Tony Hancock

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Tony Hancock Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 14/5/13

‘Look at you: thirty-five, over the hump. What have you achieved? What have you achieved? Two abandoned plays, three lay downs in Whitehall, two marches and a punch-up with the Empire loyalists. This is your life – a slim volume indeed. What happened to you? What went wrong? What went wrong?

‘What happened to all your dreams when you were sixteen? No, you lost your chance, me old son, you’ve contributed nothing to this life. A waste of time you being here at all. No plaque for you in Westminster Abbey. The best you can expect is a few daffodils in a jam jar, a rough hewn headstone with the inscription: “He came and he went and in between – nothing.” No one will even notice that you’re not here; after about a year afterwards, somebody might say down the pub, “‘Ere, where’s old Hancock? I haven’t seen him around here lately.” “Oh he’s dead, you know. Right, 301, then George, off we go.”

‘A right raison d’etre that is; no one will ever know I existed; nothing to leave behind me, nothing to pass on, nobody to mourn me. That’s the bitterest blow of all.’

The ‘human condition’ as perfectly encapsulated in the persona of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, the comic creation of scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and played to absolute perfection by the comedian Tony Hancock.

The desire to make one’s mark in society, to leave some tangible and beneficial legacy of one’s time on earth – it’s the universal dream amongst men. In a radio episode of Hancock’s Half Hour Tony believes he has finally found his direction in life as host to The ‘East Cheam Cultural Progressive Society.’ Bill Kerr and Sid James are unimpressed with his new lofty ambitions but Tony elaborates further on the stimulating possibilities of this new social circle.

“I was like you two: a useless vacuum, wandering in the wilderness of futility; no purpose in life. Then it happened. Last Thursday night, it was, I heard a group talking in the coffee-bar, it was like opening a new door. Everything seemed to suddenly fall into place. These are the people I’ve been looking for, I thought and I asked if I could join them. They weren’t keen at first; they weren’t sure if my intellect was of a sufficiently high standard…but I bought them a cup of coffee all round, and they let me join”.

As ever for the Hancock character, gullibility gives way to disenchantment, then indignation, followed by abject reality.

“I can’t be bothered with them. I’ll go down to the coffee-house. There’s bound to be another movement started up since yesterday. I’ll start one of me own. How did that poem of Sid’s go, now? “Mauve world, green me, black him, purple her.” That’s it, that’ll get ‘em, a breakaway group. We’ll be anti-everything. The new intellectual movement to shake the world……Or shall I go to the pictures? Yes, I might as well, I think that’s more my amour, really. Cab”.

I am Hancock, indeed every man is to a great extent. When we laugh at Hancock we laugh at ourselves. Just writing this commentary and drawing Tony – I mean I ask you. The whole process is indicative of some form of stunted growth, but I can laugh at myself; no bottle of pills to be consumed in one fell swoop on the other side of the world. If someone derives pleasure from hanging a portrait of mine (they look nice with a black mount and frame) what harm does it do? There’s a little boy in all men and it’s the male characteristic women acquaint themselves with early in life. I am 54 years old because my birth certificate says I am but that document is wrong. I’m really 10 when I’m drawing and 110 when I put on a suit and leave my home to work. All the trials and tribulations that engulfed Hancock, the search for comedy in its purest sense, the need for self analysis, the deconstruction of laugher and the rebuilding of its constituent elements, a fear of losing his gift for timing, all of these things were eventually his undoing. Since an instinctive ability cannot be underpinned by a certificate of academic achievement the fear exists that one day it will all be gone. As author JB Priestley once said: “He was a comedian with a touch of genius who had no enemy but himself.”

I find many young people today generally “quite unknowing”. It is perfectly natural for teenagers to want their own idols, but my generation of young friends still maintained some awareness of what had ‘gone before’. I kid you not that my portrait of Churchill has met with many a bemused expression from young people. I often wonder what exactly goes on in schools these days, but occasionally a young person offers some perspective on things past and present. The 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.” These facts alone do not make him exceptionally enlightened but merely a young man interested in a particular form of entertainment and inquisitive of its genre and history.

As for Tony the man, he was morose, quiet, distracted and uniquely observational of people and their surroundings. Quite naturally, he was also a warm and engaging host amongst friends, and was prone to infectious bouts of uproarious laughter. He had two failed marriages in his lifetime, no children and an affair with his best friend’s wife. A pitiable character lacking sufficient humility to re-engage his scriptwriters after he had broken from them in the early 60’s, and a chronic alcoholic prone to bursts of physical violence towards the women in his life. It’s a stark contrast to the hero of our small screens, and it says much for his comedic genius that I can still overlook all that I know about the private man to luxuriate in those wonderful shows.

Recommended listening

Hancock’s Half Hour (BBC Radio Series 1954-59)

Six series that defined radio comedy and set the benchmark for all that followed; 103 episodes in total and sadly not all intact within the BBC archives. Missing gems occasionally surface such as the mini HHH originally broadcast as part of the ‘Welcome to London’ broadcast, transmitted 3rd August 1958 on the old Light Programme, in essence a gala performance to celebrate the successful conclusion of the 1958 Commonwealth Games.

The important find was made while sorting through reel-to-reel recordings that comprise part of the Bob Monkhouse collection. The comedian, writer and game show host, who died in 2003, was an avid collector of film, TV and radio, and Kaleidoscope has been entrusted with cataloguing the vast collection.

