Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page


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


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


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.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Big Deal at York City


Albert Cakebread (Warren Mitchell) has had a good day at York Races.  On the train back to London, he flashes his winnings (over two thousand pounds) in the bar and offers to buy everyone a drink.  This catches the attention of one of the passengers, Basil Trenchard (Gerald Flood).

Later on, Trenchard, along with two other people (played by Alister Williamson and Robert Dorning), asks Albert if he fancies a friendly game of cards to while away the journey.  Albert agrees, as does another passenger in the carriage (a businessman played by Robin Parkinson).  In order to keep things fair, Albert asks the imposing figure of the Bishop (Lockwood West) to deal the cards.

It’s obvious that Flood and his two friends are con-men who plan to fleece the ebullient Albert out of his winnings.  Each hand reduces Albert’s money little by little, so that by the last hand he desperately stakes everything he has  The others do as well and it seems that Trenchard is going to walk away with the lot.  But amazingly, it’s the mild-mannered businessman (Parkinson) who actually has the winning hand and he scoops the whole pot.  The twist is that he, Albert and the Bishop are also a gang of con-men (who have managed to outfox the other three by being a little more subtle).

Big Deal at York City boasts an interesting performance from Warren Mitchell who affects an accent which I believe is a West Country one.  Why he didn’t use his more familiar London tones is a bit of a mystery, unless it was supposed to lull the three marks into believing him to be a country bumpkin.  His character certainly comes over as something of a simple, trusting soul (although as we see that isn’t the case at all).

Gerald Flood (bad King John, or at least something that looked like him, in the Doctor Who story The Kings Demons) is rather good as the card-sharp who spies what he thinks is an easy mark, only to be taken to the cleaners himself.  Another solid performance comes from Lockwood West as a man of the cloth who seems to gain a great deal of knowledge about poker as the game goes on!

Although Mitchell’s accent and slight overplaying is a little distracting, Big Deal at York City is an entertaining twenty-five minutes that brings the Galton and Simpson Playhouse to a close.  Although the quality of the series was a little variable, the first-rate casts in each episode do help to sometimes lift the material.  It’s not Hancock or early Steptoe standard by any means, but it’s certainly worth a look.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds


I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds takes place in the living room of a typical family home.  The arrival of Jim (Leonard Rossiter) is enough to send the kids to their room (“he never stops talking”) although the adults are less fortunate.  They’re just about to watch McMillan and Wife and although Jim tries to tempt them with the football on the other side, he settles down to watch it as well.

Jim is an insuffrable know-it-all.  This starts when he tells Joyce (Gillian Rayne) about the deficiencies of her television set.  “You know your colour’s all wrong? There’s too much red. You can’t watch it like that, it looks like he’s been boiled.”  Granny (the peerless Patricia Haynes) is old enough to speak her mind.  “What’s he want to keep coming round here for?”

After they manage to prevent Jim taking the television set apart with a screwdriver, he keeps quiet for a moment.  But it doesn’t last long, as he spies a familiar face just behind Rock Hudson.  What, he wonders, is Burt Reynolds doing in an episode of McMillan and Wife?  Everybody else tells him that it’s not Burt Reynolds and indeed that it looks nothing like him, but Jim is convinced.  “Course it is.  Don’t tell me I don’t know Burt Reynolds when I see him.”

Thanks to Leonard Rossiter, this is the best episode of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse and it’s fair to say that few comic actors would have been able to deliver such a tremendous performance of ever-increasing hysteria.

Although Burt isn’t listed in the TV Times or on the end credits, Jim isn’t going to give up, despite the fact that nobody else cares.  Calls to Yorkshire Television and the Daily Telegraph (Jim disgustedly tells them he’ll be buying the Daily Express from now on) are fruitless – so he decides the only way to settle this is to call Burt Reynolds in Hollywood.  Incredibly he gets through, but when Burt doesn’t give him the answer he wants, is Jim finally going to admit defeat?  Of course not!

