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.