reached an opinion as to what you are.

Along with The Radio Ham, The Blood Donor is probably the most famous Hancock episode (helped by the excellent LP re-recording previously mentioned).  With this one though, I do prefer the LP version – due to the circumstances of the television taping.

“To do one unselfish act with no thought of profit or gain is the duty of every human being. Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be I thought? Become a Blood Donor or join the Young Conservatives? But as I’m not looking for a wife and I can’t play table tennis here I am.”

In the week prior to the tv episode recording, Hancock was involved in a car crash.  He wasn’t badly hurt – although more make-up than usual can be seen on his face to hide the superficial scars – but he didn’t have time to learn his lines, so he read them off boards held above the camera.

Once you know this, then it’s impossible not to be distracted by the fact that he obviously never looks at anyone else in the scene as he’s always looking to the side and his next line.  There is the odd stumble, but overall his performance is brilliant – considering that when he speaks any line he’s just seen it for first time and he has to instantly decide on pacing and inflection.

“A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!”

However you experience it, it’s a classic. So many quotable lines and a collection of first rate performers for Hancock to bounce off (June Whitfield, Patrick Cargill, Frank Thornton, Hugh Lloyd).

If you view Hancock as an album, then the first five episodes are hit singles whilst the last, The Succession – Son and Heir, is resolutely an album track.

It’s not a bad episode, but compared to the other five it’s not quite in the same class.  The premise is bright enough though, Tony decides the time has come to perpetuate the line and produce a heir, so a bride is sought.  But thanks to his luck with the opposite sex in the end he decides to stay single.

There’s still plenty of quotable moments though, particularly when Tony’s thumbing through his little black book for suitable partners: “Elsie Biggs: 42-36- ….. oh no, that’s her phone number. Still, I don’t fancy her pounding about the house all day long. She’s a bit too hefty for me. She had me over a few times.”

Conclusion

Classic comedy that nobody should be without.  There’s a boxset containing all the surviving BBC TV episodes or if you just want to sample this series, then The Best of Hancock is a single DVD with five of the six episodes (excluding The Succession).  Either way, no collection of British television comedy can be complete without something from the Lad Himself.

Hancock – The Bedsitter

bedsitter

Tony Hancock told his writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, that he wanted changes for their next (and as it turned out, final) BBC television series.  It’s often been assumed that Hancock’s wish to drop Sid James was motivated from envy and insecurity – Sid was getting too many laughs, so he had to go.

I think it’s much more likely that Hancock understood the format of the series had to change.  Hancock’s Half Hour (both on radio and television) had been a staple of the 1950’s, but now the 1960’s were upon us.  Had the show stayed the same for much longer there might have come a point when both the critical and public acclaim turned to indifference and boredom.

Maybe the seeds for change had been subconsciously sowed by some lines from the classic radio episode Sunday Afternoon at Home.  Tony’s quiet and boring Sunday afternoon is interrupted by next-door neighbour Kenneth Williams.  In this episode, Tony’s radio persona parallels his public one (he’s a successful radio comedian).  But Williams, whilst professing to be a big fan, is monumentally tactless when he tells him that he thinks he’s slipping and that Ted Ray had the edge on him the previous week!

There’s no doubt that these lines from Galton and Simpson were nothing more than affectionate mockery, but for Hancock it may have struck home a little deeper.  So for their final BBC series, renamed Hancock, Sid was gone, East Cheam was gone, and for this first episode Hancock was all on this own, literally.

I love the idea that Galton and Simpson wrote The Bedsitter slightly with their tongues in their cheeks – they reasoned that if Hancock wanted to be by himself, then they’d present him with a script where he’s the only person present!  But Hancock leapt at the chance and despite the one man/one room nature of the episode it’s a tour-de-force for him.

It’s rather like Sunday Afternoon at Home in many ways – a study in boredom.  Tony’s life is basically held in statis, which is made explicit as the last shot of Tony is the same as the first (he’s lying down blowing smoke rings).  And despite his claims that tomorrow will be different, it seems that he’s just deluding himself.  Alone and isolated in an Earls Court flat he has plenty of dreams but lacks the drive to make any of them a reality.

There’s a few nods back to the past.  At one point he picks up a lurid paperback thriller, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards (which was the centrepoint of the classic HHH episode The Missing Page).  Hopefully this time he’s been able to find a copy with that elusive final page!  And when practicing his ventriloquism skills he mentions Peter Brough and Archie Andrews.  One of Hancock’s early radio breaks occurred when he appeared in Educating Archie, acting as a straight-man to Archie Andrews (a vent’s doll voiced by Peter Brough).

Otherwise there’s a stream of unconnected moments – Tony attempts to read Bertrand Russell but is put off by all the long words, burns his lip on a cigarette, attempts to get a signal on his television, etc.  The fragmentary nature of The Bedsitter would be a daunting prospect for many comic actors (as a contrast, Paul Merton’s remake is available to compare) but Hancock is easily up to the task.  Although he was presumably anxious about having to carry a twenty five minute show by himself (and had lines written around the set as a backup) he wasn’t reliant at this point on reading the lines off boards.