Twenty years later, this was remade with Paul Merton in the main role.  The two series of Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s … are interesting.  Merton was always on something of a hiding to nothing, since many of the episodes were television classics (such as the various Hancock episodes selected, including The Radio Ham and Twelve Angry Men).  The Paul Merton I Tell You It’s Burt Reynolds is fine, but it really doesn’t work without the full-throttle attack of a top comedy performer like Rossiter.  The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was very fortunate to get a performer at the top of his game, as he was able to wring every last comic drop out of the scenario.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Variations on a Theme


Variations on a Theme is an interesting concept. It’s essentially two very short one act plays with the same actors (John Bird and Frances de la Tour) and the same setting (a park bench)  In both cases the story develops from the same line from de la Tour’s character – “Robert’s found out” – and both stories have a twist at the end.

In part one, the two are lovers – meeting in the park after their afternoon of passion the previous day.  The bombshell that Robert (her husband) has found about their relationship strikes fear into the heart of Bird’s character.  She consoles him that he had to find out sometime, which he disagrees with.  “We only met yesterday.  Some men get away with it for years.  Some men never get found out at all.”

Bird’s character is particularly anxious, since Robert is a television wrestler (the Streatham Strangler) who’s well known for his violent temper.  Another cause for concern is what the scandal will do to him – as chairman of the Marriage Guidance Council it’s more than a little embarrassing.  “I’m expected to save marriages.  You came into my office yesterday for advice.  Two hours later we were in bed together, people aren’t going to understand that.”

John Bird is excellent as the twitchy adulterer, constantly looking over his shoulder in case Robert’s lurking in the bushes nearby.  Frances de la Tour is equally good as a woman seemingly possessed of a deep passion.  However, the twist is that after he’s paid her £5000 to keep his name out of the divorce proceedings, she moves onto the next park bench where it’s clear that there’s another mark who she’s also enjoyed a one night stand with (and presumably she’ll be conning him out of a similar sum of money).

In part two, the pair are a married couple and Robert is their son – who’s found out about the facts of life from a friend.  Bird’s character reproaches himself.  “It’s a father’s responsibility to tell his son about these things.  I failed that boy.  I had it all planned about how I was going to tell him.  I mean it’s only three months since I brought the rabbits home.”  Although, as de la Tour’s character points out, the rabbits were both female, which was a bit of a problem.

It quickly transpires that Bird’s character, despite being a psychiatrist, has something of a hang-up when it comes to sex – so he’s very reluctant to broach the subject with his son.  He then wonders if Robert ever saw the two of them in bed.  de la Tour’s character thinks not, but Bird’s character isn’t convinced since “you usually have a pillow over your head and I have my eyes shut.”

Eventually he decides to employ a course of aversion therapy on Robert and then bring up the subject in a couple of years time.  She then reminds him that it’s Robert’s birthday the following day – when he asks how old he is (nine or ten he thinks) she informs him that he’s twenty three.  As they leave the park together, they discuss appropriate presents (she thinks a cowboy suit would be right, whilst he thinks a railway set would be ideal).

Again, Bird and de la Tour are excellent in another two-hander.  Had either of the two story ideas been stretched to the whole twenty-five minutes it probably wouldn’t have been as memorable an episode.  But spinning two totally different plots from the same opening is what make this stand out a little from the norm.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Naught for Thy Comfort


Richard Burton (Roy Kinnear) is an airline steward who returns home to find a Dear John (or rather a Dear Richard) letter from his wife.  She’s left him for another man, but in-between informing him that his dinner’s in the oven and that his spare uniform is at the dry-cleaners, she goes on to tell him not to “blame yourself in any way for what has happened.  You’ve been a good husband and I’ve nothing to reproach you for, which makes it even harder to do what I’m doing.”

This is an obvious blow and he desperately needs to find somebody to pour out his troubles to.  The problem is that nobody’s interested – as his so-called friends seem to regard him as something of an encumbrance, to put it mildly.  After finding no useful information from his mother-in-law, he calls “good old Harry, one of the best.”  Harry desperately conjures up an excuse to avoid talking to him – Richard seems like a nice enough fellow, but Harry gives the impression that he’s a crashing bore that no-one wants to spend any time with.

