Hancock – The Lift

As is well known, Sid James – as requested by Tony Hancock – played no part in Hancock’s final BBC series penned by Galton and Simpson.  In some of the other episodes – The Bedsitter or The Radio Ham, say – it’s clear that Galton and Simpson were writing material which moved away in certain respects from their previously established formula.

It’s easier to imagine Sid taking part in The Lift though (no doubt he would have taken it in turns with Tony to antagonise all of their fellow lift passengers). So Sid’s absence does have the side effect of making Tony seem more irritating than usual – with no confidant to take the strain, he’s the sole antagonist today.

Many of Tony’s familiar character traits are present and correct. Such as his fumbling attempt to chat up the pretty young secretary (Jose Read) and his seething indignation when he has to watch her being sweet-talked by Jack Watling (the smooth BBC producer).

The Hancock character tended to berate those he believed were below him on the social scale (such as Hugh Lloyd’s liftman) and defer to certain people above him.  Not all – the Air Marshall  (John Le Mesurier) is treated with a level of contempt that Tony doesn’t even bother to conceal.  The Vicar (Noel Howlett) is another matter altogether (witness Tony’s chumminess and delight that the Vicar’s first Epilogue went well).

Both Hancock’s Half Hour and Hancock were always so well cast. Not only regulars like Hugh Lloyd and John Le Mesurier, but also the one-off performers like Charles Lloyd Pack and Colin Gordon (who both feature in this one).

They all help to generate a combustible mix of personalities, who are all nicely stoked up when the lift gets stuck between floors. Tony – of course – decides that he should take charge.  His first suggestion – that everybody jumps up and down – is logical, but it has a disappointing lack of success.

So they’re caught in a stalemate situation, which generates some wartime memories for Tony. “It’s just like the old days. Laying on the bottom, still, silent. Nobody daring to move. Jerry destroyers dashing about upstairs, trying to find us sitting there, sweating, waiting, joined together in a common bond of mutual peril”.

This moment is punctured by the Vicar, who recalled that Tony earlier stated he was in the Army! No matter, Tony – with the agility of a born fantasist – quickly rallies, weaving a tale about the Heavy Water plants in Norway (“very tricky stuff. A cup full of that in your font, blow the roof off it would”).

I do love Tony’s attempt to keep everybody entertained by playing Charades. Of course all of his mimes are guessed in double quick time by his nemesis, the producer (“it was simple”).

The twist at the end – having been rescued, Tony and the liftman become trapped once again – doesn’t quite work, but overall there’s very little fat on this one. Not quite the best that the final series had to offer, but that’s only because the competition was very fierce.

Tony Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968)

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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.

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Bob Monkhouse – Behind the Laughter

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I’ve recently, after a long break, uploaded some archive bits and bobs to my YouTube channel, including this two part documentary from 2003.

Sadly part one cuts out early (presumably there was a late schedule change and the timer let me down) whilst uploading part two is proving to be rather problematic, since BBC Worldwide appear to have a block on even short clips of Tony Hancock’s BBC shows.  Quite why they should be so protective of him is a bit of a mystery.  I’ll have another go at uploading part two – I’ll probably just cut the whole Hancock section out to be on the safe side.

Although it wasn’t known at the time, Monkhouse was reaching the end of his life and this might explain the downbeat tone of the piece.  Heroes of Comedy this certainly isn’t ….

But whilst Monkhouse does dwell on the self destructive nature of some of Britain’s comedy greats, he also acknowledges their undoubted skills  – even if, as with Frankie Howerd, he also admits that he never understood his appeal.

Part one tackles Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd and Ken Dodd.  There are no major revelations, since the frailties of Cooper, Hill and Howerd were already well known (had the recording not cut out I’d assume that the only living subject – Dodd – would have received an easier ride).  The most absorbing sections occur when Monkhouse relates his own personal experiences with his subjects.  Frankie Howerd, painted as an unpleasant sexual predator, certainly comes off worse here.

In part two, Monkhouse turns his attention to Morecambe & Wise, Peter Sellers and Tony Hancock.  The character flaws of Sellers and Hancock were also very familiar, although again the personal touch from Monkhouse is of interest (he claims that Tony Hancock and Morecambe & Wise were rather condescending towards him).

Monkhouse’s comedy partner, Denis Goodwin, who took his own life at an early age, is also discussed, which fits into the general tone that comedy can be bitterly self-destructive.

Not always an easy watch then, but Bob Monkhouse doesn’t seem to have an axe to grind and – unlike some talking heads who have passed judgement on these people in other documentaries – at least he knew and worked with them.

 

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Artist

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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

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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.

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958

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Running every year from 1958 to 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966) Christmas Night with the Stars brought together some of the BBC’s top light entertainment and sitcom performers for a specially recorded program of seasonal highjinks.  Only three complete editions – 1958, 1964 and 1972 – now exist and whilst the complete shows are not commercially available (although a cut-down version of the 1972 show was included on the Two Ronnies Christmas DVD) thanks to YouTube they are viewable at present.

Magician David Nixon is your host for the 1958 Stars, with Charlie Chester, the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake, Perry Como, Ted Ray, Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Jimmy Edwards, Billy Cotton & his Band and Jack Warner providing the entertainment.