Recommended viewing

Hancock’s Half Hour & Hancock (BBC Tv)

‘The Train Journey,’ ‘The Big Night,’ ‘The Cold,’ ‘Twelve angry Men,’ ‘The Radio Ham,’ ‘The Lift,’ ‘The Bowmans,’ ‘The New nose’ etc the list goes on – Hancock at his absolute zenith when the pubs would clear early on a Friday night to catch ‘the lad ‘imself.’

The Rebel (1961)

Hancock flees Britain to face artistic pretentiousness on the Champs-Elysees as he forges a new career in his chosen vocation. Mrs Cravat, clearly unimpressed with his work back home is unappreciative of his “burgeoning talent” and his need to escape the daily drudgery of office life. “Who’s that?”, she asks surveying one of Tony’s paintings. “It’s a self portrait” replies our hero. “Who of?” enquires the confused landlady!

The movie was a commercial success in Britain and Europe, although predictably the American market didn’t catch on; Hancock’s only colour film appearance during his peak period.

The Punch and Judy Man (1962)

I’ll go out on a limb here and state the case for this much maligned movie. Hancock plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life, Sylvia Syms 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 the writer 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.

Watch it if only for the first five minutes as Hancock struggles to comprehend the deeper significance of the BBC’s religious “Thought for the day” segment on his transistor radio. Adjusting his tie in readiness for the day ahead, his reactive expressions underline an understated genius.

The film has a tranquil quality to it, doesn’t try too hard, and the rapprochement between the warring husband and wife in the final breakfast table scene is touching and uplifting. They’re communicating at last and their future, seemingly against all odds , will be together.

The Egg Marketing Board commercials (1965)

Filmed when sufficient goodwill was all around – the BBC would re-screen choice episodes from the Half Hours that autumn to sizeable viewing figures – this is Hancock’s real swansong, and a poignant reminder of how great it might still have been.

Patricia Haynes adds her sartorial touch as Mrs Cravat while Hancock ripostes “Get a bit of glamour they said, oh dear oh dear.”

They don’t make them like this anymore – ten minutes of sheer magic.

Recommended reading

Tony Hancock: ‘Artiste’, A Tony Hancock Companion (Roger Wilmut) 1978, Eyre Methuen

A career retrospective detailing Hancock’s stage, radio, TV and film appearances with only as much attention paid to his private life as it affected his professional work; a worthy volume and sadly out of print for many years.

Hancock (David Nathan and Freddie Hancock (1969 [1996]), BBC Consumer Publishing

An insightful slim volume but lacking in total honesty since no mention is made of Hancock’s affair with Joan Le Mesurier.

Hancock’s Last Stand: The Series That Never Was ( Edward Joffe June 1998, foreword by June Whitfield, Book Guild Ltd Publishing)

This volume offers a fascinating insight into Hancock’s final days, written by the man who found Hancock’s body after his suicide. Nevertheless there’s little denying what surviving colour footage exists of this incomplete Australian series is torture to watch. Hancock’s once agile expressive features are cast in stone, he appears to shuffle instead of walk and the much loved comic looks two decades older than his 44 years. It’s a shambolic performance and I hate to admit it.

When The Wind Changed: The Life And Death Of Tony Hancock

(Cliff Goodwin ) 2000, Arrow – an extended, comprehensive biography.

Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography (John Fisher) 2008, Harper

It’s hard on Fisher as it is for all “Hancock aficionados” to reconcile the public image with the private torment.

When it all starts to go wrong for Tony, Fisher is reluctant to explore the morass of alcoholic self destruction; it’s as if the very assault on the writer’s sensibilities impair his objectivity. He’s clutching at straws, valiantly searching for redeeming features in the lad himself”. In essence, he’s struggling to reconcile the childhood wonder of seeing Hancock live in performance as a seven year old with this washed up apparition forlornly heading out to Australia and his “last chance saloon.” If the author is ostensibly so upset it’s a mark of the love we all felt for this man for we so wanted him to return reinvigorated with his comedic powers fully intact. In reality of course Hancock had been “dying” for years and a bottle of pills taken on the other side of the earth simply spared him more of our pity. In any event few of us can bear such sentiment and Tony was no exception.

In summary, for this writer, it is Hancock’s work that matters and to a great extent so say I; the how and the what rather than the why. We must look elsewhere to ascertain the reasons for Hancock’s long and slow descent into career oblivion.


Youtube – All the 37 surviving BBC Television half hours have been loaded up at some point although you’ll have to watch in stages; better still, get the BBC Box set complete with Hancock’s infamous encounter with the Broadcaster and journalist John Freeman on “Face to Face.” The Tony Hancock BBC Collection (8 disc box set) can be obtained for as little as £17 new and is excellent value for money.

Check out the 1959 Australian promo for the Half Hours series. While Tony’s conversationally running down his works of ’objet d’ar in his living room, Sid’s busy with the racing page in the East Cheam Gazette, but finds time to plug a possible future series for himself if Tony’s latest batch of programmes finds little favour down under !.

The website of the Tony Hancock appreciation society – check out how complete your radio collection is ! The site also features a plot synopsis for each broadcast.

This website extends Hancock’s legacy with a complete breakdown of his radio work on shows such as “Calling all forces”, “Educating Archie”, “Variety Bandbox” etc. The site boasts an excellent photo archive including a snap of Tony’s last professional engagement with Sid James at a 1965 Decca recording session. The physical decline all too apparent in Hancock’s features towards the end of his life is a bitter reminder of what was to come but the collection is redeemed by happier images as well.

This is the website to keep abreast of missing film and audio. I periodically check for news on Hancock material and other areas of interest.