Possibly part of the reason for his lack of social success is his complete inability to appreciate the problems of others.  Later on, we seem him conducting a lengthy conversation on the phone with another friend, Jack, who he’s stunned to discover is burying his wife the next day.  He then remembers that Jack did mention this fairly important fact earlier on (Richard’s call has lasted over an hour) but Richard’s so wrapped up in his own world of pain that he has little empathy for anybody else’s grief.

Encounters with a barman (Robert Gillespie), a vicar (Frank Gatliff) and a phone-in host (Alan Freeman) don’t go well either and it seems that nobody wants to listen to him.  He then receives a call from a man in a phone-box (John Clive).  This is the man who his wife was originally going to run off with (which raises the interesting question as to how many men she was seeing!) and he’s just as upset as Richard to find she loves another.  Richard cams him down and tells him to pour out his troubles – as it’s good to talk these things through.

Naught for Thy Comfort operates in familiar Galton and Simpson territory.  Burton, like Hancock or the Steptoes, is something of an outsider from the normal run of society.  And like them, he’s not always the most sympathetic of characters, although this changes right at the end when, ironically, he takes a great interest in the welfare of his wife’s former lover.  Is this because he understands the pain that occurs when nobody will listen to you and therefore he’s able to derive some comfort by offering a sympathetic shoulder to cry on, even when it’s for a man who’s cuckolded him?

Roy Kinnear was something of a British comedy legend and his casting certainly gave the episode a lift.  There’s not many belly-laughs here, but it does raise a smile or two.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Cheers


Charles (Charles Gray) and Peter (Freddie Jones) operate under a strictly fixed routine.  Friends since childhood, they went through the army together and now share the same house.  Charles likes to organise everything and as they enjoy their regular evening drink at the pub, he outlines how he sees the week progressing.  Friday night sounds particularly exciting.  “In here for our usual and then off home and wash our hair.  I’ll wash yours and you can wash mine, I never get all the soap out otherwise.”

Then Peter drops a bombshell – he’s getting married on Saturday.  This throws Charles into a spin, how can Peter get married when they’ve got the laundrette to do?  Peter is firm though, he’s in love and he’s going to be married at 12.00 noon on Saturday.

Charles continues to be baffled that Peter could desert him, after all they’ve been through.  “After thirty five years, school chums, brother officers, comrades-in-arms, joint lease-holders of a maisonette and an allotment – which we were going to manure on Sunday.”

But Peter wants to break free from his routine existence and do something very different.  He tells an increasingly appalled Charles that he and his wife-to-be will be “staying in South America.  We’re taking a raft up the Amazon, right into the rainforest.”

If all this sounds very unlikely, then there’s a good reason why – Peter’s made it all up.  There’s no girlfriend, no marriage and on Saturday he’ll be locked into the same old routine.  He then confesses to Charles that he created this wild fantasy in order to try and break the monotony.  Charles agrees that they should try and do something different, but it’s clear that they never will.

A bittersweet tale, Cheers is pretty good stuff, although there are a few awkward moments which do firmly place it in the 1970’s.  Charles is disgusted to see a black woman on the arm of one of the other pub regulars (Nicholas Courtney).  He mutters that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed and he declares that “I’d like to know where he gets his money from, I’m sure he’s a mercenary.”  Awkward though this is, it’s always nice to see Nicholas Courtney and whilst it’s not a large part, he makes the most of it.

Charles is also amazed to learn that people consider that he and Charles are a couple of “poofs”.  The fact they do everything together (including washing each others hair) has clearly not gone unnoticed by the other pub regulars (who call them “Pinky and Perky” behind their backs) but Charles doesn’t understand this at all.  “I don’t believe it! I don’t look anything like a poof.”

