Bob Monkhouse – Behind the Laughter

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I’ve recently, after a long break, uploaded some archive bits and bobs to my YouTube channel, including this two part documentary from 2003.

Sadly part one cuts out early (presumably there was a late schedule change and the timer let me down) whilst uploading part two is proving to be rather problematic, since BBC Worldwide appear to have a block on even short clips of Tony Hancock’s BBC shows.  Quite why they should be so protective of him is a bit of a mystery.  I’ll have another go at uploading part two – I’ll probably just cut the whole Hancock section out to be on the safe side.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, Monkhouse was reaching the end of his life and this might explain the downbeat tone of the piece.  Heroes of Comedy this certainly isn’t ….

But whilst Monkhouse does dwell on the self destructive nature of some of Britain’s comedy greats, he also acknowledges their undoubted skills  – even if, as with Frankie Howerd, he also admits that he never understood his appeal.

Part one tackles Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd.  There are no major revelations, since the frailties of Cooper, Hill and Howerd were already well known (had the recording not cut out I’d assume that the only living subject – Dodd – would have received an easier ride).  The most absorbing sections occur when Monkhouse relates his own personal experiences with his subjects.  Frankie Howerd, painted as an unpleasant sexual predator, certainly comes off worse here.

In part two, Monkhouse turns his attention to Morecambe & Wise, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock.  The character flaws of Sellers and Hancock were also very familiar, although again the personal touch from Monkhouse is of interest (he claims that Tony Hancock and Morecambe & Wise were rather condescending towards him).

Monkhouse’s comedy partner, Denis Goodwin, who took his own life at an early age, is also discussed, which fits into the general tone that comedy can be bitterly self-destructive.

Not always an easy watch then, but Bob Monkhouse doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind and – unlike some talking heads who have passed judgement on these people in other documentaries – at least he knew and worked with them.

 

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Hancock’s Half Hour – The Artist

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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.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The First TV Show

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The first episode of the television incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour called, unsurprisingly, The First TV Show (or Nelson in Hospital, according to the script) was broadcast on the 7th of July 1956.  Like the rest of the first series and all but one episode from series two, no visual recording remains in the BBC archives.

The first three series of HHH were broadcast live (as were nine of the thirteen episodes from series four).  From series five onwards the shows were pre-recorded, which partly explains why the bulk of the surviving episodes are from that era of the programme.  But telerecordings of live programmes had occurred on numerous occasions prior to 1956, so it’s a little disappointing that the survival rate from the early series is so patchy.

Given that HHH had been a successful radio series for several years you’d have assumed someone might have thought it would have been a good idea to record the debut episode, but alas no.

However, all of Galton and Simpson’s scripts still exist and when reading them it’s very easy to imagine how Tony, Sid and the others might have delivered their lines.  Recently I’ve been re-reading the scripts from the first series and even without any visual or verbal assistance they’re still laugh-out-loud funny.

The New TV Show is fascinating.  It would have been easy enough to produce a typical episode, carrying on the themes already developed on radio, but instead Galton & Simpson crafted something which mocked the conventions and artifice of television itself.  Today, these sort of things have been done so many times that they’ve lost their power to disconcert, but remember this was 1956, so it’s fair to say it would have been much more unusual.

We open in, as the script describes it, a lower middle-class lounge where a husband and wife are waiting for the next programme.  When they learn it’s Hancock’s Half Hour neither seem terribly impressed but Bert generously decides to give him a chance.  Unfortunately, Tony doesn’t make a very good first impression with Ede (“I don’t think I’m going to like him. I don’t like his face”) which causes Tony a momentarily spasm of pain.

Yes, somehow Tony can sense the disapproval of Bert and Ede, even though they’re sat at home and he’s in the television studio.  As they continue to pass judgement (Bert: “He hasn’t made me laugh yet, look at his face, a right misery”. Ede: “He’s much fatter than I’d expected”) Tony desperately tries to tailor his opening speech to suit their opinions.  This sly commentary on the expectations of the watching audience is a pure joy.

The fun continues after Tony introduces his co-star, Sidney James.  Ede instantly decides she likes him (“much better looking isn’t he?”) so Tony quickly elbows him out of frame!  This part of the episode culminates with a series of quick impressions as Bert and Ede mention some of their favourite comedians and Tony – ever obliging – desperately imitates them, no doubt seeing it as a last ditch attempt to keep Ede and Bert onboard.  This is just one of the reasons why it’s such a shame the episode no longer exists as I’d love the chance to see Tony give us his Arthur Askey, Norman Wisdom and Terry Thomas.

And just when you think things can’t get any more surreal, Tony appears in person to harangue Ede and Bert and smash their television.  Mind you, he probably had good justification as this is Bert’s final word on Anthony Hancock. “I’d like to know how much he’s getting for this. It’s a disgrace. A waste of public money. Look, the dog’s crawled under the table now, and he’ll watch anything. I’ve never seen a bigger load of rubbish in all my life.”

It takes a certain amount of nerve to spend the first half of your debut episode rubbishing both the star and the programme.  But it seems that Hancock at this point in his career wasn’t plagued by the sort of self-doubt he would succumb to later.  Galton & Simpson’s scripts are often peppered with digs at Hancock (especially his quality – or lack of it – as a performer) but there was rarely the sense that Hancock took offence.  Instead, he’s a willing participant in the mockery.

We then cut to a hospital, where a heavily bandaged Tony is stuck in bed.  As he tells Sid, he wouldn’t have threatened Bert if he’d known he was a heavyweight wrestler.  This leaves Sid with a problem, he’s not only Tony’s co-star but also his manager.  If Tony doesn’t carry on with his programme then Sid will lose a great deal of money.

