There was a moment during Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s recollections of their meeting with Tony Hancock when he decided to severe his working relationship with the two writers when a rumble of thunder could be heard outside. Galton pointed towards the window and said that was the sound of Hancock expressing his displeasure at their comments. It is hard not to image Hancock sighing, as he did on Hancock’s Half Hour and muttering “oh dear, oh dear me.”
The Unknown Hancock was a fascinating documentary about Hancock’s personal life and professional career. His father was a successful stand-up comedian who died when Hancock was 11. During the Second World War Hancock joined the RAF and performed stand-up routines for the troops. After the war Hancock went into show business, starting at the Windmill Theatre where he was considered to be a mediocre stand-up comedian. Galton and Simpson observed that although Hancock could not tell jokes, once he was in character at the microphone he was an exceptional actor.
Hancock’s success came on the BBC’s radio show Hancock’s Half Hour starring Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Hattie Jacques and written by Galton and Simpson. The radio show transferred to television with only Sid James kept on from the supporting cast.
The documentary gave a wonderful insight into the rehearsals for an episode of the sitcom. Galton and Simpson explaining how rehearsals involved trips to the pub, a game of snooker and maybe a first read through of the script.
The chemistry between Hancock and Sid James was self-evident both on the sitcom and recorded interviews with Sid James. In one recorded interview Sid James explained that Hancock looked to him as a father figure although Sid James was only a few years older than Hancock was. Simpson said that although Hancock was 27 he acted as though he were 47.
Simpson recalled that Sid James, who was an established film actor, would make suggestions to Hancock about camera shots and encourage him to ask the cameraman to give him close-ups on particular scenes.
Fans of Hancock’s Half Hour identified with Hancock’s character, a man weighed down by his predicament, striving to rise above his social status but never succeeding. The intelligentsia also feted Hancock; he received an invitation to appear on the illustrious programme Face to Face.
There was also the three-film deal Hancock had with Galton and Simpson. The first film was the classic The Rebel which did reasonably well at the box office. But Hancock wanted a hit film that could establish him in America.
When Galton and Simpson submitted scripts for new films Simpson recalled that Hancock initially read the scripts and then stopped doing so. What followed was the severing of one of the most successful British comedy teams. Galton and Simpson were subsequently invited to write short plays for a programme called Comedy Playhouse; one of those short plays became a well-loved sitcom – Steptoe and Son.
Hancock was an ambitious comic actor who wanted international success. He began to tire of Hancock’s Half Hour because he believed he had exhausted his character’s potential. Hancock was also concerned that the audience was viewing him and Sid James as a comedy partnership. And so he informed the writers that he wanted a one-man show without the cast from Hancock’s Half Hour. It was notable that none of the contributors considered Hancock’s decision to have his own show as malicious.
Hancock was offered his own shown on ATV called Hancock this time without the writing team of Galton and Simpson to support him. He also worked on a film called The Punch and Judy Man, which did poorly at the box office.
The poor performance of The Punch and Judy Man coincided with the breakdown of Hancock’s marriage to his first wife Cicely and his continued problem with alcohol, which was affecting the quality of his work. Hancock was increasingly unprepared for filming episodes of Hancock resulting in him reading from cue cards.
Following a waning career in the UK and battling depression and alcoholism, Hancock moved to Australia where subsequently committed suicide. Hancock was 44 years old when he died.
As well as contributions from actors like June Whitfiled and Sylvia Syms, there was an unlikely contribution from Pete Doherty, who recalled listening to Hancock’s radio shows as a child. Doherty sang a song inspired by Hancock called Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. The title came from a book that featured in Hancock’s Half Hour.
The archive interviews with Hancock in the documentary showed a man who was, like the character he portrayed on television, unfulfilled and striving to attain a measure of contentment in his life, both professionally and personally.