Freddie Jones gives a lovely turn as a middle-aged man yearning for escape from his humdrum life whilst the always solid Charles Gray is suitably bluff as another middle-aged man who lives for exactly the routine that drives Peter up the wall.  If anything changes, you can tell that Charles simply wouldn’t be able to cope.

If the scripting of The Galton and Simpson Playhouse so far hasn’t always been the sharpest, the star-quality of the actors has been enough to hold my interest.  Cheers is another good example of this.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Swop You One Of These For One Of Those


One major theme running throughout so much of British comedy during the 1970’s was that of sexual frustration. The Carry On’s, Benny Hill and Les Dawson’s Cosmo Smallpiece are just some examples of the typically frustrated British comedy male.  Richard Briers as Henry Fairlane in Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is someone who fits snugly into this niche as well.

The 1960’s may have been the decade of sexual revolution, but for some (and especially Henry) it seems to have totally passed them by.  He spends his time in the office ruminating on the clothes the secretaries wear.  “Shouldn’t be allowed to walk around the office dressed like that. They’re asking for it, they really are. Trouble is, they don’t ask me for it.”

He’s happily married, but his eye is certainly roving.  When one of the secretaries (Linda Hayden) wonders why he should bother to play around, he tells her that “I’m not old enough to turn it in.  I should be playing around, it’s natural.  I mean it keeps you young and healthy, it gives you a better disposition.”

Linda Hayden
Linda Hayden

Briers is perfect as a twitchy forty-something who’s desperately yearning for new horizons.  And as luck would have it, his colleague Roger Gresham (Henry McGee) has the answer – an invitation to a wife-swopping party.  You couldn’t really get any more 1970’s than that!  Henry’s keen, but Roger tells him that he has to make sure he brings his wife along – no wife, no entry.

Come the night of the party and Henry’s been separated from his wife – he lost her at Belsize Park tube station.  Roger refuses to let him in without her, so he has to keep a lonely vigil outside, watching enviously as numerous other couples gain admittance.  The frustration part is key to the comedy – Henry has to remain constantly unfulfilled,  otherwise the joke doesn’t work.

Eventually, Henry’s wife Linda (Jan Waters) does turn up – just after Henry stepped away from the door.  Roger’s delighted to see her and and instantly lets her in (after some hesitation she throws herself into the party with gusto).

So by the time the party’s over, Linda’s had a great time and poor Henry’s been stuck outside the whole time.  Henry, like so many comedy characters from this decade, is forced to constantly have his nose pressed to the glass, watching others enjoy themselves.

Richard Briers gives a very nice turn and Henry McGee (a familiar Benny Hill stooge) makes an impression as one of the oldest swingers in town.  It’s also good to briefly see the imposing figure of Peggy Ann Clifford.  She made a memorable non-speaking appearance in The Missing Page episode of Hancock’s Half Hour as the woman who watches Tony mime the plot of a particularly exciting book.

Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is a step up from Car Along The Pass and is, if nothing else, a good time-capsule of the period.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Car Along The Pass


Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s writing career started in the late 1940’s (when they were both confined in the same tuberculous sanatorium) and it continued for the next thirty years – coming to an end with this series.  After The Galton and Simpson Playhouse was transmitted in 1977, Alan Simpson retired from scriptwriting whilst Ray Galton carried on, working with several other collaborators (such as Johnny Speight).

Galton and Simpson, are of course, best known for Hancock’s Half Hour (six radio series and six television series), Hancock (their seventh and final television series written for Tony Hancock, featuring classics such as The Bedsitter, The Lift, The Bowmans, The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham) and Steptoe and Son.

Following Tony Hancock’s decision to fire them as his writing team, the BBC offered them carte-blanche to write about anything they wished, and so the Comedy Playhouse series was born.  One episode, The Offer concerned two rag and bone men and it seemed to have potential – out of this came the long-running Steptoe and Son.

YTV’s The Galton and Simpson Playhouse seemed to be a conscious nod to this series, as the programme clearly emulated the style of Comedy Playhouse (one off comedy playlets featuring some of the best acting talent around).  It’s a pretty decent effort for them to bow out on, as whilst it’s fair to say that their writing heyday was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, this series isn’t completely without merit.

