The Half Hour that changed comedy

Anthony Harvison pays tribute to Tony Hancock

Watching the majority of today's sitcoms makes me despair. Good, wholesome character-based comedy (and by 'characters' I mean the types you could theoretically bump in to down the street as opposed to the one-liner streaming cyphers that pass for characters these days) seems to have died a death.

Which is a great shame as one episode of classic series such as Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son or Rising Damp is worth the whole of the likes of My Family, Not Going Out or the seemingly-ubiquitous Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. Traditionalist? Old fashioned? Maybe, but then again laughing is the traditional reaction to humour so I'm fine with that label.

The daddy of them all, though, is Hancock's Half Hour. When writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson created the character of Anthony Aloysius Hancock in 1954 they not only brought in to being arguably the greatest comedic figure the small screen as ever known, but also established in the UK the fledgling genre of situation comedy to frame him in.

With a small ensemble – Tony Hancock, Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques – HHH didn't stretch itself too far. This wasn't the world of Friends where every person who speaks is a fountain of quirky hilarity; instead, it was a small group of flawed, mutually antagonistic acquaintances pitted against the world of normality and sense.

That's why I've always found British comedy to be superior to American. There seems to be a false democracy to the humour, in that nearly everyone in those worlds as artificially uplifted as a Hollywood actress’s' bosom are natural wits and beautiful to boot. HHH seemed closer to the truth, in that although there were shining stars floating around, the majority were anything but. The lead characters didn’t have great jobs or smiles, didn’t amount to much in society. Sure, they wanted all those things, but found themselves constrained and contained within a rigid class system with nothing but futile aspirations to achieve greater things.

Here was the essence of the comedy: someone not knowing his place, and trying anything to get out of it. Hancock was the embodiment, the template, of this peculiarly British character-type. He was arrogant and deluded with illusions of grandeur which formed the basic plot of the majority of episodes. Constantly down-at-heel but with dreams of better things, Hancock would one week strive to be recognised for the sophisticate he felt he truly was, the next he'd be trying to impress on a jeering audiences how they were failing to recognise an 'artiste' in their midst. And he would have been, if not for the fact he had as much intelligence and presence as a Big Brother-style reality 'star'.

This constant uphill struggle against destiny generated some of the finest lines to come out of a comedy character's mouth. Galton and Simpson didn't subscribe to the American method of cramming as many gags in to the cast's mouths as possible. The killer lines were more evenly spaced and pauses were as much a part of the joke as words, and Tony Hancock in his prime was a master of timing. That's why lines such as ‘A pint! That's very nearly an armful!’ or ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you... did she die in vain?’ are still remembered, and quoted, five decades on.

Behind the smiles lurked a poignancy: Hancock was hilarious, but also a sad figure. The everyday people he interacted with in the dour landscape of post-war Britain accepted their lot and got on with life, but the 'lad himself' would never accept that. Like an overweight Icarus he’d set off for the Sun and come tragically crashing back down to Earth with a bang.

A perfect example is The Beauty Contest, where Hancock enters Mr East Cheam firmly believing he'll be crowned without question. We all know he has less chance of making it than a cat has of winning Crufts, but his impotent indignation when he ranks last (jointly with corrupt sidekick Sid) resonates far further thanks to the added pinch of pathos. Hancock recognised this himself and once commented: “It's both funny and sad which seem to me to be the two basic ingredients of good comedy”.

This year Galton and Simpson celebrate the 60th anniversary of the formation of their writing partnership and it is fitting, then, that a number of Hancock's Half Hours are set to get their first release since original broadcast. This isn't because the BBC has been slow to capitalize on Hancock's unwavering popularity, far from it, but because until now these episodes have been missing from their archives.

Up to the mid-Seventies broadcasters wiped much of their programming as a matter of routine, believing there to be little commercial value in holding on to shows – especially ones made in black and white. Out of the original 63 television episodes, 26 are missing, presumed wiped. With the radio series, of 107 radio episodes, 21 are currently absent.

But things seemed a little brighter when, at the end of 2008, six soundtracks to missing TV episodes were returned to the BBC. OK, it's not the same as having the original videotapes back, but thanks to the foresight of some HHH fans sticking a mic next to the TV back in the late Fifties, we can hear, if not see, some classic Galton and Simpson scripts brought back to life.

All of the recovered episodes: Underpaid! Or, Grandad's SOS; The Flight Of The Red Shadow; The Horror Serial; Matrimony Almost; The Beauty Contest; and The Wrong Man – date from series four broadcast in 1959, and all of them of gems.

Of particular quality are The Horror Serial and The Flight Of The Red Shadow, in which, respectively, a terrified Hancock becomes convinced he's found a Martian spaceship in his back garden, and has to pose as an Eastern prince appealing for aid for his impoverished kingdom. The Horror Serial is a rarity in the sense that it is topical – responding to the broadcast of superlative sci-fi programme Quatermass and the Pit – but that does not mean its dated. The episode is a note-perfect pastiche of Quatermass crammed with bathos and sublime stupidity.

The Flight Of The Red Shadow, on the other hand, is a perfect example of what made Anthony Aloysius Hancock so hilarious. The impromptu speech he gives as the fake maharajah is full of glaring errors and steeped in irony as he tries to get the audience to part with cash with only one purpose in mind – lining his own moth-eaten pockets.

This episode, along with The Wrong Man, have been expertly restored and are to be released together on CD by BBC Audiobooks later this year. I strongly recommend buying a copy, if for no other reason than to get an idea of how indebted comedy is to Hancock's Half Hour.

It's like a lesson in history, but only in the same sense that battle re-enactments are instructive. In both you are fully absorbed in the action, having a great time re-living former glories with not a cobweb in sight. Did Magna Carta die in vain? Not when she gives Hancock an excuse to shine, chum.

  • Hancock: The Lost TV Episodes will be released on July 2. Click here to preorder from Amazon.

Published: 8 Apr 2009

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