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Tony Hancock in about 1963
|Born||Anthony John Hancock
12 May 1924
Hall Green, Birmingham, England
|Died||24 June 1968
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Cicely J. E. Romanis (m. 1950–1965)
Anthony John "Tony" Hancock (12 May 1924 – 24 June 1968) was an English comedian and actor.
Popular during the 1950s and early 1960s, he had a major success with his BBC series Hancock's Half Hour, first on Radio from 1954, then on television from 1956, in which he soon formed a strong professional and personal bond with comic actor Sid James. Although Hancock's decision to cease working with James around 1960 disappointed many of his fans at the time, his last BBC series in 1961 contains some of his best remembered work ("The Blood Donor"). After breaking with his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson later that year, his career took a downward course because of Hancock's increasing dependence on alcohol.
Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, England, (some sources incorrectly say Small Heath, a different Birmingham district) 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, Hancock and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather at a small hotel then called The Durlston Court (now renamed Hotel Celebrity). He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school at Durlston in Swanage (moved during World War II and now located in Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire) and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, 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 Theatre, a venue which helped to launch the careers of many comedians at the time, and worked on radio shows such as Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox.
Over 1951–52, for one series, Hancock was a cast member of Educating Archie, in which he mainly played the tutor (or foil) to the nominal star, a ventriloquist's dummy. His appearance in this show brought him national 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 eponymous BBC radio show, Hancock's Half Hour.
Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour lasted for seven years (including television) 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 living in the shabby "23 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 such as a struggling (and incompetent) barrister. Radio episodes were also prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.
Sidney James 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 used a form drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humour coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Owing to a contractual wrangle with producer Jack Hylton, Hancock had an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran in 1956 and 1957 either side of the first BBC television series.
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. "Sunday Afternoon at Home" and "The Wild Man of the Woods" were top-rating shows and were later released as an LP.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sidney James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between them. James' character was the realist of the two, puncturing 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 them.
Up until the Hancock series, every British television comedy show had been performed live owing to the technical limitations of the time. Hancock's highly strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that, starting from 1959 Hancocks Half Hour, the programmes were recorded before transmission. He was also the first performer to receive a £1,000 fee for his performances in a half-hour show.
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. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: 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 instalment 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 his position. Both of these programmes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available.
Returning home with his wife from recording "The Bowmans" episode, based around 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 show due 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. From this time onwards, Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.
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 difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, "It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. ...Self-analysis - that was his killer."
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 ostracism of those who contributed to his success: Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Sidney James, 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.
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 was a supporter of the Labour Party, and admired Michael Foot above any other politician.
Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel, where he played the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain the film was not well received in the United States: owing to the existence of a contemporary television series of the same name, the film had to be renamed, and the new title, Call Me Genius, inflamed American critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock "even less comical" than Norman Wisdom.
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. To write that "something previously discussed", which became The Punch and Judy Man, Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.
In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock played a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; 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. When Hancock first read the script, 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.
He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, did not value their work, and the two men severed their professional relationship. The principal writer of Hancock's ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio and television series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock's first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers were commissioned, including Terry Nation.
Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with the second series of 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 11 TV adverts for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the adverts with Patricia Hayes as Mrs Cravatte in an attempt to revive the Galton and Simpson style of 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. This was to be his first and only television series filmed in colour; however, after arriving in Australia in March 1968 he only completed three programmes, which remained unaired for several years.
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. 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 (née Malin), 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 claim 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 an overdose, but survived. Arriving in Blackpool to record an edition of his variety series, Hancock was met by pressmen asking about his wife's attempted suicide. The final dissolution of the marriage took place a few days ahead of Hancock's own suicide.
Cicely developed her own problems with alcohol and died from a fall in 1969, the year after the death of her former husband. Freddie Hancock survived her broken marriage and resumed her career as a prominent publicist and agent in the film and television industry. She has been based in New York City for many years. She was the founder and prominent member of the East Coast chapter of BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
In one of his suicide notes he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to the UK in an Air France hold-all by satirist Willie Rushton and in reference to his fame and 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."
A memorial plaque marks the location of where Tony's and his mother's ashes were scattered at St Dunstan Church in Cranford Park (near Heathrow Airport).
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. There is also a plaque, placed by the Dead Poets Society, at 10 Grey Close, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where he lived in 1947 and 1948.
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 were the subject of a BBC 'Screen One' television movie, called Hancock (1991), starring Alfred Molina. Another BBC drama - Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006) - saw Martin Trenaman play the role of Hancock with Michael Sheen as Williams. 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 season. Hancock was portrayed by Ken Stott and Joan by Maxine Peake.
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. He also wrote a song called "Lady Don't Fall Backwards" after the book at the centre of the Hancock's Half Hour episode "The Missing Page".
Galton and Simpson were involved in a remake of six Hancock's Half Hour episodes starring Paul Merton in 1996 and, although not critically acclaimed, these do represent the most up-to-date revisiting of Hancock's work, 28 years after his death.
Episodes (and anthologies) from the radio series were released on vinyl LP in the 1960s, as well as four re-makes of television scripts; an annual LP was issued of radio episodes (without the incidental music) between 1980 and 1984. Much of this material was also available on cassette in later years.
The BBC 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.
While five separate Region 2 DVDs were previously issued, some of the surviving episodes were unavailable until The Tony Hancock BBC Collection (8 DVDs) surfaced in 2007. Episodes of the radio series are often broadcast on the digital radio station BBC Radio 4Extra.
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