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volume 5
december 2002

Hancock's Half Hour

 





  The story of Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock
by Geoff Baldwin
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  Tony Hancock: "Innit marvelous ..."

During World War II, the classy BBC bowed for popular taste by bringing new programmes for the general public. To the same end, from 1945 on, there was the Light Programme, mainly broadcasting "sweet" music and situation comedies. In the second part of the 1950's the most favourite show here certainly was "Hancock's Half Hour", which firmly established itself in the hearts of millions of radio listeners. It still is not forgotten, as on Sunday 8 September 2002 three blue plaques in memory of Tony Hancock and his associates Sid James and Hattie Jacques, were unveiled at the BBC Radio Theatre, Broadcasting House, in London. Geoff Baldwin here looks back at the life and work of Tony Hancock.

 
1 A radio classic. It was on the second day of November l954 that "H-H-H" or "Hancock's Half Hour" had it's first broadcast. Tony Hancock, the star of the programme, was then thirty years old. He had already appeared in "Workers Playtime" and "Variety Bandbox" on the Light Programme where he was, by all accounts, pretty dreadful. But in 1951 he appeared in a show called "Happy Go Lucky", starring Derek Roy and his scripts were written by two young script writers Alan Simpson and Ray Gallon. They became so necessary to Hancock that when, years later, he turned away, from them, he found his genius deserting him, and slid rapidly down-hill to a tragic death. In 1951, however, the magic began to work. Hancock was cast as Archie Andrews' tutor in "Educating Archie" and scored a great success — his catch-phrase, "Flippin' kids!" seems embarrassingly now, but caught on immediately with listeners.
2 Hancock's Half Hour. Then Dennis Main Wilson, who was producing a series called "Forces All Star Bill", decided he wanted a resident comic and invited Hancock to play; the show was renamed "Hancock's Half Hour". With Hancock were three men who were to become his working partners for the whole series: Sid James, the most splendid foil, Bill Kerr, Hancock's "clever" friend — at least in the first series — and Kenneth Williams first as Lord Dockyard and later as Snide with his catch phrase "No, stop messing about!" Moira Lister and later Andree Melly appeared as Hancock's girlfriends and, in the fourth series Hattie Jacques joined the cast as Miss Grizelda Pugh. By 1955 Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, was firmly established in the affections of millions of radio listeners.
3 Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock, Bill Kerr and Sid James

On radio and television. "Hancock's Half Hour" ran for 103 episodes over six series, ending in late 1959. A number of the earlier episodes are lost but many of the surviving episodes have been re-run on Radio 4 down the years. The TV show version of "Hancock's Half Hour" started in July 1956 and ran for 63 episodes over seven series, ending in 1961. The final series featured Hancock on his own, having dispensed with his co-star Sid James. For many years, subsequently, these shows were not seen on TV, probably because they were not only in cackly black and white but also because they were recorded when TV used the old 405 fines system — not the present 625 system — giving the pictures a slightly distorted appearance when broadcast on 625. However, pressure from fans to repeat the shows did pay off in the end and many of the surviving shows were resurrected for broadcast. The last time they were shown on BBC2 was in 1996 in a fortieth anniversary tribute.