In addition to the surreal tone of the episode, there’s a weird timeline at work here.  I think we’re supposed to accept that everything’s happening live, so Tony exiting the studio, getting duffed up and sent to the hospital has all happened in real time (very quickly, obviously).  This means that the audience at home are impatiently waiting for HHH to continue and the interlude to cease, which explains why Sid urgently needs Tony to get back to the studio to finish the show.

He’s clearly incapable, so Sid has a brainwave, bring the cameras to the hospital!  They don’t have much time, so Sid decides to end this show with the Nelson sketch.  This means dressing Tony up as Lord Nelson and disguising his hospital bed to look like the HMS Victory.  Tony has his doubts. “Somehow I just can’t help thinking it’s not going to look right. This is supposed to be a serious drama.”

How well this worked is anyone’s guess, but it certainly had potential.  I love the notion of the drama being broken when the bell sounds for the end of visiting time – the nurse on duty is in no mood for argument.  “Tell your little friends to go home, they can finish their game tomorrow.”

Eventually they struggle through it, but what about next week?  Sid already has an idea.  “I thought we’d do the life story of Roger Bannister. Now we can disguise the ward like a running track and get a few block in, spread them around the floor ….”

If maybe the Nelson sketch dragged on a little, the opening section more than made up for it.  Definitely an unusual way to launch the series, but one that played to Hancock’s strengths.

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958

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Running every year from 1958 to 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966) Christmas Night with the Stars brought together some of the BBC’s top light entertainment and sitcom performers for a specially recorded program of seasonal highjinks.  Only three complete editions – 1958, 1964 and 1972 – now exist and whilst the complete shows are not commercially available (although a cut-down version of the 1972 show was included on the Two Ronnies Christmas DVD) thanks to YouTube they are viewable at present.

Magician David Nixon is your host for the 1958 Stars, with Charlie Chester, the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake, Perry Como, Ted Ray, Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards, Billy Cotton & his Band and Jack Warner providing the entertainment.

If Charlie Chester’s remembered today it’s probably due to his later radio career (he had a Sunday R2 programme which ran until 1996).  Possibly it’s a little unfair that Chester was labelled a cut-price Max Miller, but there’s a certain similarity in style – although Miller was undoubtedly better.  Chester’s spot is amiable enough though, even if he was already looking like a relic from another age back then.

After a rather jolly song (if you don’t listen to the lyrics) from the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake makes his appearance.  Drake plays a tuneless carol singer who gets short-shrift from his potential customers.  Hmm, Charlie Drake.  The studio audience clearly love him, collapsing into hysterics at the drop of a hat, but I have to confess that his shtick has always left me cold and this sketch didn’t change my opinion.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Perry Como warbles away for a few minutes before Ted Ray and Kenneth Connor enjoy a nice two-handed sketch – Ray is a patient, convinced he’s swallowed something nasty and Connor is the doctor.  Connor had worked with Ray both on radio and television and they clearly had a good working relationship which shows in the way they interact with each other.  The material is a little thin (a view which seems to be shared by the studio audience – listen how the laughs tail off towards the end) but anything’s an improvement after Charlie Drake!

Next, David Nixon plucks the fairy off the top of the Christmas tree, which then proceeds to dance in front of his eyes.  Today, this may look a little crude but considering how limited the technology was at the time, you have to admit that it’s very nicely done (CSO/Chromakey from a decade or more later sometimes didn’t look as good as this).

Up next is a real Christmas treat, Tony Hancock.  Rather than the East Cheam skit we might have expected, Tony’s contribution is very different – he’s a budgie in a cage, less than impressed with the treatment he’s receiving from his owner.  Because it’s such an unlikely scenario, this is possibly why it works – or maybe it’s just that Hancock was so good he could deadpan his way through a scene no matter how ridiculous he looked.  With his familiar mixture of weary resignation, Hancock is on fine form.  “Not good enough, stuck here all day with nothing to eat. Haven’t had a decent piece of millet since last Thursday.”  Hancock, with just a shrug and a glance (even when dressed as a budgie) can express so much and is a delight.

David Nixon shows Vera Lynn a quick magic trick before she pops off to sing a few songs.  Then we have Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!  It’s a series that’s been in the news as three previously missing episodes have recently been found, meaning that there’s now seven in existence.  The premise of the series is something of an eye-opener (Edwards plays a headmaster who delights in caning the boys in his charge).  A Muir/Norden vehicle that’s historically interesting rather than amusing, if it succeeds at all then it’s thanks to Edwards’ performance.

Billy Cotton and his Band are on hand for a good old singalong and knees-up, he certainly seems to get the studio audience animated.  C’mon Simply/Network, etc – let’s get the remaining Billy Cotton shows on DVD, you know it makes sense!

It might seem a little odd to end in Dock Green as George Dixon (Jack Warner) toasts his family and friends around the dinner table, but Warner’s background was very much in LE – so much so that Dixon of  Dock Green was for many years made by the Light Entertainment Department rather than the Drama Department.  Warner delivers a lovely monologue and given that so little of Dixon exists, every little scrap is precious.  Maybe one day someone will scoop up all the existing B&W Dixon material to compliment the (mostly) complete colour stories released by Acorn.  C’mon again Simply/Network, etc – this makes sense too!

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958 has peaks and troughs, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend seventy minutes.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page

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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 Sartothat’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.

 

Hancock – The Bowmans

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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.

Hancock – The Bedsitter

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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.