Having said that, it’s a shame that it kicked off with Car Along The Pass, easily the weakest of the seven shows.  Henry and Ethel Duckworth (Arthur Lowe and Mona Washbourne) take a cable-car trip in the Swiss Alps.  Henry hasn’t enjoyed his holiday at all and things don’t improve when the cable-car stops when it’s only half way across.  The passengers are told that repairs will take a few hours, so naturally Henry (since he’s an Englishman) decides to take charge.

Henry Duckworth has faint echoes of Lowe’s most famous comedy character (Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army).  Both are rather pompous and incredibly proud of their country of birth, but Mainwaring is also a basically decent man (plus he has the rest of the platoon to keep him in check).  Duckworth is just a blinkered bore, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

There’s plenty of comic potential in taking a disparate group of people and trapping them in a confined space – after all, Galton and Simpson did this to great comic effect with the Hancock episode, The Lift.  But Car Along The Pass is a very pale imitation.  Had Henry learnt anything about his fellow passengers, or himself, then it might have been worthwhile – but his worldview remains the same at the end as it was at the start.

He’s dismayed to find there’s only a few British people aboard and even more upset to discover that means he’s surrounded by foreigners.  The one that seems to cause him the most pain is a smooth-talking German, Heinz Steiner (Anton Differing).  Steiner is something of an anglophile and professes a love of rugby (which he played whilst at public school in England).  When Steiner asks if Duckworth attended public school, the Englishman is reticent.  “That, um, is something that we never ask in England.  We just know.”  Predictably, Ethel spoils the moment by saying she didn’t think Henry played rugby at Witham Grammar, she though he played football instead.

Steiner wonders if Henry has visited Germany.  Yes, he says, in 1945.  The presence of French and Italians gives him further scope to restate the superiority of the English.  During this, it’s hard to decide whether we should be laughing at him or with him.  It’s the Alf Garnett problem, I suppose – some of the audience will probably agree with his sentiments whilst others will view him as an out-of-date dinosaur.

My affection for Arthur Lowe means that I can find some merit in this (although you have to dig deep) and Anton Differing is very good, but to be honest, Car Along The Pass is pretty poor stuff.

Comedy Playhouse – Steptoe and Son – The Offer


After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson found their successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) the pair were at something of a loose end.

The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished.  Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son.  When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often dubbed as the “kitchen sink” movement.  It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television.  Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.

The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot.  Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck.  One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour (it generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James).

Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was.  Brothers maybe?  Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.

Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962  – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom.  However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.

Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business.  Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home.  He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.

In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind and forge a new future for himself.  Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms.  Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself.  As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself!  That’s no way to run a business.”

The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it.  And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better.  Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off.  But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.

His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it.  His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home.  And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle.  “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits!  Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it!  They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”

Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave.  Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail.  He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself.  Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move.  Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?

This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell.  As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could have heard a pin drop in the audience.  It doesn’t seem to be that Corbett was attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, rather he was just acting to the script.  That’s the notable thing about Steptoe and Son – before this, sitcoms had tended to star comedians and therefore were vehicles written for their talents (such as Hancock’s Half Hour).  But Steptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, an important distinction.

When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.

The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.

Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour.  There’s no winners or losers here.  Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other.  We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character).  But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.

The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one.  Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.

Obituary – Bill Kerr (1922 – 2014)

Bill Kerr in Ghost Squad (1961)
Bill Kerr in Ghost Squad (1961)

Australian actor Bill Kerr has died at the age of 92.

Kerr was born in Cape Town in June 1922 and was raised in Australia. A radio star in his own country he moved to Britain in 1947 in search of new career opportunities.  During the four decades or so he was resident in the UK he notched up numerous credits on film, television and radio.

He appeared in films such as The Dam Busters and The Wrong Arm of the Law and television series like Ghost Squad, No Hiding Place, Compact and Dixon of Dock Green.  Another notable guest appearance on British television during the 1960’s was as Giles Kent in the Doctor Who story The Enemy of the World.  Five episodes of this six part story were lost until 2013 and Kerr’s performance is one of the highlights of an impressive serial.