4 A charming stupidity. As a fictional radio and TV character Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, the man who lived at 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam was easily recognisable. A portly figure in an astrakhan collared overcoat and black homburg hat. At times, Hancock shared his home with a motley bunch of misfits. Bill Kerr the Australian half wit from Wagga Wagga. The loveable rogue Sidney "Balmoral" James, who although being Hancock's manager, had this favourite hobby, which was relieving Hancock of his hard earned cash. Whether it was selling him stolen police cars, Lords cricket Ground or plots of land half way up cliffs. And there was Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock himself ... failed Shakespearean actor, aspiring intellectual ... pompous ... self-opinionated ... pondering and dreaming of rising above his humble origins ... but, most of all, very likeable. His charm in some ways was his stupidity, he would always fall for Sid's tricks, always allow himself to be caught up in daft conversations with Bill ... he was one of life's fall guys ... and the audience loved him for it! Hancock's attempts to impress his girl friends, Andre Melly and Moira Lister were always bound to fail, as were his attempts to command respect from his housekeeper Mrs. Cravatte — played by Patricia Hayes — and his secretary Grizelda Pugh — played by Hattie Jacques.
5 A comic genius. In real life Tony Hancock was a comic genius. He was a man blessed with almost perfect comic timing and his brilliant facial expressions, with the help of the great scripts by Ray Gallon and Alan Simpson, gave us a character who we could identify with. Like many other comedians, Hancock was always worried about his performance and continuing success. He had always liked a drink but, as his career began to falter, his drinking dramatically increased and this quickly affected his work. During his constant battle to improve his act, Hancock gradually alienated the stars from "Half Hour". One by one, they were dropped from the show, first was Kenneth Williams. Hancock dropped him from the show because he thought the funny voices and catch phrases lowered the standard of the show. Last to go was Sid James. Hancock thought that they were being classed as a double act, rather than as star and co-star. Soon afterwards, Hancock decide to drop his scriptwriters.
6 Tony Hancock and Sid James in "Flight from the Red Shadows"

In his father's footsteps. Tony Hancock was born on the 12th May 1924 the second of three sons to Jack and Lily Hancock, at 41 Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham. When he was two years old the family moved to Bournemouth where they eventually bought the Railway Hotel. Jack Hancock was a semi-professional entertainer at smoking concerts and Masonics, many of his guests at the hotel were in show business. That was where Hancock first met many music hall artists. At school Hancock was a good cricketer and boxer, academically he never did well although at technical college he did learn to be very proficient at typing and shorthand. After school he quickly drifted in and out of several jobs but his heart was set on following his late father's footsteps by becoming a comedian.

Listen to the opening of Tony Hancock's Half Hour
7 The confidential comic. Hancock's mother Lily, introduced him to George Fairweather, a friend of the family who was in show business and helped him to find his feet. Hancock was a great admirer of Max Miller and at seventeen he called himself "The Confidential Comic" and although he was somewhat naive and didn't understand the jokes himself. He tried to do a Max Miller routine before an audience of soldiers and Sunday school teachers ... George Fairweather had warned him against doing it and Hancock was not received well and was asked to leave the stage. Humiliated and in tears he confessed his rejection to George and promised never to tell a dirty joke again and he never did. In 1942 Hancock volunteered for the RAF and, after being rejected by ENSA, he was accepted by Ralph Reader who organized groups of about ten into a Concert Party and sent them off around the War Zones to entertain the troops. They had their own coach and had to fend for themselves. During this time he met Robert Moreton, Graham Stark and sometime later Peter Sellers.
8 Flippin' kids! After the War, Hancock, like so many ex-serviceman, had a difficult time establishing himself in show business. His first real break was a six week spell in 1948 as a comedian at the famous Windmill theatre. The comedians were hired every six weeks to entertain the audience between the nude reviews. Eventually his stage work came to the notice of the BBC and he was given a spot on "Variety Bandbox" on 9th January 1949. From then on, Hancock's career began to steadily improve until in 1951 he was selected to take over from Robert Moreton as Archie Andrews' tutor in "Educating Archie". This was the first time he had come to national prominence and his catch phrase "Flippin' kids!" became very popular. Important as this part was he was also appearing at the same time in another comedy series, "Happy Go Lucky" that, although doomed to failure first brought him into contact with Bill Kerr and reunited him with Graham Stark. Towards the end of this ill-starred programme the new producer, Dennis Main Wilson, called in two young scriptwriters to help with the show — Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. They met Hancock for the first time and he was impressed with their work.
9 Increasing success. Hancock's success in "Educating Archie" persuaded the BBC to give him a prominent part in a show called "Forces All Star Bill". When the scriptwriters had to be replaced, Hancock gave his approval for Galton and Simpson to take over and then began ten years of gradually increasing success for all three of them. After another three series during which Graham Stark and Moira Lister became his regular team in "Star Bill", the show became so popular that the BBC at last gave their approval for "Hancock's Half Hour", which started on 2nd November 1954. Graham Stark was dropped from the team as his voice was too similar to Hancock's. Instead Hancock suggested an actor who had played in his final film "Orders are Orders" in 1954 — Sid James. Moira Lister remained as the girlfriend and Bill Kerr joined, as the sidekick. They needed a versatile actor to play most of the other voices and Dennis Main Wilson persuaded a young actor he had seen playing the Dauphin in Shaw's "St. Joan" who could switch from comedy to pathos effortlessly — Kenneth Williams. Andre Melly replaced Moira Lister and she in turn was replaced by Hattie Jacques.
10 Sid James, Tony Hancock, Mario Fabrizi and Hugh Lloyd