Mid-way through the episode it seems that Tony’s luck has changed.  A wrong number leads to an invitation to a cider and gin party (I’ll bring the cider, says Tony).  A chance for a date with (he hopes) an attractive woman brings out a burst of enthusiasm, although this all comes to naught when she rings up later to cancel.  You can hear a few audible awwws from the audience at this point, which is rather nice.

If The Bedsitter teaches us anything, it’s that Tony Hancock was perfectly able to carry the show by himself.  Had Sid been present in the flat then the whole dynamic of the piece would have been totally different – not necessarily better or worse, just different. However, the rest of the series does operate on more traditional lines and sees Hancock crossing swords with a whole host of very good comic actors.

And the quality of the supporting casts that we’ll see over the forthcoming episodes (Patrick Cargill, Hugh Lloyd, June Whitfield, John Le Mesurier, etc) does rather give the lie to the oft-repeated and lazy claim that Hancock hated to be upstaged by others.  If he had, he would have surrounded himself with mediocre talent – which is obviously not the case here.  It does seem plain that one of the reasons why these shows remain fresh, some fifty five years later, is due to the fine ensemble casts.

A wonderfully detailed and thought-provoking analysis of The Bedsitter can be found on the blog You Have Just Been Watching.  It’s well worth a read.

Up next is an everyday tale of country folk which remains very topical today.

Hancock – The Bowmans

bowmans

The Bowmans is a popular and long-running rural radio series (“an everyday story of simple folk” as the announcer puts it) which features Tony as local yokel Joshua Merryweather.  Even after almost fifty five years there’s no mistaking that this is a deliberate parody of The Archers – the theme tune of The Bowmans is almost a note-for-note copy of The Archers, for example.

Joshua Merryweather was modelled on Walter Gabriel (Joshua’s catchphrase “me old pal, me old beauty” is a direct crib – they were the first words ever heard on the debut episode of The Archers back in 1950).  Galton and Simpson clearly had great fun in satirising some of the conventions of a series that had, even by 1961, become an institution.

The fact that The Archers is still running today means that the jokes remain relevant and it’s also interesting that many of the gentle digs could also be applied to the various television soaps (especially Coronation Street) which would in time supplant The Archers in the nation’s affections.

One of the most telling is the way that some members of the audience seem to be unable to distinguish fiction from fact.  At the start of The Bowmans Tony mentions how Joshua received gallons of cough syrup when his character had a cold and proposals of marriage when he was jilted at the alter!  Examples continue to this day, possibly most notably the Free Deirdre Rachid campaign.  There’s an obvious post-modern irony at work with many of these public outcries but it’s also clear that people enjoy playing the game.

As for Tony, he feels totally secure in the series.  He’s played Joshua for five years and considers himself to be easily the best thing about the programme, although it’s plain that everybody else, including the harassed producer (played by Patrick Cargill) disagree.  Joshua Merryweather gives Tony Hancock the perfect opportunity to indulge in some ripe overacting – with an accent switching from Welsh, Suffolk, Robert Newton and all points in-between.  He also arrives singing a song of his own devising (all about mangle-wurzels) and likes to perform in rustic clothes, although he angrily denies that he’s a method actor.

However he’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, soap actor to find out that he’s not as indispensable as he thought.  When he receives the next script he’s horrified to find that Joshua falls in the threshing machine and dies.  Was this ruthlessly quick exit a comment on the death of Grace Archer some six years previously?

The next week poor old Joshua breathes his last (although Tony doesn’t go quietly) and he’s then forced to find alternative work.  This leads us into a short five minute interlude which could have easily worked as a one-off sketch.  Firstly he fails to impress in a Shakespearean audition and then finds his level in a series of adverts for Grimsby Pilchards.  These are wicked parodies of exactly the sort of thing which were appearing on ITV at the time and they see Tony dressed in various different period costumes, pausing at the most inappropriate moment to pull out a tin of Grimsby Pilchards.

The most atypical thing about The Bowmans is that Tony emerges on top.  He’s so frequently the loser that it does come as a surprise when the death of Joshua produces a massive outcry which forces the BBC to beg him to come back.  After a brain-storming session they decide he can return as a relative of Joshua’s, Ben Merryweather.  Real soap operas have done far worse, so this seems quite credible.

He also gets script approval and his first action is to write a scene where most of the villagers fall down an abandoned mine-shaft.  We end with Tony promising to repopulate the village with more of his relatives (was he planning to play all the parts himself?)

With a script that still feels fresh today (actors are still finding themselves written out and then back into soap operas just as unconvincingly as Joshua) The Bowmans is an entertaining twenty five minutes.  Patrick Cargill might not have as a large as role as he does in the upcoming Radio Ham or The Blood Donor, but he’s still excellent as the producer driven to the end of his tether.  Peter Glaze also amuses as the all-purpose voice man who brings the village’s animals to life.  One of his main roles is as Joshua’s dog, much to Tony’s disgust (he’s often threatening him with his stick!).

Although there’s a faint air of unreality about it all (Joshua is such a badly acted character that it’s impossible to believe his departure would have created such an uproar, and the new Ben-dominated series seems just as bad) there’s still a lot to enjoy in this one.