Book review: Tony Hancock, The Definitve Biography

by John Fisher

Perfectly fitting the enduring ‘tears of a clown’ archetype, the morbid tragedy of Tony Hancock’s life holds endless fascination for biographers. The story of the proud, introspective comedian, driven by a vain quest for perfection in his comedy to jettison those who made him successful, only to plunge into drink-induced self-destruction when the platonic ideal eluded him will always strike a dramatic chord.

Several of those close to Hancock have written their often painful accounts of the star’s last years before his suicide in Sydney 40 years ago, at the age of just 44, while a sizeable handful of independent biographies have fleshed out the story. So it’s quite some boast of John Fisher that his is the definitive biography.

Certainly, it’s detailed: 512 pages of information from every stage of his life and career and includes insights from many of those close to Hancock who have not spoken much, if at all, abut the comedy icon before now.

However, some of the better-known aspects of Hancock’s descent aren’t fully explained or explored. Fisher is clearly a fan, and seems to find it hard to accept certain unpleasant aspects of his hero’s behaviour – the repeated booze-induced physical attacks on his wives, for instance – while his descent into alcoholism seems to spring out of nowhere.

What does shine through, however, are the comic’s redeeming features. His vulnerability is a recurring theme – and he could, when sober, be remarkably thoughtful and generous. It is no doubt these traits that kept people close to him, when his behaviour ought to have driven them away.

Another major point that Fisher drives home is the one very vital one that’s often overlooked: that he was a very funny man, and not just when working. We know him today for the persona Ray Galton and Alan Simpson created for him, which, while still witty today, reflects a lot of the negative personality traits that fit the inwardly-morose image. The Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, was pompous, gloomy, bitter, languid and deludedly self-important – certainly aspects of his complex personality, but not the whole story.

Hancock was also a variety hall performer, starting his post-war career in the notorious Windmill Theatre alongside its unmoving female nudes, and he revelled in the knockabout camaraderie of that world. His ridiculous stage act, replete with stupidly overwrought impressions of Quasimodo and Long John Silver, were simply good fun, with none of the depressive undertones you might expect, given how his life ended so miserably young. But even here, he was overwhelmed by insecurities, dry heaving before he went on stage, and frequently cutting his spots short as nerves got the better of him. Sometimes he drank to get through it, planting the seeds of his downfall.

He rose through the ranks of light-entertainment radio, acting as tutor for ventriloquist Peter Brough’s cheeky schoolboy dummy, Archie Andrews, before forming the partnership with Galton and Simpson, as well as Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Bill Kerr, which would make his name on radio, and even more so on TV – where his unique ability to covey the thoughts flickering through his head before he uttered a word proved devastatingly effective. A master of the close-up, Hancock became a star of this relatively new medium.

Fisher excels at charting Hancock’s professional life, and as we go through the familiar story of his introspection, as revealed on the intense interview show Face To Face, then of how he ditched his co-stars, writers and loyal agent, so that he alone could be the centre of the comedy, this book never feels like it’s covering overfamilar ground.

Legend is that Hancock really began to lose it following the recording of the classic episode The Blood Donor. Driving home a few days earlier, Hancock was in a crash, and became concussed, causing him difficulties in memorising his part. Producers got him to use cue cards, on which he would henceforth become dependent, never learning lines again. However, as Fisher points out, Hancock can clearly be seen reading from prompt cards in episodes recorded before this. The rot had set in early, and soon it would become much worse. In one episode, Sid James put his feet on the table so Hancock could read his lines, stuck to the soles of his shoes.

Hancock’s control-freakery led him to defect from the BBC to ITV, which promised him more control of the production – as well as a hefty pay rise. But without his writers, Sid, and the executives to keep him in check, he was lost. This series, and the film The Punch And Judy Man, failed to make the impact he wanted, so beginning Hancock’s despair.

The decline is utterly miserable. He and first wife Cicely would drink bottles of vodka each night before furious screaming matches, which sometimes flared into violence; while his torpid relationship with Joan Le Mesurier have previously been covered in her ‘explict, bloody, vomit-strewn’ memoirs. But through all this there were attempts to make a comeback, and there’s a sense that Hancock, whether through delusion or genuine belief, always thought his best work was still ahead of him.

But the sad truth is that once years of alcohol abuse drained the elasticity from his once-expressive face, robbed him of his ability to learn lines, and stripped him of the instinctive sense of timing that made him such a favourite, he was finished.

With unfortunate prescience, one of his old stage routines demanded that a stooge stamp clumsily on his foot. He would always tell the other actor never to hold back and make the impact real. Hancock, ever the comedy technician would insist: ‘They’ve really got to see me suffer before they laugh.’ But when that transferred to emotional, as well as physical, pain, the harsh reality eventually became too bleak to stomach.

But Fisher has taken great strides to ensure Hancock’s ability to make millions laugh is not forgotten against that tragedy.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • Tony Hancock: The Definitve Biography is published by HarperCollins at £20. Click here to buy from Amazon for £9.

Published: 29 Dec 2008

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