Empty shops and deserted streets. After several successful series on the radio, Hancock tried a TV show. Unfortunately he was contracted to do two series on ITV and these were written for him by Erie Sykes and were not acknowledged as being an outstanding success. Afterwards he returned to the BBC and Galton and Simpson. For three years the radio and TV series ran concurrently on the BBC with increasing recognition until the ultimate accolade was achieved. Complaints began to pour in from Publicans and Shopkeepers protesting that when Hancock was on, their pubs and shops were empty and the streets deserted.

11 A comic heritage. Hancock, with Galton and Simpson, produced many classic shows that now form part of our comic heritage. On radio — "The Dairy - Test Pilot", "The Scandal Magazine", "Hancock in Hospital", and "Sunday Afternoon at Home". On TV: "The Economy Drive", "Twelve Angry Men", "The Reunion Party", "The Bedsitter", "The Radio Ham", "The Blood Donor" and many, many more. Although increasingly successful, Hancock never rested on his laurels and was always looking to improve his performance, the scripts, the camera angles and the shows personnel. In this way he gradually dispensed with all his long time colleagues and even Sid James. James, subsequently went on to star in other situation comedies both for the BBC and ITV but is now probably best remembered for being one of the regulars in the long running series of "Carry On" films. He died on stage at the Sunderland Empire on Monday 26th April 1976, aged 62, from a heart attack.
12 Looking for a film career. Nevertheless despite public disquiet Hancock proved his point by making his last BBC, TV series in 1961, the most successful and best remembered. Unfortunately Hancock hungered for international film stardom, and in 1960 Gallon and Simpson wrote "The Rebel", his second film and although very successful in the UK and Commonwealth, it had no impact in the USA, the market he was aiming for. After the last BBC series Hancock insisted that the next script had to have much wider appeal — in the USA — and for six months Gallon and Simpson laboured — unpaid — to write one. In fact they wrote several — but all were rejected by Hancock. Eventually Hancock agreed that they should go and write some comedy scripts for the BBC whilst he decided what to do next. This was probably his biggest mistake, as Galton and Simpson wrote one particular script called "Steptoe and Son" and never looked back. Hancock was never to find anyone to adequately replace them. He decided to form his own company and with Philip Oakes cc wrote the screenplay for "The Punch and Judy Man", an introspective sad comedy of a disenchanted "Punch and Judy Man" hardly suitable for worldwide audiences and it wasn't too well received in the UK either.
13 Sid James and Tony Hancock

A return to the stage. After his film, Hancock went to ATV in 1963 for a series of thirteen comedy shows that were reasonably well received but the scripts were not very good and by mischance were put out at the same time as "Steptoe and Son" — then at the height of its long running success. Hancock returned to his stage career and made several tours of the UK with some of his BBC colleagues; Alec Bregonzi, Mario Fabrizi and Johhny Vyvyan. Like many comedians Hancock worried about his performance and continuing success. He liked a drink, but as his career began to falter his drinking dramatically increased and he became a chronic alcoholic. In the 1960's alcoholism wasn't widely understood and any comedian admitting to such a problem would be quickly dropped. He laboured on through two more ITV series; "The Blackpool Show" (1966), and "Hancock's" (1967), a show placed in a nightclub setting. By the last series Hancock was in a bad way and the show received bad reviews. In desperation Hancock accepted a three week engagement in Melbourne, Australia. He went down well and was asked to return in 1968 to do a series of six TV shows.

