This is the final repeat of the series recalling BBC radio programmes from the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the corporation was a much-loved institution broadcasting material the listeners wanted to hear. This article was first published on May 4, 2019. Tomorrow there will be a new article to round off the series, on Journey into Space.
LAST week we left the lad himself, Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, in 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, enjoying huge success with the radio series Hancock’s Half Hour.
This programme had started in 1954 with scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The main cast members were Tony Hancock, Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques. In 1956 a television version began, with series alternating between radio and TV for three years. Galton and Simpson wrote the scripts but only Sid James, by now a close friend of Hancock, transferred from the radio series, although Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques each made a couple of appearances.
In 1959 the sixth and final radio series (bringing the number of episodes to 103) and the fifth television series were both broadcast during the autumn season. Both formats were highly successful, and according to legend pubs and streets emptied as viewers/listeners rushed home for the latest episode.
Hancock was the archetypal sad clown. He was constantly worried about his performance and his success. Even near the start of the radio show, he had demonstrated his fragility. Hancock was contracted to do some performances at the Adelphi Theatre in London between the first and second series. He was not a comfortable stage performer, and a contractual wrangle added to his stress. A few days before recording started on the second radio series he walked off stage before the end of the show and took the last plane of the evening to Rome. Since preparations for the radio show were so far advanced, the BBC decided to find a stand-in. Harry Secombe was recruited and played Hancock’s part under his own name for the first three episodes, with a guest appearance in the fourth. (This must have been baffling for the audience.) Hancock returned for the fourth show and recording went on as scheduled.
His anxiety (which he attempted to cure with heavy drinking) seemed to translate itself into driving away his associates. First to go was Kenneth Williams. Hancock dropped him from the radio show because he thought the funny voices and catchphrases lowered the standard of the show. Williams left after the first recording session for the sixth and final radio series.
Next was Sid James. Hancock thought that they were being seen as a double act, rather than as star and support. In the autumn of 1959, Hancock called for a meeting with TV producer Duncan Hill Wood and writers Galton and Simpson. He said he’d had enough of the Hancock’s Half Hour format and wanted to try something different. He agreed to do one more series with James but insisted that he had to be dropped after that. Hancock was not prepared to give his friend and co-star the news himself. He left that to the BBC executives. James, taken completely by surprise, was devastated.
In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC’s Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many soul-searching questions, and at times Hancock appeared uncomfortable.
Here is the first part of the interview:
And the final part:
It has been argued that this interview with the highly self-critical Hancock heightened this tendency and contributed to his later difficulties. His brother Roger said: ‘It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really . . . Self-analysis – that was his killer.’
Hancock hungered for international film stardom, and in 1960 Galton and Simpson wrote The Rebel about an office worker-turned-artist. It did well in Britain but failed miserably in the US, Hancock’s target market.
His last BBC TV series in 1961 was shortened from 30 to 25 minutes, so it was retitled Hancock. There was speculation that it would flop without Sid James but in fact some of Hancock’s major successes came in this series. The Blood Donor is probably the best remembered. I can’t find a video of the full programme but this is the clip with the best line.
At the end of series seven, Hancock was still agitating for a film vehicle that would bring him success in America. For six months Galton and Simpson worked unpaid on the project. They part-wrote two scripts and completed a third but all were rejected by Hancock. (The completed script, The Day Off, stayed in Galton and Simpson’s filing system until it was rediscovered and given a rapturously received reading at the National Film Theatre in 2012). At a meeting in October 1961 Hancock broke with his scriptwriters, saying he wanted to do something else.
Galton and Simpson were commissioned to write a series of one-off scripts for the BBC in a series called Comedy Playhouse. One of them developed into the successful sitcom Steptoe and Son.
Meanwhile Hancock hired Philip Oakes as his co-writer on the screenplay for The Punch and Judy Man, set in Bognor. It was released in 1962 and did even less well than The Rebel.
In 1963 Hancock went to ATV for a series of 13 comedy shows which were put out at exactly the same time as Steptoe and Son, then at the height of its success.
He subsequently toured in a stage show. By this time it was obvious that his star was fading, and his drinking had reached the stage of alcoholism.
Around 1965 he made a series of 11 TV adverts for the Egg Marketing Board, with Patricia Hayes who had appeared in a few of his BBC TV shows. They were meant to revive the Galton and Simpson feel. I think they are terrible but judge for yourselves.
Incidentally when I wrote this series in 2019 I used a different clip. This is what now appears on the screen:
Apart from the shocking grammar, these were adverts shown on ITV. How can the BBC block them?
Hancock completed two more series for ITV, The Blackpool Show (1966) and Hancock’s (1967). The reviews were poor, and his private life was a wreck. He had left his first wife Cicely and in 1965 married his agent Freddie Ross, but his drinking drove her away. He also had a relationship with Joan Le Mesurier, the new wife of his best friend John Le Mesurier, who had recently been divorced from Hattie Jacques.
At the end of 1967 Hancock accepted a three-week engagement in Australia. It was a success and Hancock was asked to return in 1968 to do a series of six TV shows. Only three were recorded, and here is an excerpt from one, I believe the first.
While he was in Australia his divorce from Freddie Ross came through. A few days later, on June 25, 1968, Hancock took an overdose of sleeping pills in his Sydney flat. He was 44.
In a suicide note he wrote: ‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.’
More than 30 years later, in 2002, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favourite British comedian.