Very Nearly An Armful (Tony Hancock on GOLD)

After languishing in obscurity for a fair few years, during the last week or so the name of Tony Hancock seemed to be everywhere.  There’s been scores of newspaper features, a Newsnight discussion (which was ever so slightly toe-curling) as well as plenty of internet chatter.

And it’s all been about the new two hour documentary Very Nearly An Armful, premiered on GOLD yesterday (14th January 2023) as well as the transmission of two colourised episodes – one from Hancock’s Half Hour (Twelve Angry Men) and the other from Hancock (The Blood Donor).

To be fair, it’s probably the colourised episodes which have caught the imagination (I don’t recall the same furore of interest when GOLD debuted documentaries about the likes of Porridge, Only Fools & Horses or dinnerladies).  Depending on where you stand, colourising Hancock is either a sacrilege or a sensible way to bring his material to a new audience reluctant to watch black and white material. I’ll turn my attention to the episodes later, but first the documentary ….

One of the problems facing any modern Hancock doco is the fact that virtually all of his friends and contemporaries are no longer with us. Earlier efforts (such as the peerless Heroes of Comedy – tx 2nd February 1998) featured substantial input from people who knew both the public and private Hancock (with their contributions supplemented by a handful of celebrity fans).

Now sadly, the reverse has to be the case. The majority of the talking heads in Very Nearly An Armful were recruited from the celeb ranks (plus a couple of members of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society to provide more detailed background points). However, it was a pleasant surprise to find that two people who did know Tony – actress Nanette Newman and writer Richard Harris – were present.

Although neither made that great a contribution – especially Harris, since his association with Hancock (working on the short lived ATV series) was so brief – it was still more than welcome to have them as it helped to balance out the undoubted fannish love from the others.

Very Nearly An Armful had a mixed bag of contributors, but all seemed genuine in their love of the Lad (sometimes with shows of this type, you get the feeling that certain celebs – lured by a nice cheque – are quite happy to come along and speak about anyone, but that wasn’t the case here). Jack Dee was an ideal choice as host – like the others, his appreciation for Hancock shone through.

Even with two hours to play with, there were some surprising omissions. The radio incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour (apart from – inevitably – Sunday Afternoon at Home) was glossed over very quickly which meant there was no time to discuss the contributions of Bill Kerr or Hattie Jacques. And out of Tony’s ‘rep’ of television actors, only Patricia Hayes merited a mention (Hugh Lloyd and John Le Mesurier could also have done with a spot of admiration).

There were plenty of well-chosen clips from Hancock’s Half Hour and Hancock (although surprisingly his debut television series – The Tony Hancock Show, written by Eric Sykes and transmitted on ITV – was omitted).

Since the documentary took a chronological approach, the second hour (Hancock’s decline and fall) was tough going at times. Partly this was because of the sadness of his spiral into alcoholism and failure (although Very Nearly An Armful only hints at how grim things really became) but it’s also fair to say that a two hour documentary, no matter how good, will always feel a little fatiguing for the viewer.

Points of interest in the second hour – a little love was shown for the ATV series, which was good to see. Alas, appreciation for The Punch & Judy Man was in very short supply, which did surprise me. Surely I can’t be the only one to enjoy it? There were also some snippets from his later ITV series which didn’t show the Lad at his best (wisely, no footage from the partly completed Australian series was used).

Although Very Nearly An Armful doesn’t shy away from Hancock’s difficult later years, it didn’t feel like a salacious investigation – which is a definite plus point. A slightly shorter edit might help to make it a better watch, but even in this form it’s a warm and affectionate tribute to a man who continues to inspire love and laughter today.

Prior to the broadcast of the colour Blood Donor, there was a short feature explaining how and why its come about. The most intriguing statement was from Kevin McNally, who said that Hancock’s programmes are slipping into obscurity because viewers no longer want to watch black and white material. Hmm …..

I think it’s more accurate to say that because stations like GOLD no longer air black and white programmes, the likes of Hancock’s Half Hour now have very few possible broadcasting outlets.

What makes McNally’s comment all the more surprising is the fact that Talking Pictures TV have been merrily broadcasting black and white television and films for a fair few years (earning many plaudits along the way). TPTV’s embrace of monochrome material and the enthusiasm of their audience for it rather destroys McNally’s argument I feel.

