To see / 31 December 2018

The Nation's Favourite Comedian

Tony Hancock's Half Hour

Tony Hancock, replete with signature Homburg hat, sits opposite a nurse. ‘I've been thinking about this for a long time’, he tells her. ‘Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be, I thought: Become a blood donor or join the Young Conservatives? Anyway, as I'm not looking for a wife and I can't play table tennis, here I am’. This simple exchange, with its grandiosity coupled to an underlying vulnerability and failure, encapsulates what made Hancock the nation’s favourite comedian, and the show’s writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the nation’s greatest comic writers of the last century.

Simpson died in February 2017, followed by Galton in October of this year. The pair met as teenagers, in 1948, in Milford Sanatorium, Godalming, where they were both being treated for tuberculosis. TB was still highly prevalent in the UK, a symptom of poor sanitation combined with overcrowding and malnutrition. In spite of the post-war settlement – the creation of the National Health Service and the welfare state – fifties Britain remained a place of great inequality and economic austerity. Rationing persisted on some items until 1954. Many working-class homes still had no central heating or indoor bath or toilet. Butchers shops were yet to display meat either behind glass or in refrigerators. There was a sense that Britain was being left behind, a nation ill at ease with itself and its place in the world. Confirmation came with the country’s disastrous foray at Suez, in 1956.

Tony Hancock

Thus, the figure of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, the know-nothing know-it-all, with a pompous, grandiose sense of both himself and his country, spoke not only of ourselves, but also with self-deprecation of the nation itself. While the writers’ sympathies clearly lay on the left – Galton had worked at the Transport and General Workers’ Union – the character of Hancock satirises a certain kind of small ‘c’ conservative. His occasional affectation of a public school manner, a Victorian man of Empire, invoking the language of certain kind of colonial, adventure yarn – ‘the chaps, white men like that’ – channels a desire to recapture some lost British identity. Yet it is clear that not only is this an identity to which Hancock has no claim, it is one which has never existed.

The show ran on radio for six series, from 1954-59, and for seven on television, from 1956-61. Up until then, comedy had been the preserve of variety or review shows. Hancock’s Half Hour pioneered the situation comedy, or sitcom as it has become known, with humour entirely derived from situation or character. This was driven as much by Hancock as his writers. Like many of his contemporaries, Hancock’s career began entertaining his fellow servicemen during the war. Even then, observers would recall that any performance of his that did not rely on character instantly fell flat. He was, therefore, well-matched with Galton and Simpson, who wanted to move away from the funny voices and catchphrases, which were the hallmarks of variety.

In many respects, Hancock was an actor, rather than a comedian. He was fascinated by character, interrogating its many dimensions, in constant pursuit of consistency, realism and psychological depth. Indeed, his uneasy relationship with co-star, Kenneth Williams, was in part due to his belief that Williams’ repertoire of voices and one-liners meant the audience saw through him.

Unlike contemporary sitcoms, the show was not a serial. The only constant, week to week, was the character of Hancock himself. Even his most regular co-stars, Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr and Kenneth Williams, came and went, while Sidney James appeared throughout the radio series and made it to all but the final run on TV.

At its heart, the show relies on multiple layers of dramatic irony and the psychological distance Hancock places between himself and his character. The audience always knows more than this know-it-all. When he boasts of his appreciation of ‘finer classical music’ like Gilbert and Sullivan, talks of ‘a Beethoven painting’ and parodies John Osborne, we laugh at him in the exact same manner he tries to laugh at others. Yet, this is a further layer of irony, for we are engaged in the same act of sneering condescension for which he is condemned. This is the root of our unease and sympathy with him. We have to sympathise, for we are no better.

The addition of Kerr, an Australian, opened the show up. Hancock’s treatment of him and pronouncements about the British played up to some of the worst excesses and stereotypes of a certain kind of Englishman. Indeed, the character of Hancock is distinctly English, as opposed to British. In The Last of the McHancocks and The Blood Donor he demonstrates a caricatured and superior attitude towards the Scots; he takes pride in English history, in spite of being ignorant of it – such as his famous line, ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain’?

He is a snob, a fantasist; pretentious and grandiose. He has a deep sense of entitlement, while at the same time is bitter at the world for failing to recognise his genius. Yet, as June Whitfield observed, we love, as well as laugh at, him due to his vulnerability. He can display a child’s delight at the world, be it garden birds, cornflakes that go ‘snap, crackle and pop’ or toys in cereal packets. ‘Ooo, a cardboard fort and a Red Indian’, he says. ‘That’s worth having’.

The writer, J. B. Priestley, wrote that Hancock did not aim for pathos, so much as depth. In spite of his absurdity, there is also something noble: He desperately wants to realise his potential, to make something of himself, to understand a little better. Yet, every week, as the tuba sounds for the opening credits, we know that once again he will be doomed to failure. ‘He was a combination of all our failing, all our aspirations’, said Simpson. His character is universal.

The later series have a genuine claim to greatness. Long before Harold Pinter deployed the pause to such effect in theatre, Hancock realised he could use silence in service to comedy. In a medium where silence is feared, this was deemed adventurous, if not dangerous. In ‘The Publicity Photograph’, when its suggested to him that one of his legs has been split up the middle and moved over, to make them appear thinner, he stops, waiting long enough to suggest his examining the image, before he adds, ‘He’s right, you know. He has’.

