Hancock's Half Hour: The Big Night

I've been meaning for ages to write a post about Tony Hancock here, and have been prompted into it today by watching some of a DVD called Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's... which is Paul Merton in a number of plays originally written by Galton and Simpson for other people. I watched most of The Bedsitter, and found there's nothing really wrong with it. I like Merton's persona and acting hugely, but the trouble is the script was written for Tony Hancock and you come out with the impression that Merton is playing Hancock playing the part. So I have returned to watching the original.
Surely everyone reading this blog will have heard of Tony Hancock? That name is a legend in British comedy. And of course he was born here in Birmingham, although never lived here for very long. The show is of course Hancock's Half Hour but also features Sid James. The scripts, as I mentioned above, are written by the legendary Galton and Simpson. Have I overdone the words legendary here? It was very difficult to come out with a dud with that stable of talent. And that's the main difficulty with Paul Merton playing scripts written for Hancock: he's a good actor but simply can't compare with the lad himself.
Hancock is also a show which is remarkable for something else. It's my personal perception but the majority of (British) 1950s TV I have watched moves at the pace of an incapacitated, very elderly snail, in comparison to the 1960s TV I like best. This is not bering bitchy, although it might be a huge generalisation, it is genuinely my perception of a major difference of pace between 1950s TV and 1960s TV. And this slowness of pace is not something which can be said of Hancock's Half Hour, even though the episode I'm writing about here was in the fifth series, broadcast in 1959. The show sizzles along, never fails to satisfy, and best of all, takes many a repetition and still draws a laugh.
I think a major reason Hancock is so funny is that he is talking about the life we all lead but try not to talk about. In this one he is going out on a big double date with Sid and they literally don't have anything to wear. I love that the reason for this is that the daily woman, Mrs Cravat, has taken all of their suits to the dry cleaners, and they are forced to collect their clothes wearing running gear. I also love the fact that he has a daily woman at all. The point is that Hancock is trying to be the great gent - Mrs Cravat waits at table during breakfast - but fails completely. The reality is that we none of us really get to what we aspire to (although I personally am living in the poshest place I've lived in in my entire life, which is also strangely the cheapest), but we don't broadcast it. We are entertained by Hancock's discomfort at his own inability to live up to his own standards, but who has never found they don't have anything to wear?
The other strand of his humour is the way everything goes wrong, which takes it one step beyond the level of disaster we can usually expect, and prevents it becoming uncomfortable for the viewer. In this case Mrs Cravat has failed to wash any of his dirty shirts, so even after he has a suit to wear he doesn't have a shirt. This gives an opportunity to use the stalwart scene of comedy TV, the laundrette. I am delighted that he describes the shirt he wants to wash as made of parachute silk and says how it excites the girls when they get a glimpse of his string vest through it! I love laundrettes, myself, and particularly love the laundrette in this show. I love that they have to weight the clothes first. I love that Hancock is so fascinated by the clothes going round in the machine. And I particularly love that James is smoking in the laundrette. But I most love that even though it is his first time of seeing a washing machine, Hancock takes the opportunity to give the man to his side one of his little discourses on how he knows all about it!
Of course the whole point is that we know the big night is going to be a disaster. Hancock has the gall to blame it on Sid James not dressing properly! This is how Hancock comforts the viewer - by amplifying our own social inadequacies and embarrassments in his own person and allowing us to laugh at our own coping strategies.
Another thing I find interesting is the attitude of the cinema manager to Hanock, initially refusing him admission because he has turned up in a jumper without a shirt. The other men in the cinema are dressed in suits and ties, and I love that a suit is the natural thing to wear on a date. In the manner of the time Hancock tries to dress as a beatnik because there is nothing else, and is seen as a hoodlum. Can that be any indicator of how much our world has changed since 1959? Would anyone seriously wear a suit on a date nowadays?
My only sorrow about this episode is that we don't get to see the actress Hermione Boot, who is starring in the film they go to see!
If you haven't seen these, I would just say that if you want a perfect picture you will be disappointed. There are obviously various bootleg versions of these shows doing the rounds anyway, but I am watching these on BBC DVDS and the picture is very grainy when expanded to full screen. I don't object to that or the sound which also isn't perfect, but if you object to those things, you will find this difficult to watch.
But my advice would be to set those things aside because this is definitely Stonking Good Television.


  1. Chicago Calling (somewhat reluctantly):

    Starting off: I've always found it interesting that so few British comedians ever tried to get well-known in the USA.
    This is as opposed to so many American comics who dreamed of playing the London Palladium - and so many of them made that dream happen.

    Concentrating on Tony Hancock for a moment: anything I've read about this gentleman emphasizes his legendary status in Britain, but even in his prime, I'm fairly certain that most Americans would have never heard of him.
    Indeed, much of what I've read of Hancock indicates that he had little, if any, interest in "conquering the Colonies".
    This same was true of many UK comedy stars, going as far back as early talkies and continuing through to today's TV.
    It always seemed to me that any British comics who hit it somewhat big in the States did so almost by accident; they popped up on US TV in off-hours, with little if any publicity, and word-of-mouth did the rest.
    Examples available, on request.

    1. And I'd have to agree - I suspect it's a cultural thing. You've even put your finger bang on the perception of 'the colonies' - foreign, far-away, difficult to conquer, and not a jar of Marmite to be seen!

  2. Tony actually had massive dreams of making it in America, releasing the ill fated film "Call me genius" there in the early 1960s, he even made it as far as Hollywood in around 1964/65 and was due to appear in a Disney production,but was quickly fired through a combination of nerves and alcohol.

    1. Thank you for commenting Dominic. So Hancock's life and art definitely imitated each other!

  3. Chicago Calling (message for Dominic Bird):

    Thanx for the info about Tony Hancock's US almost-adventure.

