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 blocks 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.