Also present are pared-down dialogue, meaningless exchanges at cross purposes or that talk over each other, a precision of language that evokes character and, increasingly, an underlying violence – both threatened and realised. Galton recalled going to see Pinter’s The Caretaker, in 1960. ‘I told Hancock, “You must go to see it, it's very funny”. I think they had to drag him out – he was falling about on the floor laughing so much’. Simpson added, ‘Then he told us, “I don't understand it – you've been writing this stuff for ages”’!

The comparisons didn’t end there. The British Film Institute likens Hancock’s Half Hour to Samuel Beckett: ‘As evocative of post-war ennui as Waiting for Godot’. Later episodes materialise the character’s imprisonment in his own world, institutionalised at home or hospital, trapped in a lift, always facing the relentless march of time. ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’ simply has the cast sat around waiting for Monday; ‘The Sleepless Night’ has Hancock driven to distraction by all the petty disturbances to a good night’s sleep.

Galton and Simpson rated ‘The Poetry Society’ their finest, with academics and critics complimenting them on avant-garde poetry only meant as spoof. Similar themes are explored in The Rebel, their only feature film together, and which Lucian Freud thought the greatest film ever made about modern art. In it, Hancock is a hopeless painter but, because he behaves like a genius and uses the appropriate language, everyone falls for it and the work he fraudulently passes off as his own.

Galton, Simpson and Hancock all seemed concerned with recognition of true artistic value, as opposed to the poseur with works of hollow pretention. One wonders whether this was in part about their own status, the reception of their own work relative to others in the ‘straight’ literary tradition. Is it, as Hancock says grudgingly in ‘The Impersonator’ that, ‘People in this country respect you when you don’t get laughs’?

Hancock himself seemed especially afflicted. The Punch and Judy Man, a film he co-wrote and starred in, follows a series of entertainers at a seaside resort. They are all on society’s fringes. Poor, mocked and misunderstood, they are defined by their pursuit of artistic purity. Hancock’s own quest for perfection and an understanding of his art constantly infected him with doubt as to his own ability. Increasingly self-conscious, Sylvia Sims recalled him as hilarious off-set, only to work a scene or joke to death when on it.

Arguably, Hancock gave so much of himself that the line between him and his character got lost. Sentiments he had expressed in deep sincerity, when out drinking with his writers, would appear verbatim in next week’s script. Simpson acknowledged the debt, ‘We created the Hancock character in his own image. That’s what it amounts to really’, while confirming the man himself was more intellectual, cultivated and intelligent than the character he played. When asked, on Radio Newsreel, whether he played artists and intellectuals because he really aspired to be one, Hancock’s reply could have been that of his creation:

HANCOCK: Well actually I think I am deep down, you know. It’s never been appreciated entirely. But I think it’s there. I think I can safely say that. It’s only a question of time.

INTERVIEWER: Before what?

HANCOCK: Before it’s recognised.

INTERVIEWER: What’re you going to do when it’s recognised?

HANCOCK: I shall be away, shan’t I?

Tony Hancock took his own life in 1968. He had suffered a steep decline, following his split with Galton and Simpson. Yet the show’s popularity has endured. In 2002, BBC Radio listeners voted Tony Hancock the nation’s favourite comedian. While Hancock’s Half Hour has created a form that has endured for decades. The tripartite hierarchy of James, Hancock and Kerr has been replicated in shows as diverse as Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Yes, Minister. Even the English tradition of boiled egg and ‘soldiers’– buttered strips of toast for dipping – is a legacy of the show, originating in a campaign by the Egg Marketing Board!

The character has defined a very particular kind of British, comic icon. The Englishman with noble instincts, yet pompous, self-regard can be seen in Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring; the chasm between self-image and reality, the optimism in the face of repeated failure is there in Del Boy, in Only Fools and Horses; an affection, coupled with ridicule, for those who try to break out of bourgeois norms are at play in The Good Life. Galton and Simpson themselves claimed that modern-day creations, such as Alan Partridge and David Brent, owed much of their success to aping the Hancock character. ‘The thing they’ve all got in common is self-delusion’, the pair told 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’.

There is, or at least was, a very British sense that to boast of one’s superiority was not done. The man – or nation – who was truly superior had no need to boast of it. Psychology claims such a thing belies a deep inadequacy. When first aired, Hancock’s Half Hour seemed to offer, in Hancock, a means of national self-deprecation: A laugh at an Englishman with grand ideas about himself, a self-importance that bore no relation to reality, at a time when the UK struggled to reconcile itself to a new reality in the aftermath of a ruinous victory and its loss of empire. It held up a mirror to reveal all our faults, but, at the same time, safely set them apart. We could see what we risked becoming if left in thrall to ourselves.

So, it is chilling to reflect on the similarities between Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock and leading UK political figures of today. His flaws are great in a national comic icon. Not so much when they become a national identity. Now it seems that fantasy is to be applauded not debunked; falsity taken as a sign of conviction, not deception; national exceptionalism is seen as patriotism, not bigotry. Rather than confronting the gap between how the world sees us and how we see ourselves, we can take comfort in the delusion that the world is always wrong.

Hancock was never a grotesque, he never demanded our pity. Yet he troubles us, because we are forced to recognise that part of him in us. The moments of greatest poignancy are also those closest to realisation – realisation masked by denial. ‘I could have been somebody’, he says. ‘I just didn’t feel like it, that’s all’. Hancock’s Half Hour is at its most astute when we are not allowed to get away with it. Or in other words: it is ok to laugh at Hancock so long as we accept the self-knowledge he will always refuse. A failure to realise that the joke is also on us means a collapse of the layers of dramatic irony on which the show depends. Then irony is dead. We are all Hancock now.