OUR time-travelling London Routemaster double-decker bus rattles to a halt today outside 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. Wherein resides Mr Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, lugubrious subject of Hancock’s Half Hour.
Six series of the ground-breaking BBC comedy were produced in the 1950s, and while I cannot find audience figures it was immensely and justifiably popular.
Anthony John Hancock (1924-1968) was brought up in Bournemouth where his father John ran a pub and was a comedian and entertainer. John died when Tony was six and his mother remarried.
He went to the independent Bradfield College school near Reading where he was good at sport but not much else. He left at 15 and drifted in and out of several jobs but his heart was set on following in his late father’s footsteps by becoming a comedian.
In 1942, aged 18, Hancock volunteered for the RAF Regiment, which protects the airfields that the RAF operate from. He failed an audition for ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association, otherwise known as ‘Every Night Something Awful’, and joined the Ralph Reader Gang Show which toured the various theatres of war. Other Gang Show performers included Dick Emery and Peter Sellers.
After the war Hancock was one of many entertainers trying to establish themselves in peacetime showbusiness. In 1948 he had a six-week spell as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, then started getting work with BBC radio. After a series of Educating Archie in which he played the ventriloquist’s doll’s tutor (I have remarked before about the bizarre idea of a ventriloquism show on radio), he moved on to a show called Happy Go Lucky, a vehicle for comedian Derek Roy. The show was a flop but towards the end a new producer, Dennis Main Wilson, took over. He called in two young scriptwriters to help with the show, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. They met Hancock and he was impressed with their work.
Galton (1930-2018) was born in Paddington, west London, and after leaving school he worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Simpson (1929-2017) was born in Brixton, south London, and was a shipping clerk. In 1947, when both were 17, they each contracted tuberculosis, at that time a very serious and often fatal illness requiring many months if not years of treatment, not always with success. They were admitted to Milford Sanatorium near Godalming in Surrey, where they quickly became friends. They broadcast on the hospital radio and after leaving the sanatorium they jointly applied for jobs at the BBC, and were accepted. Happy Go Lucky was their first break.
Hancock’s success in Educating Archie persuaded the BBC to give him a prominent part in a show called Forces All Star Bill, later shortened to Star Bill, produced by Dennis Main Wilson. When the scriptwriters had to be replaced, Hancock gave his approval for Galton and Simpson to take over. The show became so popular that the BBC at last gave their approval for Hancock’s Half Hour, also produced by Wilson, which started on November 2, 1954.
Hitherto radio comedy had been mainly drawn from the variety tradition with a mixture of acts, music and sketches, as in Take it From Here, which I have written about. Hancock’s Half Hour was a pioneer of the form that came to be known as situation comedy, a single story lasting the whole episode.
The main cast members were:
Hancock as the aforementioned Anthony Aloysius, a comedian/actor prone to saying: ‘Stone me, what a life’;
Sid James as Sid (full name Sidney Balmoral James), a dodgy character who was always trying to con the gullible Hancock, usually with success, whether it was selling him stolen police cars, Lord’s cricket ground or plots of land half way up cliffs;
Bill Kerr as Hancock’s Australian lodger;
Kenneth Williams as all the minor characters;
Hattie Jacques, who arrived in the fourth series as Griselda Pugh, Hancock’s secretary and Sid’s occasional girlfriend.
The theme tune was by Wally Stott, a prolific composer and arranger.
Here it is with the incidental music, but not the ‘H-h-h-Hancock’s Half Hour’ voice.
You can hear that on some of the programmes featured later.
Stott went on to be musical director of the Goon Show. He also wrote Ident Zoom-2, the theme jingle for ATV, which was used from the introduction of colour television in 1969 until the demise of ATV in 1981. You can see it here.
In 1972 Stott had sex reassignment surgery – then a most unusual procedure – and took her mother’s name of Angela Morley. She was a regular guest conductor of the BBC Radio Orchestra and the BBC Big Band. She worked as arranger and conductor on numerous films and was nominated twice for Oscars. She scored many TV programmes, including episodes of Dynasty and Dallas.
Simpson and Galton weren’t worried about sticking to any of the situations they had created. Sometimes 23 Railway Cuttings was a council house, but occasionally there was a private landlord. In some episodes Hancock owned the property.
Sometimes it was a two-bedroom terrace house, with Kerr as Hancock’s lodger, but in series four and five it had at least three bedrooms, as Miss Pugh was resident in some episodes. In others she ‘came round’ each day.
Hancock was usually a ‘resting’ or hopeless actor and/or comedian, Sid was always on the fiddle in some way, Kerr became more and more dim and Hancock’s ‘secretary’, Miss Pugh, had such a loose job description that in one episode she cooked the Sunday lunch. This is the brilliant Sunday Afternoon at Home from Series 5 in 1958.
It is hard to remember now but at that time shops and pubs did not open on Sundays. You really were left to your own devices for entertainment and it is true that many people were very bored.
This show contains the immortal Hancock line about Miss Pugh’s cooking: ‘I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about. Yours just sort of lies there and sets.’
You can hear the full show here (complete with introduction).
Here is another favourite, the Test Pilot Sketch, featuring Kenneth Williams. He was a classical actor and Hancock’s Half Hour was his first foray into comedy.
There are lots more on YouTube.
I found this on the website of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society:
Tony Hancock was the comedian’s comedian. When we were writing Hancock’s Half Hour he told us: ‘You’re the writers, you write, I’m the comedian, I’ll comede.’ And boy, could he comede – Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
There we will leave Hancock’s Half Hour, going brilliantly. Next week we will explore further developments at No 23 Railway Cuttings.