Today is the birthday (1924) of Anthony John “Tony” Hancock, English comedian and actor, and for my money the greatest comic of all time. Surprisingly a 2002 poll in the U.K. found that he was still ranked #1 out of all U.K. comedians.
Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, but from the age of three was brought up in Bournemouth where his father, John Hancock, who ran the Railway Hotel in Holdenhurst Road, worked as a comedian and entertainer. After his father’s death in 1934, Hancock and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel called Durlston Court. He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage, and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, but left school at the age of fifteen.
In 1942, during World War II, Hancock joined the RAF Regiment. Following a failed audition for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), he ended up on the Ralph Reader Gang Show. After the war, he returned to the stage and eventually worked as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, a venue which helped to launch the careers of many comedians at the time, and took part in radio shows such as Workers’ Playtime and Variety Bandbox.
Over 1951–52, for one series, Hancock was a cast member of Educating Archie, in which he mainly played the tutor (or foil) to the nominal star, a ventriloquist’s dummy. His appearance in this show brought him national recognition, and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show, “Flippin’ kids!”, became popular. The same year, he made regular appearances on BBC Television’s popular light entertainment show Kaleidoscope. In 1954, he was given his own BBC radio show, Hancock’s Half Hour.
Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock’s Half Hour lasted for seven years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and from 1956 ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name. The show starred Hancock as Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock living in the shabby “23 Railway Cuttings” in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. Some episodes, however, changed this to show him as being a successful actor and/or comedian, or occasionally as having a different career completely such as a struggling (and incompetent) barrister. Radio episodes were prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.
Sid James featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also included regulars Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister, Andrée Melly and Hattie Jacques. The series rejected the variety format then dominant in British radio comedy and instead used a form drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humor coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Owing to a contractual wrangle with producer Jack Hylton, Hancock had an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran in 1956 and 1957 either side of the first BBC television series.
During the run of his BBC radio and television series, Hancock became an enormous star in Britain. Like few others, he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes. His character changed slightly over the series, but even in the earliest episodes the key facets of ‘the lad himself’ were evident. It’s difficult to put into words what made his character(s) so funny. Chiefly, I think, it was his unique combination of cynicism, self aggrandizement, and a misplaced sense of his own worldly wisdom. On the show, and in life, he was not a happy man. On the show this was hilarious; in life it was not.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sid James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humor to come from the interaction between them. James’s character was the realist of the two, puncturing Hancock’s pretensions. His character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock’s apparent gullibility during the radio series, but in the television version there appeared to be a more genuine friendship between them.
Up until the Hancock series, every British television comedy show had been performed live owing to the technical limitations of the time. Hancock’s highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that, starting from the autumn 1959 series, all episodes of the programs were recorded before transmission. He was also the first performer to receive a £1,000 fee for his performances in a half-hour show.
Hancock became anxious that his work with James was turning them into a double act and the last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without James. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, contains famous lines such as, “A pint? Why, that’s very nearly an armful!” The other was The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from recording his position.
Returning home with his wife from recording “The Bowmans”, an episode based on a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a minor car accident and was thrown through the windscreen. He was not badly hurt, but suffered concussion and was unable to learn his lines for “The Blood Donor”, the next show due to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters, and could be seen looking at camera or away from other actors when delivering lines. From this time onwards, Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.
In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC’s Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview program conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions, but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, “It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. …Self-analysis – that was his killer.”
The usual argument is that Hancock’s mixture of egotism and self-doubt led to a spiral of self-destructiveness. Cited as evidence is his gradual ostracism of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Sid James, and finally his scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson. His reasoning was that to refine his craft, he had to ditch his catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well-known oily catchphrase ‘Good evening’. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, they knew it was just Williams doing a funny voice.
Hancock read widely and avidly in an attempt to discover “the meaning of life,” including large numbers of philosophers, classic novels and political books. He was a supporter of the Labour Party, and admired Michael Foot above any other politician.
Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel, where he plays the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain the film was not well received in the United States: owing to the existence of a contemporary television series of the same name, the film had to be renamed, and the new title, Call Me Genius, inflamed U.S. critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock “even less comical” than Norman Wisdom. British comedy has always had a mixed reception in the U.S. It’s a cultural thing; I cannot tolerate U.S. sitcoms.
His break with Galton and Simpson took place at a meeting held in October 1961, where he also broke with his long-term agent Beryl Vertue. During the previous six months, the writers had developed – without payment and in consultation with the comedian – three scripts for Hancock’s second starring film vehicle. Worried that the projects were wrong for him, the first two had been abandoned incomplete; the third was written to completion at the writers’ insistence, only for Hancock to reject it. Hancock is thought not to have read any of the screenplays. The result of the break was that Hancock chose to separately develop something previously discussed and the writers were ultimately commissioned to write a Comedy Playhouse series for the BBC, one of which, “The Offer”, emerged as the pilot for Steptoe and Son. To write that “something previously discussed”, which became The Punch and Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.
In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; Sylvia Syms plays his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier a sand sculptor. The depth to which the character played by Hancock had merged with Hancock himself is clear in the film, which owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth. I rank The Punch and Judy Man as one of the most brilliant movies of all time, especially its deeply insightful, and moving analysis of personality and culture.
He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, disagreed over script ideas and the two men severed their professional (but not personal) relationship. The initial writer of Hancock’s ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio and television series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock’s first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers were commissioned, including Terry Nation.
Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with the second series of Steptoe and Son written by Hancock’s former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favor Hancock’s series. Around 1965 Hancock made a series of 11 TV advertisements for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the ads with Patricia Hayes as Mrs Cravatte in an attempt to revive the Galton and Simpson style of scripts. Slightly earlier, in 1963, he featured in a spoof Hancock Report – hired by Lord Beeching to promote his plan to reduce railway mileage in advertisements. Hancock reportedly wanted to be paid what Beeching was paid annually – £34,000; he was offered half that amount for his services.
Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by then alcoholism had affected his performances. After hosting two unsuccessful variety series for ABC Television, The Blackpool Show and Hancock’s, he was contracted to make a 13-part series called Hancock Down Under for the Seven Network of Australian television. This was to be his first and only television series filmed in color; however, after arriving in Australia in March 1968 he only completed three programs, which remained unaired for several years.
Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney, on 24 June 1968. He was found dead in his Bellevue Hill flat with an empty vodka bottle and a scattering of amylo-barbitone tablets. In one of his suicide notes he wrote: “Things seemed to go too wrong too many times”. His ashes were brought back to the UK by satirist Willie Rushton in an Air France hold-all, in the first-class cabin in deference to his fame. They were buried in St. Dunstan’s Church in Cranford, west London. Spike Milligan commented in 1989: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.” A tragic, but fitting, epitaph for a comic genius.
In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favorite British comedian. Commenting on this poll, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson observed that modern-day creations such as Alan Partridge and David Brent owed much of their success to mimicking dominant features of Tony Hancock’s character. “The thing they’ve all got in common is self-delusion,” they remarked in a statement issued by the BBC. “They all think they’re more intelligent than everyone else, more cultured, that people don’t recognise their true greatness – self-delusion in every sense. And there’s nothing people like better than failure.” Mary Kalemkerian, Head of Programmes for BBC 7, commented: “Classic comedians such as Tony Hancock and the Goons are obviously still firm favourites with BBC radio listeners. Age doesn’t seem to matter – if it’s funny, it’s funny.” Dan Peat of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society said of the poll: “It’s fantastic news. If he was alive he would have taken it one of two ways. He would probably have made some kind of dry crack, but in truth he would have been chuffed.”
This site has many of Hancock’s Half Hour videos all in one file. You can spend hours here.
Purchase College alums will find the origin of our old school colors, Heliotrope and Puce, here:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007wp6j (when it is available — the episode is called “The Last of the McHancocks”)
Given that Hancock spent part of his boyhood in Bournemouth, and used a south coast resort as the setting for The Punch and Judy Man, I thought English seaside food would be just the ticket for today’s recipe. I spent a few years of my infancy – in between Argentina and Australia – living with my great-aunt Lucy in Eastbourne. Not quite your typical south coast town ; more like “God’s waiting room” with all of its rich old ladies being wheeled along the front. But it’s a majestic place with a pier, bandstand, and decorative gardens. I return once in a while for fish and chips, cockles, mussels, fresh crab and the like. In a recent survey of Brits on their bucket lists (things to do before you die) in England, the number one was eating fish and chips on the beach. In the 1950s and 60s fish and chips came wrapped in newspaper, but Health and Safety put a stop to that. Now you get white butcher paper or a polystyrene container. Or . . . you can eat on the pier. That is, overall, a better option because you do not have to fight off the seagulls (my old friend in Eastbourne, Trish, calls them “flying rats”), as you do if you are eating directly on the beach or out in the open. Quality varies greatly from pier to pier unfortunately.
From my college days onward I’ve spent quite a few summers somewhere along the south coast of England from Kent to Cornwall. All have the classics of the Brit seafood world, but there are places that stand out for their specialties. I’ve never been able to get my fill of prawn sandwiches in Swanage, honeycomb ice cream in Sidmouth (bathed in Devonshire clotted cream), or whitebait and fresh sardines in Padstow. But, of all of these delights, crab sandwiches in Cornwall are the cat’s whiskers for me. The key for me is SIMPLICITY. You can add all manner of ingredients such as fancy herbs, celery etc etc. All I want is fresh, fresh, fresh crab, mayonnaise, a little parsley and lemon, and hearty brown bread. I prefer my own mayonnaise but store bought will do. ALWAYS use fresh crab.
Start with fresh, live crab – one per sandwich. Place in boiling, salted water for about 10 minutes per pound. Remove the pot from the stove and let cool until you can handle the crabs.
Twist off the claws and legs. Reserve the les for stock unless you fancy an endless job scrounging for tiny bits of meat. Crack the claws gently with a nutcracker. Do not smash them because you will get shell fragments in the meat. Remove the meat with a nut pick or similar. A toothpick will do. With the crab on its back you will see an outlined shape – fat on females, more slender on males. You can pry this open with a knife, or holding the body in both hands, push at the base with both thumbs. This exposes the meat.
Pull away and discard the feathery white lungs (‘dead man’s fingers’). Pull away the stomach sac. You will find both white meat and brown meat. If you like you can separate them and use them in layers in the sandwich. I usually just mix them together. Take your time because there is lots of meat in hidden corners.
Place the meat in a metal bowl and shake. If you have missed any bits of shell you will hear it clicking and you can take it out. Mix with a little mayonnaise, chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. Go easy on the mayonnaise, the crab is the main player. Slice a whole loaf of brown bread – not too thickly – spread the crab mix on one side, top with the other, cut in half diagonally and serve with a simple salad of greens and tomato drizzled with olive oil and a drop of lemon juice.
Try not to eat the sarnie in one bite. On a good day I have four.
A final episode for old time foodies:
Saveloy and chips with brown sauce, please. Fried egg sandwich for the missus.