Monday, April 14, 2008

"Stone me, what a life!"

Anthony John Hancock was born in 1924, in Hall Green, Birmingham, England. At the age of 3, he moved to Bournemouth where his father ran a hotel and worked as a comedian and entertainer.
Tony Hancock left school when he was 15. In 1942, he joined the RAF Regiment and began to work for The Ralph Reader Gang Show.

After the war, he worked for some variety programmes on the radio, namely Workers’ Playtime and Variety Bandbox. He achieved wider recognition in 1951 while acting in Kaleidoscope and in Educating Archie, a very successful comedy show featuring the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews. In 1954, he was given his own radio show, Hancock’s Half Hour.

Rejecting the dominant variety of British radio, Hancock’s Half Hour pioneered the situation comedy. It uses character and situation-based humour, the situations being close to everyday life. This series was very successful and even broadcast on television in 1956. While radio and television versions alternated, Hancock created an independent series, The Tony Hancock Show, for which only Sid James was retained from the original cast.

This actor is responsible for the transfer of the show to television. He played the role of the realist man in his duo with Hancock, the loser with an exasperated voice and an expressive face. The credulity of Hancock is often exploited by James but there is an authentic friendship between the two characters in the television version.

After a car accident, Hancock was unable to learn his lines for the next episode of The Blood Donor. As a result, everything had to be recorded in advance, Hancock reading the text from Teleprompters. Hancock’s programmes were the first pre-recorded British programmes, which frightened the executives of the BBC but has now become common practice. Thus, Hancock’s shows changed the way comedy was made. Moreover he was the first artist to be paid more than 1000£ for a half-hour programme.

Despite the fact that he was a great comedic actor, Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is said that his self-doubt led him to self destructiveness. During his life, he never stopped searching for the meaning of life, reading many classic novels, as well as philosophical and political books. Describing life as ‘pointless’, he sank into alcoholic depression.

His turbulent relationships with women never helped him to compose his thoughts. He married his first wife in 1950 but they divorced in 1965, after many years of conjugal violence and alcoholism. The same year, Hancock married his mistress (with whom he also was violent) but their marriage was short-lived and Hancock took a new mistress. His second wife tried to commit suicide in 1966. For Hancock, it was as if she had tried to destroy his career and they finally divorced in 1968. A few days later, whilst Hancock was in Australia working on a television comedy series, he committed suicide. He was 44.

The following sketch, Scene in a flat, is part of The Final Series, Australia 1968:

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