For many people though, he will always be best remembered as a comic foil for Tony Hancock across six radio series of Hancock’s Half Hour.

L-R - Sid James, Tony Hancock and Bill Kerr
L-R – Sid James, Tony Hancock and Bill Kerr

Although Kerr never crossed over to the television version of HHH, he did appear with Sid James in the first series of Citizen James.  This series, like HHH, was written by Galton and Simpson and it’s quite possible to imagine that the Sid and Bill from this series are the same characters that appeared in HHH.

Kerr returned to Australia in the late 1970’s and continued to work, appearing in films such as Gallipoli and television series like Anzacs with his last recorded credit coming in Southern Cross in 2004.

Hancock (BBC 1961)

L-R - Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock, Ray Galton
L-R – Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock, Ray Galton


Hancock, broadcast on the BBC between May and June 1961, was Tony Hancock’s last series for the BBC and was also the last one written for him by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

From 1954 onwards, Hancock had enjoyed great success with Galton & Simpson’s scripts, both on radio and on television.  There had been six series of Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio – between 1954 and 1959 – as well as six television series, which ran from 1956 – 1960.

But by 1961 Hancock was restless and wanted changes.  Sid James had been present in virtually every television and radio episode, but he was dropped from Hancock, at Tony’s request.  And when this series had finished Tony Hancock dispensed with Galton & Simpson as well.  For many people this marked the start of the long downward spiral in Hancock’s personal and professional life which ended with his suicide in Australia in 1968, at the age of 44.

Among those who insisted that the ties Hancock severed led directly to his untimely death was Spike Milligan, who said: “One by one he shut the door on all the people he knew; then he shut the door on himself.”

Harsh criticism of Tony Hancock can be found in the following cartoon from Private Eye in June 1962, drawn by Willie Rushton.

private eye june 62

But whatever happened after Tony Hancock left the BBC in 1961, between 1954 and 1961 he, along with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, created some of the finest episodes of situation comedy ever seen in any country.  And their final series, thanks in part to Tony’s insistence on changing the character slightly, ensured that they ended their creative partnership on a high.

Hancock (Broadcast on BBC Television between 26th May – 30th June 1961)

Galton & Simpson like to tell the story that Hancock asked them to write an episode where he was the only character seen.  They thought it wouldn’t work and decided to write something to prove to Tony that it was impossible.  The result was The Bedsitter and it proved to be an excellent showcase for Hancock and one of the best things that G&S ever wrote.

When G&S started to write for Tony, they tended to craft elaborate plots which usually hinged on Sid trying to con Tony into doing something.  Over the years they pared down the storylines so they became less fantastic and more mundane.

The most mundane episode of the radio series has to be Sunday Afternoon At Home.  This isn’t a criticism – it’s a beautifully judged picture of a typical Sunday afternoon where there’s nothing to do except kill time.  In that episode though, Hancock had Sid James, Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams to spar with, but in The Bedsitter there’s nobody but himself.

It shouldn’t work, but it does.  Nothing much happens – Tony attempts to read some Bertrand Russell, loses interest and then attempts the more hard-boiled charms of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards.  But even that proves to be a problem, as he concedes:  “It’s a waste of time me reading, I can never remember anything. I’ve got too much on my mind, you see, nuclear warfare, the future of mankind, China, Spurs.”

Later on, a misdirected call offers the chance of a date, but in the end it comes to nothing.  Hancock though maintains a brave face: “That was a lucky escape! I nearly got sucked into a social whirlpool there, diverted from my lofty ideals into a life of debauchery! The flesh-pots of West London have been cheated of another victim! Eve has proffered the apple and Adam has slung it straight back at her!”

One of the strange things about the G&S series is that unlike most sitcoms there was never any attempt to maintain even a basic level of continuity.  Hancock’s status would change week by week – one week he could be penniless and unknown and the next – as we see in The Bowmans – he may be the popular star of a top-rated radio series.

