Tony Hancock’s 90th Birthday

The Arts

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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…

16 comments on “Tony Hancock’s 90th Birthday”

  1. Ness says:

    Fear not, I was indoctrinated into the humour of Hancock at a young age and am passing on the legacy. I would donate blood but I was living in the UK during the mad cow crisis so am permanently banned from the blood bank. I’m still searching for the missing last page of that library book though – probably explains why I grew up to work in a library.

    Probably shouldn’t mention Australia in this context just as one should not mention the war in other unrelated ones.

  2. Gareth says:

    Happy birthday Tub. I grew up listening to Dad’s old tape recordings of the radio shows. I reckon the radio shows were funnier with Sid and Bill and the rest of the cast to play off.
    Wonderful that the BBC still play them on Radio 4 Extra. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00898pr

  3. Jo W says:

    Hancock’s Half Hour- as soon as recordings were released by the BBC, my family bought them or recorded other episodes ( on a reel to reel recorder). When my boys were growing up,they listened again and again. We can still get together and recite all of Sunday Afternoon. Of course the concept of the boring,souless,Sundays of our childhood had to be explained to them. Thank goodness for the radio back then. A line that often pops up is ” It’s raining you know- oh,so that’s what’s making the roads wet!”

  4. dave says:

    Thanks for that Chris, haven’t listened to it for years.

  5. Alan Morgan says:

    If there’s any group that also appreciates Hancock, it’s here. As we sit on the long park bench that is this site, in macs and a variety of hats, paper bags of crumbs for the ducks, nodding sagely to one another. My dad had a good few of the Half Hours on reel-to-reel. Lucky really as Hancock died the year I was born and I’d probably never have known of them otherwise.

  6. BangBang!! says:

    Me and the 80 year old lady two doors down are the only ones I know who could quote any Hancock. Alan is quite right, this is one place on the ‘net where you could guarantee a fair few people would be very familiar with him.

  7. admin says:

    The missing episodes are being rerecorded with new actors (the first series was patchy but the voices were very good). All shows will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday’s at 11:30 am as follows:

    23/11/15: How Hancock Won The War

    30/11/15: The Red Planet

    07/12/15: The Marriage Bureau

    14/12/15: A Visit to Russia

    21/12/15: The Trial of Father Christmas

    The Red Planet, A Visit to Russia and The Trial of Father Christmas will all be broadcast 60 years to the day after their original transmission.

    The second series of The Missing Hancocks is due to be released on CD on 4th February 2016.

  8. Vivienne says:

    I am going to take this in small doses. I think i have just aged a century listening to that. Really surprised that I survived those Sundays with any energy whatsoever. And to think Hancock was one of the few things to look forward to – a sort of addiction to boredom! (Nice to be reminded of those square liquorice all sorts that are black and white –
    Not sure you can still buy a quarter in a paper bag though).

  9. Reuben says:

    Still listen to Hancock every week on Radio 4 Extra along with the Steptoe & Son reruns. Like you say, I was surprised returning to S&S how nasty they were, not a cosy comedy.
    Glad to hear there is going to be another series of Lost Hancock’s. I think the one about running a newspaper was my favourite from the last series.
    Interested to hear about your ‘over length version’ of Sunday afternoon. There was a piece on Radio 4 a few months back where it seems they discovered a few more of these versions and were planning to release them next year after they have finished releasing their current series of Hancock reissues.

  10. admin says:

    Yes, Auntie will milk a few more pence from us poor suckers yet!

  11. Richard B says:

    The Ashtray’, by Anthony.
    Steel rods of reason through my head.
    Salmon jumping, where jump I?
    Camels on fire, and spotted clouds.
    Striped horses prance the meadow wild,
    And rush on to drink at life’s fountains deep.
    Life is Cream. I am puce.
    Ching. Chang. Cholla.

    That sums it all up I think

  12. Stuart says:

    The Scandal Mag was my favourite Hancock – Sid James running a salacious magazine running scandalous stories – “what was Tony Hancock doing under the table with the cigarette girl at the Bag o’ Nuts ?”. Kenneth Williams as the judge. Hancock acts for himself in the court case. I had a few of the albums and played them to death. Like Alan I was born around the time of Hancocks death but got into the radio shows at school along with The Goon Show. The Last of the McHancocks was also incredibly funny and featured James Robertson Justice. As I recall the local library was a great way of listening to this sort of thing. Happy Days.

  13. Wayne Mook says:

    Hancock is marvellous, I was born less than 6 months after he died so still heard a lot of these through relatives. 4 Extra is a treasure.

    Wayne.

  14. Peter Dixon says:

    I’ve got the actual book that Hancock was reading with the missing last page (his book had the missing page – mine is intact because I got it from a different library).
    It was written by the wonderfully named D’Arcy Glinto and isn’t even vaguely worth reading.

  15. admin says:

    Peter – Isn’t that book by Darcy Sarto? I’ve just made him a character in the next Bryant & May book!

  16. Chris McCall says:

    His sardonic Brummie disposition still resonates around the city of his birth. It’s odd that he left Birmingham when he was three years old but I always seem to think he has a Brummie accent in the shows.

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