Stone Me, What a Life: Tony Hancock’s Lasting Impact on Comedy

Forty-four years ago in June, British comedian Tony Hancock committed suicide. He was just 44 years old.

Like Jack Benny in the US, Hancock was the most beloved comedian of his time. He was also the highest paid. His radio and television show are still repeated in the UK today and many cite him as an inspiration, including comedians Steve Coogan and Paul Merton, musician Pete Doherty and artists Jake and Dinos Chapman. Despite his short life, Hancock’s impact on comedy was massive and he remains relevant today.

His career began on the stage, but it was in 1954 when his radio show Hancock’s Half Hour changed comedy history. Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, wanting to break from the variety show tradition, developed a situational comedy: Hancock played Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, who primarily worked as a comedian and lived at 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam. Bill Kerr was Bill, Hancock’s child-like friend, and Sid James played Sid, initially Hancock’s adversary who became his agent and friend, all the while maintaining his own greedy motivations. Kenneth Williams was also a regular, playing a number of roles. Both Moira Lister and Andrée Melly were tried as love interests, but the formula was perfected when Hattie Jacques signed up as Griselda Pugh, Hancock’s permanently disgruntled secretary.

Hancock’s Half Hour eventually made the move to television in 1956, though the radio series also continued for three more years. Television changed the show a bit: Bill Kerr was absent, and Williams and Jacques appeared as various characters only in the first two series.

However, Hancock wanted even more change. He wanted out of East Cheam, and he didn’t want to be seen as one half of a Hancock-James double act. So Hancock arrived in 1961. The first episode, “The Bedsit” opens with shots of Hancock’s new Earls Court neighbourhood and is a totally solo performance. While fans missed the presence of Sid James, there is no denying that the episodes without him are some of the most cherished, including the famous favourite “The Blood Donor”.

In 1961, Hancock appeared in the film The Rebel, also written by Galton and Simpson. Although very popular in Britain (Hancock himself got a BAFTA nomination for Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles), it was not an international hit. Inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Hancock had been hoping to make a difference to the world while he entertained it. He wanted to be more than the television character in the Homburg hat and astrakhan coat. Eventually he decided that the way to do this was to break away from Galton and Simpson, a move that shocked many. In 1962 came The Punch and Judy Man, co-written by Hancock and Philip Oakes. While not a bad film at all, it did not break any box offices; more importantly, it did not give Hancock the international stardom he wanted.

He followed with a few more attempts at television series, some adverts and other appearances, but the public seemed to want exactly what he himself had come to hate: the “old Hancock”. In 1968, he left for Australia where he had been offered a series called Hancock Down Under. Hancock — and possibly the public- – saw this as his last chance for redemption. However, after separating himself from his co-stars, his writers, his agent and, due to his alcoholism, many of his friends, the geographical separation proved too much. After completing just three shows, he committed suicide in 1968, leaving behind a note that read, “Things just seemed to go wrong too many times.”

Tony Hancock’s life had been plagued with sadness. His apparent self-confidence in his ability to make it on his own masked his intense insecurity; he was often intimidated by others and worked hard to make himself better — a better actor, a better man. This urge contributed to his alcohol addiction, which contributed to his reputation as difficult to work with and to the end of his marriages and many close relationships. His life was dominated by his drive for perfection: during his 1960 appearance on Face to Face, he told interviewer John Freeman that “The only happiness I can achieve would be to perfect the talent that I have whatever it may be, however small it may be.” Forty-four years ago, Hancock decided that perfection and happiness were out of his reach, and he gave up trying. His inability to see the impact he made on the world –during his life and after his death– is heart-wrenching.

