This week sees the 60th anniversary of the first broadcast of Hancock’s Half Hour on television. To mark the occasion, here is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s book Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented the Daleks about Tony Hancock’s later series for ATV, titled simply Hancock. By this stage, Hancock had left not only the BBC but also his established writers Galton and Simpson, and for this series he employed Terry Nation as unofficial script editor. Nation also wrote four of the episodes.
The ATV series Hancock opened on 3 January 1963, and the lad himself was in confident mood in that morning’s papers. ‘I don’t want to be quite so common as in East Cheam,’ he explained, distancing himself from his earlier incarnation. ‘In this series I’m a little more posh. I live on a small allowance from my aunt. But I’m still the same, mate.’
The newspapers were also able to report the unfortunate coincidence whereby the second series of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s new show, Steptoe and Son, started on the same night over on the BBC. ‘It’s Hancock v. Steptoe in the big fight for laughs,’ read the headline in the Daily Mail, though it was not actually a direct clash: Steptoe finished at 8.25 p.m., allowing viewers just enough time to make a cup of tea before Hancock started at half past eight.
The first episode was ‘The Assistant’, credited as having a script by Terry Nation with ‘original story by Ray Whyberd’ (this pseudonym concealing the identity of Ray Alan, better known as the ventriloquist who worked with Lord Charles). Perhaps it was the mixed parentage, but the plot didn’t make a great deal of sense. Hancock complains about the rudeness of a shop assistant in a department store and the manager, trying to explain how hard it is for staff to maintain their manners, challenges him to work there for a week without losing his temper; if he is successful, then the long-standing arrears on his account with the store will be cleared.
It’s a transparent device to put Hancock into a new situation – or rather a sequence of situations, for he goes on to work in three different departments – and even allowing for his desire to change his style, the implausibility of the premise sat ill with everything an audience expected of him. Galton and Simpson had taken great care to ensure that their plots, at least in the latter years, were rigorously logical, rooted in reality; here the business of the wager is so weak that, having kick-started the plot, it isn’t referred to again, and the episode ends without reference to who has won the bet. In short, it’s a story with a beginning, several middles and no end. Being more charitable, one might view it as a series of sketches rather than a sitcom, though nothing in the rest of the series suggests that this was intentional.
There is also the problem that it is never entirely clear what Hancock’s character is. As in the BBC series, he is by turn pompous, boastful, childish, grudging and naïve, but rather disturbingly he’s also deliberately and unpleasantly rude to the shop assistant in a way that he never used to be. Insulting Hattie Jacques’s character Griselda Pugh in the radio shows hadn’t came across as particularly cruel humour, since she was more than prepared to fight back and there was always an implied element if not of friendship, then at least of shared misery. The note struck here, however, is less of banter than of bullying. When the assistant delivers a long litany of sufferings and misfortunes (admittedly in an appalling whine of a voice), he responds not with a joke, or even a putdown, but rather with a blunt and unfunny: ‘Ah, shut up.’
It was an element that made Alan Simpson wince: ‘Tony was being unnecessarily nasty. You can’t be nasty without a reason and be funny,’ he insisted.
Despite the flaws, the show is not a disaster, and there are some decent jokes that work well, capturing the characteristic Hancock phrasing. ‘A gentleman never loses his temper. It’s a question of good breeding, and you cannot whack good breeding,’ he declares, before going on to boast of his pedigree: ‘I can go back to Hancock the Red.’ ‘Who was he?’ asks the manager, and Hancock is deflated in the customary manner: ‘Well, he was my father actually.’ But he swiftly recovers: ‘An early communist, you know. Yes, the pater was a great friend of Lenin…’ And he’s off again into fantasy reminiscences.
There’s also some fine use of language; Hancock clearly relishes using words like ‘deshabille’ and ‘hoyden’ and making reference to a bloater-paste sandwich. And then there’s Kenneth Griffith’s magnetic appearance as Owen Bowen. ‘I’m from the Rhondda Valley, boyo, where the best coal in the world comes from,’ he tells Hancock. ‘But you wouldn’t know where that is, would you? You English, you never know nothing. Sitting in comfort and never a thought for those noble lads sweating away in the bowels of the earth, clawing the coal from the naked rock, risking their lives, working in filth and dirt. Thousands of brave Welsh boys digging coal just to keep you warm.’ ‘Thousands of them?’ retorts Hancock. ‘I only use a shovelful a night!’