If Charlie Chester’s remembered today it’s probably due to his later radio career (he had a Sunday R2 programme which ran until 1996).  Possibly it’s a little unfair that Chester was labelled a cut-price Max Miller, but there’s a certain similarity in style – although Miller was undoubtedly better.  Chester’s spot is amiable enough though, even if he was already looking like a relic from another age back then.

After a rather jolly song (if you don’t listen to the lyrics) from the Beverley Sisters, Charlie Drake makes his appearance.  Drake plays a tuneless carol singer who gets short-shrift from his potential customers.  Hmm, Charlie Drake.  The studio audience clearly love him, collapsing into hysterics at the drop of a hat, but I have to confess that his shtick has always left me cold and this sketch didn’t change my opinion.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Perry Como warbles away for a few minutes before Ted Ray and Kenneth Connor enjoy a nice two-handed sketch – Ray is a patient, convinced he’s swallowed something nasty and Connor is the doctor.  Connor had worked with Ray both on radio and television and they clearly had a good working relationship which shows in the way they interact with each other.  The material is a little thin (a view which seems to be shared by the studio audience – listen how the laughs tail off towards the end) but anything’s an improvement after Charlie Drake!

Next, David Nixon plucks the fairy off the top of the Christmas tree, which then proceeds to dance in front of his eyes.  Today, this may look a little crude but considering how limited the technology was at the time, you have to admit that it’s very nicely done (CSO/Chromakey from a decade or more later sometimes didn’t look as good as this).

Up next is a real Christmas treat, Tony Hancock.  Rather than the East Cheam skit we might have expected, Tony’s contribution is very different – he’s a budgie in a cage, less than impressed with the treatment he’s receiving from his owner.  Because it’s such an unlikely scenario, this is possibly why it works – or maybe it’s just that Hancock was so good he could deadpan his way through a scene no matter how ridiculous he looked.  With his familiar mixture of weary resignation, Hancock is on fine form.  “Not good enough, stuck here all day with nothing to eat. Haven’t had a decent piece of millet since last Thursday.”  Hancock, with just a shrug and a glance (even when dressed as a budgie) can express so much and is a delight.

David Nixon shows Vera Lynn a quick magic trick before she pops off to sing a few songs.  Then we have Jimmy Edwards in Whack-O!  It’s a series that’s been in the news as three previously missing episodes have recently been found, meaning that there’s now seven in existence.  The premise of the series is something of an eye-opener (Edwards plays a headmaster who delights in caning the boys in his charge).  A Muir/Norden vehicle that’s historically interesting rather than amusing, if it succeeds at all then it’s thanks to Edwards’ performance.

Billy Cotton and his Band are on hand for a good old singalong and knees-up, he certainly seems to get the studio audience animated.  C’mon Simply/Network, etc – let’s get the remaining Billy Cotton shows on DVD, you know it makes sense!

It might seem a little odd to end in Dock Green as George Dixon (Jack Warner) toasts his family and friends around the dinner table, but Warner’s background was very much in LE – so much so that Dixon of  Dock Green was for many years made by the Light Entertainment Department rather than the Drama Department.  Warner delivers a lovely monologue and given that so little of Dixon exists, every little scrap is precious.  Maybe one day someone will scoop up all the existing B&W Dixon material to compliment the (mostly) complete colour stories released by Acorn.  C’mon again Simply/Network, etc – this makes sense too!

Christmas Night with the Stars 1958 has peaks and troughs, but overall it’s not a bad way to spend seventy minutes.

Hancock’s Half Hour – The Missing Page

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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

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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

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.

Christmas Night with the Stars

Christmas Night with the Stars was a BBC staple, running between 1958 and 1972 (with the exception of 1961, 1965 and 1966).  The format remained the same – a familiar face would introduce specially made Christmas editions of popular BBC shows (each running for about ten minutes).

There’s several examples on YouTube.  The 1958 edition, features Tony Hancock amongst others and is introduced by David Nixon.

The 1964 edition features the likes of James Bolam & Rodney Bewes in The Likely Lads and Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd in Hugh and I and is introduced by Jack Warner.

Tony Hancock in The Government Inspector (BBC 1958)

hancock

In 1958 Tony Hancock was riding high as the star of Hancock’s Half Hour, which was running on both BBC television and radio.

On the evening on the 9th of February 1958 he gave a rare straight acting performance in the BBC World Theatre production of Gogol’s The Government Inspector.

Hancock was bolstered by an impressive supporting cast (including Wilfred Brambell, Peter Copley and Noel Howlett) and he acquitted himself well – although he’s still recognisably Hancock.  Indeed, it would be easy to believe that some of his lines were written by Galton & Simpson, which is possibly why it was felt that this play would be a perfect fit for him.

This was such an obvious extra to include on the Hancock’s Half Hour DVD boxset, released a few years back, that its omission was baffling.  The only time it’s surfaced in recent years was when it was one of the programmes offered as part of the BBC Archive Trial (an online test service) in 2007.

Given that the BBC seem to have no interest at present in making this commercially available, I’ve decided to upload it my YouTube account.  Hopefully it’ll stay there for a while, which will allow a wider audience to enjoy this unique Hancock performance.

 

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

Introduction

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.”

Conclusion

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.