Hancock’s Half Hour & British Radio Comedy
by THE GULL
This year is the sixtieth anniversary of the first series of Hancock’s Half Hour television series. Known as one of the first true sitcoms, it starred the comedian Tony Hancock playing the comedian Tony Hancock; it was a robust example of a metanarrative sitcom over 30 years before trendy comedy-fanatics’ favourite Seinfeld hit the screen. As a prototype for the modern sitcom it really did set the standard. Hancock draws his fictional self as an inimitably lugubrious, self-aggrandising fantasist anti-hero, wracked with neurosis, constantly obsessing over his image and lamenting the disorder of a world which does not recognise his genius. He is in many ways the comedic holotype, a blueprint for sitcom characters from Alan Partridge to Garth Marenghi.
Backed by arguably the best comedy writers of the 50s and 60s, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and supported by a stellar cast of comedy and acting talent including not only the regular contributions of John Le Mesurier, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and Sid James but also appearances from Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Patricia Hayes, Warren Mitchell and Anne Reid, Hancock quickly became famous nationwide, attracting audiences of 20 million plus.
I have been a lifelong fan of Hancock but, unlike most, I have always preferred his radio work to the television episodes. The show, in fact, started out on the radio in 1954, two years before his television series began and ran a full six series until 1959, the last three being released between the television series. Despite the fact that the public’s memory of Hancock largely comprises images from his seventh and last television series – which included The Bedsitter, The Radio Ham, and his most famous, most remade and most often quoted episode ever: The Blood Donor – it is, for me, the six radio series which contain the finest material and performances.It is also the larger body of work; quite a few of the television episodes were recreations of the audio originals and many of the tapes are now lost. The T.V. version contained fewer episodes per series and all this means that now, of HHH’s extant oeuvre of 122 separate episodes, 79 are radio editions.
Besides, radio is such a perfect format for a sitcom often dominated by the fanciful monologues of a day-dreaming fabulist; the show is able to leap between locations and back and forward in time without budget busting visual techniques. A simple change of ambient sound effects and an array of colourful settings is immediately unlocked. The radio was also still the dominant form of broadcast in the early 50’s, only two thirds of homes had a telly and, until 1955, there was only one channel.
Perhaps it was the war which so ignited Britain’s deep love for the radio not only as a means of broadcasting news and a method of dispensing vital wartime information but also as a comforting, friendly voice and a platform for poetry, drama and comedy, all of which boomed in the 50s. The grim backdrop of a country still trying to recover from rationing and bomb-damage was punctured by radio comedy. The Navy Lark, One Minute Please (the precursor to Just A Minute) HHH, The Goon Show and Much Binding In The Marsh are just a few of the audio comedies that first aired in the 50s.
Hearing these comic confections broadcast through the same medium which once transmitted distressing war reports, ominous news and warnings of bomb raids must have been a cathartic and therapeutic experience. The progressive nature of some of these shows chimed with forward thinking, newly socialistic Britain. Hancock himself along with others began illustrating the plight and frustrations of working class people, using slang and realistic accents; making jokes about the price of saveloys, music-hall, diddling rent books, offering the Vicar ‘oily rags’.
Not only did he depict this culture, he also used its language. His comedy acknowledged and addressed the blue-collar, pub-visiting, rent-paying classes. By making the fictional Hancock celebrate the pompous, snobbish aspiration toward abstractions and fetishism of the elite, Galton and Simpsons were able to ridicule it. Hancock the man created a character that pointed away from socially responsible natural realism in order better to articulate that very position. Hancock’s evocation of a post-war Briton is an embodiment of post-war Britain at large; a country loudly proclaiming its own past-successes in an affected accent, clad in dusty and decayed felt coats and hats, trying to brush off the bomb-damage & warming its hands over the embers of freshly burnt ration books.
50s Britain at once still endured economic instability, low wages and austerity measures and yet enjoyed the emerging benefits of Nationalised industries, the radically upscaled government housing provisions and further regulation of working conditions, pay, pensions and living standards set up by the progressive Attlee government. By the mid-fifties it must have felt like the country was turning a corner.
This duality of nature, this lack of solid identity, meant the face of Britain had changed and now the scar tissue provided a somewhat blank canvas. The country was frighteningly disjunct from its younger self of fifty years before. The character of British society was being redefined and by a wider range of voices than had constructed the Empire. Hancock the character is a laughable fantasist who is lovable because his improvised, imprecise identity is wide and eclectic enough to embrace and represent both pre and post-war Britain.
HHH summarised the ludicrous character faults of the past but, rather than solely chiding, it sought conciliation of past and future through the creation of a comic character at once lovable and ridiculous. A character of polarity, caught in the dual social chattels of poverty and aspiration. Hancock is a creation which encouraged Britain to accept itself and its new unfamiliar, mottled complexion, gifting it back the self-confidence to laugh at itself. Tony Hancock is 50s Britain.
The breadth of his significations demands an all-encompassing entity necessitated that Hancock was a versatile and ultimately inconsistent character. All the characters are. In fact the inessential nature of the characterisations are fascinating and challenging to a modern concept of character development. These are half stock-characters, half observational accretions. Hancock is variously parsimonious yet profligate, puritanical yet drunkard, would-be-bohemian yet philistine; Sidney James is scrupulous yet sensitive, witty yet unwitting, hideous yet sexy; Kerr is stupid yet worldly; Williams simply plays several characters with indeterminate boundaries and Hattie Jacques’ Miss Pugh vacillates between the stock characters of ‘Shrew’ and ‘Virago,’ settling ultimately in neither camp.
These alternating characteristics jostle in different episode and each character takes turns to adapt their characteristics to suit the wider narrative and, sometimes, to individual jokes. This breadth of character potential and circulation of role-playing is not peculiar to HHH, but in HHH we find a conceit which is not just a device for convenience, nor a result of genuinely deep and honest characterisation, instead, I would argue the characters who reside in 23 Railway Cuttings intentionally have no essence, merely an existence, underpinned by the narrative meta-drama and as such their characteristics cannot be defined singularly. They should be thought of not as separate entities but rather fluid areas a collective psyche.
This is healing comedy, comedy as curative, a socio-psychic unguent to the cicatrices of cognitive dissonance and self-alienation that Britain was then suffering and the characters themselves are polyvocal expressions of this dissonance. Theirs is the Britain which no longer has an identity but rather has a mission statement, to move on to a world which remembers the lessons it learnt but never wishes to repeat them and, so, endeavours to understands how the past can underpin the very possibility of the future without ever holding it back.
“Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”
Tony Hancock, 1926 – 1968