    You wouldn't happen to recall offhand which Disney picture this was, or who replaced Hancock in it?

    Given that the Disney organization maintained a long-standing interest in Britain as both a resource and a market for its products, I'm curious as to how they would have seen Hancock as a potential American star (most of their attempts at importing tended to be more likable types, like the Mills family).

    Following up on the other day:
    I checked out YouTube for Hancock shows, and found a number of them, with a curious problem attached: the prints seemed to have been speeded up, with everybody speaking faster and at a higher pitch than they should have.
    I'd heard some of the originals on LP records (here in Chicago, we always had record stores that carried imports), but I'd never actually seen them until I looked them up at YT.
    My first guess was that the reason was the transmission gap between US and UK tv - 408 lines vs. 525 - but I'd like to be sure.

    For years, whenever I tried to explain British comics to friends here, my instinct was to compare them with Americans, but I always seemed to run aground; I wasn't quite able to find much common ground between the two countries and what they laughed at.
    Example (admittedly a bad one): when Frankie Howerd came to the States to do the Sgt. Pepper movie, the closest I could come in US terms was Charles Nelson Reilly (do I have to explain about him?) - but even I couldn't quite make the comparison work.
    I had the same problem with Kenneth Williams and Paul Lynde.
    As to Tony Hancock, I couldn't come up with an American cognate (and believe me, I tried ...).
    Maybe you've had similar experiences comparing US comics with the British school; I'd love to hear any stories you have in this line.

  4. Hi Mike , the film Tony was fired from was Bullwhip Griffin, by this time (1967) He was a hyper alcoholic and of course Hancock commited suicide the following year, in Bullwhip Griffin he was replaced by Richard Hayden. His time in Hollywood was short and an unsuccessful one, he'd been in decline ever since parting with the BBC in 1960.

    As for Hancocks half hour on youtube, im not sure about the Pal/NTSC difference being an issue, but i can say the BBC shoot down any Hancocks half hour episodes on youtube to protect there highly profitable DVD sales.
    Avoid any of Hancocks ITV Series on youtube (1960 onwards) there dreadful and dont show him at his best, bad writing and Vodka for blood dont produce good tv.

    British comedy unlike American comedy doesnt travel (in my opion),Classic British Comedy is mostly based on class struggle either directly or indirectly (with exceptions Monty Phython for example) The class system in the UK is difficult for americans to grasp coming from a far less class prone society.Hancocks classic episodes see him at war with those below and above his own class, this theme runs through Uk tv from the 50s into the 60s,70s,80s right throught to todays Comedy.

    So while British music can travel and be understood around the world British Comedy cant and with it our comedians.

    However American comedians can (and do) appeal to us Brits, Phil Silvers stood in for Sid James in a Carry on Film in the 60s and was a huge success, i cant imagine that happening in reverse.(The Carry on Films are a national institution here and have never caught on in the States and never will)

    So to sum up,British comedy like certain wines doesnt travel (jmo)

  5. And I agree. Although I now have Rick from the Young Ones in my head saying, 'Satisfied, Thatcher?'

  6. Chicago Calling (long ago and oh so far away ...):

    I've been thinking about the Transatlantic Crossing, and why so few British comedians were able to make it.

    My major refeence for British comedy in general is a book called Double Take And Fade Away, one of Leslie Halliwell's final works, from 1988.

    Halliwell was a firm believer in the Class System, which he treated as a form of Natural Law, which we Yanks simply didn't know about or understand.
    Much of what Halliwell wrote about American performers was governed by a sense that certain performers were "caviare to the general' - over the heads of the common folk, while others appealed to the "proles" - those with less education and income.
    Many of his accounts of US comedy are plagued with factual inaccuracies, filtered through what he felt was the inherent superiority (curious because Halliwell came, proudly, from a working-class background) of all things British over all things American.

    When Benny Hill became a hit in the USA circa 1979, I've heard that British experts were truly stunned; so may other seemingly more "accessible" performers, such as Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse, Dave King, Bruce Forsyth, and some others I'll remember once I hit Submit, tried to score in the States, but fell short.
    All were accompanied by major publicity pushes, and most met with indifference at best.
    Not long after Benny Hill established his US beachhead, the BBC put together a package of Morecambe & Wise, purposely patterned after Thames TV's Hill package, that they were sure would take the States by storm; it fizzled out in about the time it took me to type this sentence.
    The above was an oversimplification; the whole story is somewhat more complicated - and quite a bit sillier - and it's off-topic, so there too.

    Monty Python in the USA is an even stranger story, which I may get into somewhere else - assuming I haven't "lored you out" with all of this ...

  7. @ john. Police ring door bell,Neil responds with "Fascist bully boys".

    @ Mike, they havent screened Benny Hill in the uk in 30 years and never will because he's viewed as a sexist leper unfortunately.He died a bitter man over the critism he received at the hands of younger comedians (Although Hill was an actor not a comedian).He passed away in a down market appartment with several million dollars in his bank account.

    Well if we only sent you the likes of Max Bygraves and Bruce Forsyth (God rest his soul he passed away last week) then im not surprised we failed.
    Im now of the opion that the Brits havent succeeded with comedians because we have never really produced any of talent (except Billy Conolly).We have actors who play comedy roles not pure comedians,i think even Chaplin and Stan Laurel considered themselves actors.

    I once read that the only country with a similar "Humour" to us was Russia,all i can say to that is that it must rain a hell of a lot in Russia

    1. It does rain a lot in Russia.
      What about Les Dawson?
      'Heavy! Even the telephone hates me!'

  8. Nobody would wear a suit on a date nowadays - it's jeans, T - shirt and leather jackets now!


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