Almost As Good As The Real Thing
The BBC gets a lot of stick about what it saved from the postwar years and what it wiped, but back then it was hard to know what would stand the test of time. They kept many Shakespearian productions which have often weathered badly and threw away daily ephemera, much of which is now fascinating for what it reveals about our society then. Nobody knew that the Tony Hancock shows would prove so groundbreaking; the world’s first proper sitcom, the first realistic comedy show, the template for decades of humour.
As noted in an early column, BBC Radio 4 set out to recreate some lost episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, with a new cast including Pirates of the Caribbean actor Kevin McNally in the title role originally taken by the late Lad from East Cheam.
The missing shows are now airing and turn out not to be an exercise in necrophilia at all. They consist of five of the 20 episodes missing from the archives, and are being broadcast to mark the 60th anniversary of the show’s first transmission. The first, ‘The Matador’, in which Sid James inveigles Hancock into getting in a bullring, is one of the more fanciful, but what they showcase beautifully is how well structured Galton and Simpson’s writing is.
Galton and Simpson changed the face of broadcast humour by writing about the working classes with more realism and pathos than anyone had previously attempted. The feature script that Hancock foolishly turned down was modelled on the work of Jacques Tati and Fernandel. ‘The Day Off’ was a plotless film which echoed Pinter more than it did the traditional joke-punchline comedies that had been produced until then. It was staged in London, where I was thrilled to meet the writers (it’s nice to have the roles reversed sometimes and become a fan).
With this revival in interest, I wonder if they’ll remake the remaining shows to preserve them? The perpetually parlous state of the British film industry (as chronicled in my book ‘Film Freak’) remains, so maybe they won’t get ‘The Day Off’ up and running, but these shows will do nicely in the meantime.