14 A tragic death. Unfortunately, by then, Hancock's alcoholism had reached an advanced stage and although he struggled to work hard, the script and his fellow actors left a lot to be desired. His private life was a mess. He had left his first wife Cicely and married his agent Freddie Ross and his alcoholism had quickly driven her away too. Whilst in Australia, his second divorce became absolute. Alone, depressed and despising the sympathy of sinking into public oblivion, he committed suicide on 25th June 1968. However, since his tragic death, Tony Hancock's fame has not diminished but contrived to shine ever brighter through repeats of his radio and TV shows, on record, audio tape, video and books of scripts where his comic genius has continued to grow in stature and be appreciated by a new generation of admirers — not only in this country but all around the world.
15 The other cast members. What happened to the other cast members? Well, of course, sadly, for us, many of the comedy actors and actresses of that post war era have long since past on. We have already mentioned Sid James, who died in 1976. Hattie Jacques, who I saw in real life once because she was the guest of honour in 1969 at the annual summer fete of the Grammar school that I attended between 1962 and 1967, died in 1980 aged 56, Kenneth Williams died in 1988, aged 62. Other comedy actors that appeared in the TV show included Patricia Hayes who died in 1998, aged 88, Arthur Mullard died in 1995 aged 83, Mario Fabrizi — who also appeared in the ITV sitcom "The Army Game" — died in 1963 aged only 38, Johnny Vyvyan died in 1984 aged 55 and Alec Bregonzi died in 1975.
16 Bill Kerr. The big exception is South African born Bill Kerr who was Hancock's sidekick in the radio series. He is still alive and well and now 80 years old. His acting career spans seven decades right through from the 1930's to the present day. He moved back to Australia some years ago and his last credited film was made as recently as last year. If you have watched any of those Australian films that used to be shown on late night TV in the 1980's and early 1990's, the chances are he was in one or more of them. My own first TV recollection of Bill Kerr was in a Saturday teatime children's TV series called "Garry Halliday" that went out on BBC TV in the early 1960's — in the slot that was, subsequently, to be filled for many years by "Doctor Who". One of his co-stars in that series was Terence Alexander who much later went on to play a leading role in the 1980's series Bergerac, starring John Nettles. Alexander appeared in the role of Charlie Hungerford who was Jim Bergerac's "wheeler-dealer" father-in-law. Incidentally, another little bit of trivia for you. The actor who played the starring role in "Garry Halliday", Terence Longdon, also appeared in the first ever "Carry On" film made in 1958, "Carry On Sergeant" and the sergeant in that film was played by none other than William Hartnell, the original Doctor Who.
17 Hugh Lloyd in the "The Punch and Judy Man"

Hugh Lloyd. Hugh Lloyd played supporting roles in some of the Hancock TV shows, including the role of local librarian. In one of my favourites, "The Missing Page", Hancock borrows a whodunit book from the library, only to find that the last page — which reveals the identity of the murderer — is missing and he goes to great lengths to try to track down the author of the book and find out who committed the murder. Hugh Lloyd also appeared in the most famous Hancock episode of all time, namely "The Blood Donor". He also appeared in Hancock's later cinema film, "The Punch and Judy Man".