It’s possible to argue that younger people are more resistant to watching black and white programmes, but just how many young people would be tuned into GOLD on a Saturday evening? If you look at the limited range of GOLD’s programming (Only Fools & Horses, Porridge, Last of the Summer Wine, etc) then it’s difficult not to imagine that the average GOLD viewer is of a similar age to his or her TPTV counterpart. And if they can watch black and white programmes on TPTV, why not on GOLD?

An enormous amount of work went into the colourisation of these two episodes (click here) and you have to appreciate that, but I just find the whole thing rather pointless. In their colour state, the two episodes are perfectly watchable but I never felt I was looking at a genuine colour progamme (which rather defeats the object).

On the plus side, the episodes were restored prior to colourisation, so if you can turn the colour down (a tricky thing to do on a modern television) you’ll be able to see a definite improvement on the copies available on DVD.

The ironic thing is that few shows seem less suited to colour than Hancock’s Half Hour. The best of Hancock’s work takes place in a weary 1950’s post-war Britain that feels utilitarian and drab. Monochrome is ideal for this (as it would be for kitchen-sink dramas) so brightening everything up with artificial colour is an especially perverse move.

If GOLD do any more, or if they move onto other programmes like Steptoe & Son, then I won’t be watching as I’ll be quite happy to stick with my black and white originals. But if colourisation helps to open the shows up to a new audience (dubious though I think that is) then I can only wish them well.

Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)


Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tony Hancock’s death. This has generated a crop of newspaper and magazine articles, some – unsurprisingly – focussing on his sad demise.

The essential beats of the story should be familiar to most – the way his decision to gradually divest himself of all his comedy associates (first Kenneth Williams, then Sid James and finally Galton and Simpson) sparked a slow but inevitable decline. Spike Milligan’s famous quote (“he shut the door on all the people he knew, and then he shut the door on himself”) seemingly provides the final word.

And yet … this has always seemed to be not quite the whole picture. For one thing, it’s hard to argue against Hancock’s assertion that his comic character needed to grow and change. Sir Peter Hall (speaking in the Heroes of Comedy programme on Hancock) labelled the Lad as a product of the fifties (comparing him to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim). If so, then carrying this persona unchanged throughout the next decade simply wouldn’t have worked.

The assumption seems to be that Galton and Simpson could just have continued churning out comedy classic after comedy classic for Hancock, but how many more stories were there left to tell? Possibly a move into a regular film career would have been best. It’s well known that Hancock grew to dislike and fear the pressure of the television studio environment – not least due to the problem of having to learn so many lines. Whilst The Government Inspector (bafflingly, still not available on DVD) suggests that – like Max Wall – he could have pursued a dramatic career.

It’s all what ifs of course, but the notion that if only Tony had stuck with the old team everything would have been fine does seem a little flawed. For those who want to dig into the story deeper, there are a number of books available (some much more lurid than others). John Fisher’s biography is by far the best – an unashamed fan and admirer, he nevertheless didn’t shy away from the darker moments. But he also made the observation (which few others have) that Hancock’s life, post Galton & Simpson, wasn’t all downhill. During the later years there were still high spots to be cherished.

But even when the details of Hancock’s final years have been picked apart for the umpteenth time, we still have most of his best work available to enjoy. And this should always be Tony’s enduring legacy.

For any newcomers, a few suggestions to get started.

The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham

These two television episodes, from his final BBC series, were later re-recorded for an LP release and it’s these audio re-recordings (released and re-released numerous times over the years) which are my preferred versions. Slightly tighter and better performed than the television originals (plus The Radio Ham has a little extra value – “If I’d had me key I wouldn’t have knocked on the door, would I?”) they’re an excellent introduction to the world of Tony Hancock.

The Last Bus Home

One of the later radio HHH‘s with the core team of Tony, Sid and Bill, this is simply a joy. Like Sunday Afternoon At Home, it makes a virtue out of the fact that very little happens (they wait for the bus, they can’t get on the bus, they have to walk home). But there’s still so much to enjoy – especially Tony and Sid’s punch-up (“at least I know where I stand”). The way that Sid dissolves into giggles after Bill announces that the bus is finally coming is a lovely unscripted moment.

The Missing Page

An obvious television HHH choice, but that’s because it’s very, very good. Tony and Sid work beautifully together and if the plot doesn’t quite hold water, with so many wonderful lines (not to mention Tony’s beautifully performed library mime act) I’m not complaining.


Hancock’s Half Hour – The Artist


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

first tv.jpg

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 6th 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  prior to 1956, so it’s a little disappointing that the survival rate from the first two 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 would 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 never 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, but then 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.