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Hancock, Tony (1924-1968)

Comedian, Actor

Main image of Hancock, Tony (1924-1968)

At the height of his comedic powers in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Tony Hancock (aided by the brilliant writing of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson) arguably took situation comedy to its highest peak. Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (to use his fictional nomenclature) may have been one of life's great losers - a pompous, pretentious bore with aspirations for self-betterment which were invariably thwarted - but he was also one of the country's most loved comic creations.

The real Hancock (born Anthony John Hancock in Birmingham on 12 May 1924) had his own aspiration from an early age: to emulate his hero, Max Miller. As a teenager he performed (very badly) as 'The Confidential Comic', in addition to working in concert parties, and made his first appearance on radio for the BBC in June 1941.

During war service with the RAF, he joined Ralph Reader's Gang Show, and it was with one of Reader's shows that Hancock toured post-war Britain in 1947. Forming a short-lived double act with pianist Derek Scott, he appeared on the BBC television talent show New To You on 1 November 1948.

He also appeared solo in the revue show Flotsam's Follies (BBC, tx. 20/2/1950), but it was radio that made him a household name. Awarded his first post-war radio spot on the BBC's popular Variety Bandbox on 9 January 1949, he followed this with appearances on such BBC radio series as Happy-Go-Lucky (1951), the immensely popular Educating Archie (1950-60) between 1951 and 1952, Calling All Forces (1951-52), on which Galton and Simpson first wrote material for him, and the phenomenon that was Hancock's Half-Hour (1954-59).

He was awarded his first television series with the five-episode Fools Rush In (BBC, 1951) - part of the magazine series Kaleidoscope (BBC, 1946-53) - appearing in sketches written by Godfrey Harrison. Following a one-off appearance among the cast of 'Food' (tx. 1/8/1951), the first episode of The Lighter Side (BBC, 1951), Hancock's next attempt at television success would be after he had attained major stardom through the Hancock's Half-Hour radio show.

Strangely, The Tony Hancock Show (ITV, 1956-57) was not a BBC product, and therefore, not scripted by Galton and Simpson (apart from some material for the last two episodes). Written primarily by Eric Sykes, the series (which was not a great success) employed a sketch format and bore no resemblance to the sitcom structure for which Hancock was by then famous.

This mistake was rectified in July 1956, with the BBC's transfer to television of Hancock's Half-Hour, which ran for 57 episodes until May 1960. Scripted by Galton and Simpson, the series retained the Hancock characterisation popularised on radio, although his regular supporting cast was largely jettisoned, with the exception of Sid James. The result was some of the finest television comedy produced up to that time.

Hancock's last series for the BBC, now simply called Hancock (1961) and lasting only six episodes, was without the participation of Sid James (Hancock had felt he was becoming part of a double-act and insisted James no longer be included). The result was still classic comedy, however, and included such masterpieces as 'The Radio Ham' (tx. 9/6/1961) and 'The Blood Donor' (tx. 23/6/1961).

With a propensity for self-destruction that was obviously becoming a worrying side of his character, Hancock decided to discard Galton and Simpson in the same way that he had discarded James. He was never again to find writers who so completely understood him, and, consequently, the quality of his comedy inevitably began to wane.

He desperately desired success in America, and his next television series, the thirteen-episode Hancock (ITV, 1963), now scripted by an array of writers and produced by Hancock himself, was aimed at that market as much as at the British. It failed in both. Hancock also failed in the American market with his two films of this period, The Rebel (d. Robert Day, 1960) and The Punch and Judy Man (d. Jeremy Summers, 1962).

With this lack of success, Hancock's insecurity about his own capabilities increased, as did his alcohol intake. He hosted six of the eight episodes of the variety series The Blackpool Show (ITV, 1966), but his stand-up material (written by John Muir and Eric Green) was relatively weak, and he looked ill-at-ease. This unease was also evident later that year in Hancock at the Royal Festival Hall (BBC, tx. 15/10/1966).

His last series, Hancock's (ITV, 1967), a six-parter written by Muir and Green, dispensed with his old character entirely and cast him as the manager of a London night-club. Again, it failed to attract viewers in large numbers.

His guest spot on the ITV chat show The Eamonn Andrews Show (1964-69) on 14 January 1968 was to be his final appearance on British television. In March that year, he travelled to Australia to make a series for the 7 Network, in which his old Hancock character, complete with trademark black homburg, was to emigrate down-under. However, it was not to be. Tormented by his abiding insecurity, made worse by ill-health, worsening alcoholism and his recent (second) divorce, Hancock took his own life through a mixture of pills and vodka on 25 June 1968.

The three episodes that had been shot for the series were finally edited into a ninety-minute special and broadcast on the Australian HSV7 Network on 25 January 1972 (it was never shown in Britain, though it was once available in a poor-quality copy on video). With Hancock plainly in ill health (emphasised by some unwise and clumsily inserted close-ups), he had clearly lost the edge from his once masterly comic timing. It was a sad end to the career of one of Britain's finest comedians.

John Oliver

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From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)Punch and Judy Man, The (1962)

Tony Hancock stars in a tragi-comedy set in a small seaside resort

Thumbnail image of Rebel, The (1960)Rebel, The (1960)

Tony Hancock's big-screen debut stars him as a talentless but ambitious artist

Thumbnail image of Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)

The original British sitcom - and still one of the best

Thumbnail image of Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)Tony Hancock Show, The (1956-57)

Hancock's first TV series, more sketch and variety-based than his later work

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Producer, Director, Executive