Tony Hancock’s 90th Birthday
As comedian Tony Hancock would have now been 90, his writers Galton & Simpson (they deserve single name status) unveiled a blue plaque for him in Kensington and the Daily Telegraph ran 20 great quotes including; ‘Does the name Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’ and ‘Have I been sought out at parties? No. Sorted out and slung out, yes.’ He remains my touchstone comic, although I realise that in this I am championing his writers more than the actor, and wondering these days if there are many people left who have still heard of him.
The tragedy of his life still grips, particularly because we can see his own blindness – that he misunderstood why he was successful and was powerless without his writer’s words. We can even pinpoint the exact moment when he made the wrong decision leading to his downfall – the day he turned down his second film script from Galton & Simpson, ‘The Day Off’. But it’s the marriage of Galton & Simpson’s wit coupled with his perfect delivery in his work with them that survives.
I’m not a huge fan of the TV shows, particularly after his drinking affected his memory, and the radio series took a while to find its feet, but from Series 4 onwards perfection was reached, to the point where many of his quotes remain in my daily lexicon. ‘Pieces of Hancock’ was the first record album I ever heard (if you don’t count my mother’s copy of South Pacific, and I don’t). Even the liner notes were hilarious because G&S (like another sparkling British G&S) had filled it with excellent jokes. Next to the cast credits were photographs of an entirely extraneous couple, Uncle Bert and Auntie Edie in their back yard, as if they had squeezed themselves onto the album like mystery guests at a wedding.
Why do the Hancock’s Half Hour stories, tales of a self-deluding failed artist parted from his money by a conman, still resonate? Because the archetype is still with us, even if the details have changed. This gently faded, doomed faux-intellectual who was so defensive but accidentally bared his soul all the time is a classically funny/tragic idea. ‘I don’t ask for much from life, and I don’t get it.’ If it wasn’t so funny it would be unbearable.
Galton & Simpson took tragedy a step further into comedy in ‘Steptoe & Son’, some episodes of which now seem almost unwatchably cruel. But in their other writing they pulled off similar tricks, adapting Joe Orton for the big screen in ‘Loot’. ‘The Bargee’ is less revealing because the film is sunnier, and I haven’t tracked down ‘The Spy with the Cold Nose’, but they were – and are – the legacy of Hancock.
I recently discovered that my two versions of the episode ‘A Sunday Afternoon At Home’ are different. They were recorded over-length and edited down, and the one on the collectors’ box set is five minutes longer. This is the standard version, but I’ll post the other when I can find it in amongst all my stuff. It still perfectly captures the ghastliness of a postwar British Sunday…