- Category : Comedian
- Type : PE
- Profile : 3/5 - Martyr / Heretic
- Definition : Split - Small (12)
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Explanation 2
Anthony John "Tony" Hancock (12 May 1924 – 24 June 1968) was a popular British actor and comedian.
Early life and career
Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, England, 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, Tony and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel then known as The Durlston Court (now renamed The Quality Hotel). He was educated at Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage and Bradfield College in Reading, 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, home to many comedians and actors of the period and worked on radio shows such as Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox.
In 1951, Hancock gained a part in Educating Archie, where he played the tutor and foil to the nominal star, a ventriloquist's dummy. This brought him recognition and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show ("Flippin' kids!") became popular parlance. 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.
Hancock's peak years
Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour lasted for five 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, a more expansive version of Hancock himself, living in the shabby "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 (notably episodes where he is portrayed as a struggling barrister. Radio episodes were also prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as portraying Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.
Sidney James (as Sid was then billed) 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 pioneered a style drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humour coming from the characters and the situations they found themselves in. Hancock also made an ITV series The Tony Hancock Show during this period, which ran for two series in 1956–57.
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. Later episodes were regarded as classics, even in their time. "A Sunday Afternoon At Home" and "Wild Man Of The Woods" were top rating shows and were later released as an LP. The former is not only considered to be among the very best of the Hancock ensemble pieces , but also a near perfect evocation of a dreary 1950s afternoon.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sid James became increasingly important to the show as it transferred from radio to television. The regular cast was reduced to just Hancock and James, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between the two men. James was the realist of the two, with a down to earth approach that would puncture 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 the two.
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. Despite the contemporary criticism of this development, many now consider this final series to contain some of the best of Hancock's television work. Two episodes are among his best-remembered work: 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 doctor's response: 'You won't have an empty arm... or an empty anything!') Another well-known episode is 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 taking its position. Both of these episodes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available ever since.
Returning home with his wife from recording "The Bowmans" episode, a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, despite going through the car windscreen, but he did suffer concussion and he was unable to learn his lines for "The Blood Donor", the next episode to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script). Viewers of the programme may notice that he is not always looking at the other actors, but in another direction entirely. Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.
Hancock had two notable milestones in comedy. The first was the way he and his writers changed the way that comedy was made; the second, that he was the first TV artist of any genre to be paid more than £1000 for a single half-hour programme.
Up until Hancock’s TV series, every British comedy show was performed live. Hancock's highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that the Hancock programmes came to be pre-recorded, initially as telerecordings and later recorded on 2" video tape. The cost of this horrified the executives at the BBC, but they agreed to give it a try, no doubt influenced by the success of American sitcoms such as I Love Lucy or The Phil Silvers Show ('Sergeant Bilko'), which had been pre-filming their material for several years. The result was that making a British sitcom became more like making a film. At this time, it was usually only practical to shoot individual scenes; any serious problems would only necessitate returning to the beginning of a scene. The difference this made to the flow and continuity of a show was immediately apparent. Within a few years, it became standard practice to work in this way.
In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme 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 depression.
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 ostracisation of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques, 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. His final BBC TV series was performed with actors playing the supporting parts, and by doing so, he created a new way of doing comedy.
Hancock read huge amounts, desperately trying to find out the 'why we are here' of life. He read large numbers of philosophers, classic novels and political books. He would sink into alcoholic depressions, decrying it all as pointless.
The break with Galton and Simpson
Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel (released as Call Me Genius in the US) where he played the role of an office worker-turned-artist who meets international acclaim after moving to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. The film was not well received in the United States; owing to a conflict with a contemporary television series, the film had to be renamed and the new title inflamed American critics. Hancock was later to dismiss the film as crude, and its failure in America was a contributory factor in his disastrous break with his writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, after the last television series for the BBC. This has often been described as the worst decision of his career.
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 three scripts for Hancock's second starring film vehicle in consultation with the comedian. 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, played by two straight actors, Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett. To write that "something previously discussed", which became The Punch And Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with Hancock to co-write the screenplay.
In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock played a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; after Billie Whitelaw withdrew, Sylvia Syms played 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 that of the actor is clear in the film. The scene at the beginning, where Hancock and his wife eat breakfast in total silence, is drawn from the star's own life. When Hancock first read the scene, he looked at Phillip Oakes, and his only comment was 'You bastard...' Hancock knew that the film was going to be about him, and the film owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth.
The film's humour is bitter-sweet and understated, and this has been cited as contributing to its commercial failure, both in Britain and America. Other commentators cite the change of scriptwriters after Galton & Simpson's departure; Hancock himself blamed Mr Punch.
He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, whom Oakes, retained as an advisor, did not value, and they severed their professional relationship. The principal writer of Hancock's ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the George Cole radio and television success A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock's first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope). Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers assisted, including Terry Nation.
Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with Steptoe and Son written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favour Hancock's series. Around 1965 Hancock made a series of TV adverts for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the adverts with Patricia Hayes and effectively sulked his way through the series of adverts in a pastiche of the Galton and Simpson scripts.
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. Hancock went to Australia in March 1968, but only completed three programmes. He committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney on 24 June 1968, being found dead in his Sydney flat with an empty vodka bottle and an empty bottle of sleeping pills at his side. In one of his suicide notes he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to UK in an Air France hold-all by satirist Willie Rushton and in deference to his fame and knowing love of cricket, his ashes travelled back in the first class cabin.
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."
In June 1950, Hancock married model Cicely Romanis, after a brief courtship. It was a turbulent relationship; Hancock hit her on occasion, but her knowledge of martial arts meant that Hancock usually came off worst in these altercations. Alcohol was the ultimate source of the conflict, as his wife developed her own dependency, and Hancock could not handle a woman being drunk.
The situation became more complicated as Freddie Ross (who worked as his publicist from 1954) became more involved in his life, eventually becoming his mistress. This relationship was also to be scarred by Hancock's capacity for violence. He divorced his first wife in 1965, and married Freddie in December of that year. This second marriage was short-lived. During these years Hancock was also involved with Joan Le Mesurier, the new wife of actor John Le Mesurier, Hancock's best friend and a regular supporting character-actor from his television series. Joan was later to describe the relationship in her book Lady Don't Fall Backwards, including the fact that her husband readily forgave the affair. If it had been anyone else, he said, he wouldn't have understood it, but with Tony Hancock, it made sense. In July 1966, Freddie took one overdose too many. She had been trying to shock Hancock into reforming himself. Arriving in Blackpool to record an edition of his variety series, Hancock was met by pressmen asking about his wife's attempted suicide. His wife, he felt, had tried to destroy his career. The final dissolution of the marriage took place a few days ahead of Hancock's suicide.
Hancock's first wife died from her own problems with alcohol in 1969, the year after the death of her former husband. Freddie Hancock has been based in New York City for many years; she is a prominent member of the New York chapter of BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
There is a sculpture by Bruce Williams (1996) in his honour in Old Square, Corporation Street, Birmingham, a plaque on the house where he was born in Hall Green, Birmingham and a plaque on the wall of the hotel in Bournemouth where he spent some of his early life.
In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favourite 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."
In a 2005 poll to find 'The Comedian's Comedian' Hancock was voted the twelfth greatest comedian by fellow comics and 'comedy insiders'.
The last eight or so years of Tony Hancock's life was the subject of a 1991 BBC 'Screen One' television movie, called Hancock, starring Alfred Molina.
Hancock's affair with Joan Le Mesurier was also dramatised in Hancock and Joan on BBC Four and transmitted on 26 March 2008 as part of the Curse of Comedy series. Hancock was portrayed by Ken Stott and Joan by Maxine Peake.
The Welsh alternative rock band Manic Street Preachers named their 2007 album "Send Away The Tigers" after a phrase Hancock used to refer to "battling one's inner demons by getting drunk". The album opens with lines referring to Hancock's final days: "There’s no hope in the colonies / So catch yourself a lifeline / Things have gone wrong too many times / So catch yourself a slow boat to China" .
Musician Pete Doherty is a fan of Hancock and entitled the first album by his band The Libertines Up the Bracket after one of Hancock's catch phrases ("Are you looking for a punch up the bracket?" / "I'll give you a punch up the bracket"). He also wrote a song called 'Lady Don't Fall Backwards' in his honour. The title is the same as the book in the Hancock's Half Hour episode The Missing Page. The Libertines mention him in their song "You're My Waterloo", stating "But I’m not Tony Hancock baby" after the line "But you’re not Judy Garland". The opening track of Up The Bracket also features an approximation of a line from Hancock's Half Hour episode The Poetry Society: "Lead pipes are fortune made".
The Dogs D'Amour referenced Hancock in two of their songs, "Wait till I'm dead" which was taken from a line in The Rebel and closed with a spoken comment taken from the film, and "Kiss this Joint" which opens with the line "He took 'is life back in 68".
Pop Will Eat Itself mentioned Hancock in a song entitled "Eat Me Drink Me Love Me Kill Me" from their Looks or the Lifestyle album. The line states "Drain myself away like Hancock in Sydney".
Episodes (and anthologies) from the radio series were released on vinyl LP in the 1960s, as well as several re-enactments of television scripts; an annual LP was issued of radio episodes (without the incidental music) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Much of this material was also available on cassette in later years.
More recently, the BBC has issued CDs of the surviving seventy-four radio episodes in six box sets, one per series, with the sixth box containing several out-of-series specials. This was followed by the release of one large boxed set containing all the others in a special presentation case; while it includes no extra material, the larger box alone (without any CDs) still fetches high prices on online marketplaces like eBay, where Hancock memorabilia remains a thriving industry. There have also been VHS video releases of the BBC TV series.