“Hello me old pal, me old beauty.”

A none too subtle swipe at a popular rural radio soap opera,The Bowmans certainly gives Hancock full reign to unleash his country accent, which is great fun.  It’s also a rarity in that we see Hancock finish on top for once.  His character is killed off from the soap, but public opinion forces the producers to bring him back as his own twin brother and then he takes great delight in ensuring the majority of the villagers fall to their deaths down a disused mine shaft!

The Radio Ham is not quite a solo performance likeThe Bedsitter, although Hancock does spend the majority of the episode alone in a room by himself.  He does have company though, via the ham radio he’s built.  Substitute the internet for the radio and it seems right up to date.

Re-recorded for LP release in 1961, The Radio Ham has quite rightly become one of the classics of British sitcom.  Comedy rarely gets better than this, with so many quotable lines.

The Lift is an episode that it’s possible to imagine in any series of HHH.  Like The Train Journey from series 5 it has a similar premise – take a group of disparate characters who are trapped together (in a train or a stuck lift) with Hancock at his most annoying and wait to see what happens.

Noel Howlett, Jack Watling, Hugh Lloyd, John Le Mesurier and Colin Gordon are among the unlucky people who have to share a lift with Tony.  It’s not an episode that innovates, like The Bedsitter, but it does what it does very well.  And it’s helped no end by the fine performers stuck in the lift with Hancock.

Doctor: I'm a doctor. Hancock: Yes, we all know you're a doctor. You've been talking about nothing else since we've been here. I don't understand you. I don't go around telling people what I am all the time. Doctor: I think we've all reached an opinion as to what you are.
Doctor: I’m a doctor.
Hancock: Yes, we all know you’re a doctor. You’ve been talking about nothing else since we’ve been here. I don’t understand you. I don’t go around telling people what I am all the time.
Doctor: I think we’ve all reached an opinion as to what you are.

Along with The Radio Ham, The Blood Donor is probably the most famous Hancock episode (helped by the excellent LP re-recording previously mentioned).  With this one though, I do prefer the LP version – due to the circumstances of the television taping.

“To do one unselfish act with no thought of profit or gain is the duty of every human being. Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be I thought? Become a Blood Donor or join the Young Conservatives? But as I’m not looking for a wife and I can’t play table tennis here I am.”

In the week prior to the tv episode recording, Hancock was involved in a car crash.  He wasn’t badly hurt – although more make-up than usual can be seen on his face to hide the superficial scars – but he didn’t have time to learn his lines, so he read them off boards held above the camera.

Once you know this, then it’s impossible not to be distracted by the fact that he obviously never looks at anyone else in the scene as he’s always looking to the side and his next line.  There is the odd stumble, but overall his performance is brilliant – considering that when he speaks any line he’s just seen it for first time and he has to instantly decide on pacing and inflection.

“A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!”

However you experience it, it’s a classic. So many quotable lines and a collection of first rate performers for Hancock to bounce off (June Whitfield, Patrick Cargill, Frank Thornton, Hugh Lloyd).

If you view Hancock as an album, then the first five episodes are hit singles whilst the last, The Succession – Son and Heir, is resolutely an album track.

It’s not a bad episode, but compared to the other five it’s not quite in the same class.  The premise is bright enough though, Tony decides the time has come to perpetuate the line and produce a heir, so a bride is sought.  But thanks to his luck with the opposite sex in the end he decides to stay single.

There’s still plenty of quotable moments though, particularly when Tony’s thumbing through his little black book for suitable partners: “Elsie Biggs: 42-36- ….. oh no, that’s her phone number. Still, I don’t fancy her pounding about the house all day long. She’s a bit too hefty for me. She had me over a few times.”


Classic comedy that nobody should be without.  There’s a boxset containing all the surviving BBC TV episodes or if you just want to sample this series, then The Best of Hancock is a single DVD with five of the six episodes (excluding The Succession).  Either way, no collection of British television comedy can be complete without something from the Lad Himself.