18 Still going strong. Although I really remember Lloyd best for another later and very popular situation comedy "Hugh and I" — in which he co-starred with Terry Scott on BBC TV in 1962 — he has also had an extremely long and varied TV career that has stretched right back to the appearances in "Hancock's Half Hour" in the 1950's, early 1960's through to the new millennium. Some of his notable TV/film appearances have included "Hugh and I" (1962), "Visiting Day" (1962), "Doctor Who" (1963), "Knomes of Dulwich" (1969), "Lollipop Loves Mr Mole" (1971), "Visit from Miss Protheroe" (1978), "Quadrophenia" (1979), "Boon" (1986), "You Rang, M'Lord" (1988), "Victoria Wood" (1989), "Heartbeat" (1992), "Great Expectations" (1999), "Alice in Wonderland" (1999), "Oliver Twist" (1999), the remake of "Randdil and Hopkirk Deceased" (2000) and "Many Splintered Thing" (2000). Hugh Lloyd is now 79 years young and I had assumed was retired but, apparently, looking at the above credits, is not ready for retirement! As one of the elder statesmen of British TV comedy, he is also still seen occasionally on TV being interviewed in those documentary shows about the careers of particular comedy actors and actresses like Sid James and Hattie Jacques — e.g. series such as "Heroes of Comedy" on Channel 4.
19 June Whitfield

June Whitfield. June Whitfield was not a regular in the Hancock shows but she did appear as the nurse in the best known show "The Blood Donor". She also went onto appear in another long running sitcom with the late Terry Scott, which was originally called "Happy Ever After" and then simply became known as "Terry and June". In the latter name it ran for nine series between October 1979 and August 1987. Her career has continued to flourish to this day. She is known to a new generation of TV viewers through her role in the BBC sitcom "Absolutely Fabulous" — starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley — and is also a regular in "The News Huddlines" with Roy Hudd and Chris Emmett on Radio 2, which has been running for twenty-one years and is now the longest running audience-based comedy sketch show in the world. June has been part of that show for sixteen years.

20 The geniuses: Galton and Simpson. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the scriptwriters for Hancock are also still very much alive and well. They make appearances fairly regularly on TV whenever any of these documentaries about the old situation comedies and the people that starred in them crop up. In fact, coincidentally, even as I was in the middle of preparing this feature article, on Thursday the 31st October, there was a piece on "London Tonight" — which is the Carlton TV early evening news round-up for the London area — about "Steptoe and Son". This was to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of that series, which, of course, was Galton and Simpsons' other big smash hit on BBC TV. In this latest TV feature, the two scriptwriters were seen on the streets of London, taking a ride on the back of a horse and cart to publicise the anniversary. I'm not sure if it was the actual cart used in the show, because I missed the start of this feature. Some years ago they appeared in a BBC TV documentary dedicated to Hancock, and Alan Simpson said that Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock was a character they had created in the image of Tony Hancock. The truth of this statement was evident from the way Hancock's career quickly went down hill, after he disposed of their services, while they went onto have further success with the said "Steptoe and Son".
21 Updating Hancock. The only thing is that given their undoubted writing talents, it is surprising that they didn't come up with anything further for the BBC in the way of situation comedy scripts for the 1980's or even the 1990's audience. Perhaps it's a bit like pop and rock stars, where all the creative stuff comes in the early years of their careers and then later on they just tend to be going through the motions and living off their old hits — or maybe they just weren't asked ... They did update some of their original Hancock scripts for Paul Merton to rework in a series for ITV a few years ago. Although Merton is, undoubtedly, one of the best comedy talents around in the modern era, the Hancock remakes weren't quite the same as the original. Although Merton's sharp wit seems to be best suited to the quiz shows that he appears on, it's a shame in a way that such natural talent isn't given some situation comedy vehicle.
A typical Hancock dialogue from "Sunday Afternoon At Home" (fifth radio series, aired April, 22, 1958
22 Tony Hancock berating a librarian in "The Missing Page"

