Last night I went to the National Film Theatre to see Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s missing Tony Hancock film ‘The Day Off’ performed live on stage, and found myself – as an incredible piece of luck would have it – sitting next to my comedy heroes, now in their eighties, who were interviewed after the ‘film’. I was able to chat to them for about twenty minutes, and they talked me through the genesis of the project, which you can read a full account of here. What I had wanted to say to them was ‘You inspired me to write comedy. I owe my career to you.’ What I said was ‘I was nicking your jokes for years.’
Galton and Simpson had given Hancock a huge hit with ‘The Rebel’, and he wanted a follow-up. They delivered the story of Hancock, now a bus driver, on his day off, arguing with his landlady and various people around Hammersmith, meeting a girl in the Palais, messing up the date and going home.
It’s virtually plotless, sad and very funny indeed. In it, Hancock meets up with another bus driver, and argues about the pointlessness of saving and withdrawing the same amount each week with his bank. He tries to bully a man on a park bench into admitting he feels insignificant, and fails. He loses an argument about wasps and bees. He meets Charlotte, a girl who works in a dress shop, and pretends he’s an architect building a cathedral, while she pretends she’s a model. He forces her to have a dessert she doesn’t want because she needs to stay model-thin. Hancock gets found out just before a touching goodnight kiss, and the romance turns sour. The film ends as it begins, with Hancock going home alone as the weather-girl announces tomorrow will be a sunny day – for those with a day off.
When asked how they still work together, Galton said about Simpson, ‘I help him upstairs and he tells me what day it is.’ They agree that the script’s downbeat ending is funnier because ‘failures are funny, successful people are not’. This reached a heartbreaking level in Steptoe and Son.
Hancock decided the film was not international enough, and instead made the far more parochial ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Galton and Simpson put away the unloved script and made the pilot for ‘Steptoe And Son’ instead. It was Hancock’s loss, and the beginning of his end.