Alongside of the tragedy of Hancock, there is, of course, the comedy, which cannot be forgotten. Fortunately, it hasn’t been. In 1997, Robert Cushman claimed on Turns of the Century that “probably no comedian had a greater impact on post-war British culture than Tony Hancock.” During the height of Hancock’s fame, his show broke ground in terms of viewing figures. Alan Simpson told Marshall Julius:

“…there was no such thing as video, no such thing as television in pubs, so every Friday at eight pm the streets would be deserted for Hancock, and then half an hour later everyone would go down the pub. We used to get figures of twenty million in those days, when only about seventy-five percent of the country had TV sets. (“Blast from the Past: Galton and Simpson,” Blockbuster UK, 31 July 2011)

Part of the show’s popularity was due to the fact that viewers recognised themselves and their lives in it. Hancock played an Every Man, with all the contradictions — the lovable charm and the infuriating selfishness; as Cushman said, he was a know-nothing know-it-all. His character blamed and struggled against the structures that limited him while ignoring the ways he limited himself. And today we continue to see ourselves in Hancock’s trials. In a Socialist Worker article from 8 July 2008, Sabby Sagall wrote, “The social divisions and snobbery that Hancock relentlessly parodied are still recognisable features of our world — and his humour thus remains as relevant as ever.” Most of us want what we don’t have and the rest of the world, we believe, is responsible for our dissatisfaction.

Although Galton and Simpon’s next creation, Steptoe and Son, transferred successfully to the US as Sanford and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour never made it stateside. However, stylistically its impact is felt. The show’s premise, a comedian playing a version of himself whom we watch simply go about his daily life, continues to entertain us — from Jerry Seinfeld to Lee Mack to fellow grumps Louie CK and Larry David. Although there’s debate about whether or not Hancock’s Half Hour was the first of its kind, it’s undeniable that it set a high standard for comedic actors.

However, the greatest appeal of Hancock is that he and his show were just incredibly funny. This was partly due to casting: Williams, Jacques and James are all British comedy legends (and went on to star in countless Carry On… films). Sid James, in particular, was a strong actor; his naturalistic style seamlessly blurred the lines between himself and his character. Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers of The Goon Show all appeared on Hancock’s radio show, and John Le Mesurier, best known for his role on Dad’s Army, worked on many episodes and in both The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man. This bringing together of comedic genius came with complications off set — Jacques was married to Le Mesurier until 1965 and Le Mesurier’s next wife had an affair with Hancock during the last years of his life — but on set, it was magic.

Ultimately, though, the real power was due to the perfectly matched Hancock and his writing team. Galton and Simpson were able to write the real Hancock into the character Hancock, with just enough exaggeration to make his foibles both funny and endearing. Producer Dennis Main Wilson said this about the partnership:

“What Galton and Simpson did with this gift of Tony was to start writing real, truthful comedy for the first time. Truth is coming into comedy, reality is coming into comedy, and we examine the human condition in comedy for the first time.” (“Briers on Hancock,” BBC R4, 5 September 1984)

The show was full of quotable lines — from Hancock’s plea in “Twelve Angry Men” of “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” to his shock at the doctor’s request in “The Blood Donor” for “A pint? That’s nearly an armful.” His phrase “Stone me, what a life” became the perfect expression of exasperation. Sid’s threat of giving “a punch up the bracket” eventually inspired the title of the Libertines’ first album. True Hancock fans recite entire scripts and debate which is the funniest.

To balance the strong writing, the writers and actor were willing to play with silence, and both understood the importance of timing. The radio episode “Sunday Afternoon at Home” was a half hour of the characters sitting around a table, trapped inside doing nothing on a rainy Sunday. It featured long passages of silence, punctuated only by Hancock’s sighs, making a typically boring British Sunday both realistic and hilarious. On television, the silences allowed Hancock’s non-verbal acting skills to shine. In “The Reunion Party”, Hancock’s attempt to remember an old Army friend’s name leads to a solid 30 seconds of audience laughter as Hancock sits silently, his face contorting so that we can almost see the name on the tip of his tongue, before he finally gives up.

In the end, the best way to understand the brilliance of over 160 episodes of the show is to experience it. Although some of the episodes have been lost, the BBC has made many available as audiobooks and DVDs. His fans’ devotion lives on: in a 2002 BBC7 poll, listeners voted him the greatest comedian ever. When 11-year-old fan William Moss appeared on Junior Mastermind in 2007, he chose the work of Tony Hancock as his specialist subject, showing that people of all ages still enjoy Hancock’s triumphs.

In 1968 Hancock died, thinking that too much had gone wrong; in 2012, we can still enjoy all the things that went right.