Hancock's influence. The influence of Tony Hancock can't be underestimated. His radio show still stands up well to this day when it Is repeated on Radio 4. His TV show was the first real situation comedy to hit the big time in those early days of black and white TV back in the late 1950's. It more or less created the genre for a whole generation of BBC TV comedy, particularly the format of having two co-stars working off one another. This format was to be used again and again by other comedians for the next three decades. Some of the shows that followed were forgettable and have been forgotten. Others have become all-time classics. The better examples of the "double act" genre that spring to mind include "Hugh and I", "Sykes", "Steptoe and Son", "Bootsie and Snudge", "The Likely Lads", "Porridge", "Rising Damp", "Yes Minister", "Bottom" and, of course, the ever popular "Only Fools and Horses".

23 Hooked on Hancock. I was really a bit young to remember or appreciate the Hancock radio shows first time round, although I became an avid fan later on when they repeated them and still have several episodes on tape cassette. Back in the early 1960's, I used to go with my parents visiting some friends of theirs over in north west London and I always remember that, in a pile of records, they had a Hancock album. It had the "Blood Donor" on one side and "Sunday Afternoon at Home" on the other side. I think listening to that record is how I first really became hooked on Hancock and appreciated how good his show was. The latter episode has become one of my all-time favourites because it perfectly encapsulated the boredom of the 1950's Sunday afternoon.
24 Comparing programmes. Whereas nowadays, we have Sunday Trading, garden centres, boot sales, football and other sporting events and, if you go out, you can't move on the roads, in the grey days of the fifties and early sixties it was completely dead on a Sunday. There were church services, limited opening hours for pubs and cinemas and that was about it. A Sunday afternoon film matinee — in black and white of course — on TV would have been the highlight of the day. My parents had bought one of the very earliest TV sets — even before ITV started broadcasting — so that they could watch the Queen's coronation — in 1952 — and they had friends and family round, as so few people had TV sets at that time. In 1955, we moved from inner London to the Romford area and I do have vague recollections of watching the Hancock TV series but it was just another programme that was on TV. At the time, you don't realise that you are witnessing something special. Like say "Fawlty Towers", which started very low key on BBC 2, such programmes only become all-time classics much later on when there has been time to compare them with everything else that has gone on over the years.
25 Sid James, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock

The Egg Marketing Board. By the mid-1960's, I was in my teens and much more aware of everything. With his days as the TV situation comedy king over, Hancock made the odd appearance in films, such as "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines" (1965) but was probably best known, at the time, for the series of TV commercials that he made for the Egg Marketing Board with their "go to work on an egg" slogan. These adverts were a bit like a brief extract from one of his "Half Hour" shows because they featured Patricia Hayes, who resurrected her role as Hancock's housekeeper Mrs Cravatte and they sort of reminded me that somehow we'd lost a comic genius.

26 Something special. Hancock did make attempts at comebacks on TV. One of these was in 1966 when he presented"The Blackpool Show", which used to run for six or seven weeks during the summer, while the very popular "Sunday Night at the London Palladium" show was given a break. His foil on this occasion was John Junkin. He was O.K. in this show but clearly past his peak and the laughs were harder to find. When I heard a couple of years later that he was attempting to make a TV situation comedy comeback in Australia, I was quite excited because it had sort of sunk in, by then, that we'd lost something special and I hadn't been old enough to really appreciate him in his heyday. So, like millions of people, I was stunned, to hear the news of his death, half way through the recording of the new series. Fortunately, though, we do have this legacy of old shows left behind on tape. So, let's hope that they'll appear again some time on BBC 2 and Radio 4, so that a new generation can appreciate the comic genius that was Tony Aloysius St. Hancock. Certainly, he paved the way for the other situation comedy kings that were to follow in later years, like Basil Fawlty, Victor Meldrew and Alan Partridge.
   
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  This essay was published previously in Radio Review, 2002, 121 (November 2002). Thanks to Shaun Brennan for the sound fragments. By the way, these sound fragments are copyrighted. They are used here according to the rules of fair use and academic quoting.
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