Later shows by Nation were structurally simpler, with a conventionally circular sitcom narrative, and also contained some nice lines. ‘How do you know when a woman is married?’ Hancock ponders, answering himself with perfect logic: ‘Her husband comes around and punches you.’ Indeed some of it could have been vintage Hancock, as when he’s browsing through the wine list in a pub: ‘Ah, you’ve got some! Chateau Latour, what a magnificent wine! Some of us bibbers consider it to be the finest claret in the world. Yes, you’ve got to hand it to these Italians – they do know how to turn out a little bit of plonk. It’s something to do with the feet, I suppose.’ He asks to see the bottle, lavishes praise on it, and then orders a small brown ale.
That routine had a personal edge to it, drawing on Hancock’s own character, for as Philip Oakes pointed out: ‘Hancock fancied himself as a wine expert, a role in which he could, at times, become wearisome.’ Nation, on the other hand, was an eager student, and was later to admit that in due course he too became ‘a wine snob’.
Even more personal was the episode ‘The Night Out’, which opens in a hotel’s penthouse suite strewn with the debris of what was clearly a hard-drinking party, as Hancock wakes up with an enormous hangover to deliver lines that Nation had often heard him utter in real life. ‘I didn’t insult anybody?’ he repeats again and again, seeking reassurance from the entourage he has accumulated in his pub crawl the night before. ‘I didn’t offend anybody, did I? I mean, I was all right?’ The best variation on the theme is a lovely piece of nervous jocularity: ‘I do know I can be a bit of a wag when I’m on the milk stout.’ Hancock’s response on first reading the script, remembered Nation, was a grinning acknowledgement of the truth of the piece: ‘You bastard.’
In ‘The Writer’ Hancock talks his way into becoming the writer for ‘Britain’s leading funny-man’ Jerry Spring (played by John Junkin), who specialises in the American-style patter that Nation grew up with. ‘Bob Hope, 1945, word for word!’ Hancock exclaims on first seeing Spring’s existing act. But he soon discovers that writing comic material, actually putting the words down on paper, is more difficult than he imagined, so much so that he finds himself resorting to stealing gags from an old box of Christmas crackers. It’s hard not to see this as being a cri de coeur on the part of Nation, an implied rebuke to a comedian who would talk about concepts for sketches all night, so long as the drink was flowing, but who panicked when asked to approve a script, let alone write one.
The first show was widely covered, receiving more first-night notices than anything else that Nation would ever do. The Guardian’s Mary Crozier revealed that she was one of the few people, let alone critics, who hadn’t appreciated the mundane perfection of Hancock’s last few series. ‘I have sometimes in the past got tired quickly of Hancock, finding amusement grow less as his predicaments seemed too self-centred,’ she admitted. ‘In the series on ATV there is more going on than I seem to remember in the last BBC series. If this is “situation comedy” there is a lot of changing situation which is all to the good.’ The Times was even more enthusiastic: ‘It is all very funny, because Mr Hancock is funny, and the material suits him to perfection. If Messrs Simpson and Galton do not need him, he does not need them.’
Maurice Richardson in the Observer also started with a little, albeit fainter, praise: ‘If we had never seen him before, we should probably have hailed his debut in “The Assistant”, in which he clowned about a bit behind the scenes of a big store, as distinctly promising. We should have complained of the scrappy hackneyed script and might have suggested that here was perfect material for the more intelligent BBC scriptwriters such as Galton and Simpson.’
But Richardson’s conclusion was ominous: ‘Perhaps he will recover, and it will be wonderful if he does, but the first of this new series will have to go down in clowning history as a remarkable act of self-sabotage.’
And Michael Gowers in the Daily Mail went further still: ‘The sad, unpalatable truth is that his ATV debut must have left strangers to his enormous talent, if there are any, wondering what all the past stuff has been about.’ He ended on a similarly bleak note to that of Richardson: ‘My devoutest wish is that he could find himself again, but it is probably already too late…’