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Tony Hancock

Anthony John Hancock, best known as Tony Hancock (May 12, 1924 - June 26, 1968) was a major figure in British television and radio comedy in the 1950s and 1960s.

Early Life and Career

He was born in Birmingham, England, but raised in Bournemouth where his mother and step-father ran a small hotel. He was educated at a boarding school in Swanage and Bradfield College, Berkshire. He left school aged 15. In 1942 he joined the RAF Regiment and following a failed audition for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) ended up with The Ralph Reader Gang Show. Following the war he gained regular radio work in shows like Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox, and in 1951 he gained a part in Educating Archie, where he played the tutor and foil to the real star, a ventriloquist's dummy. Here he developed a catchphrase - flippin' kids - that was to earn him real recognition. In 1954 he was granted his own BBC radio show: Hancock's Half Hour.

Hancock's Peak Years

Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the show lasted for five years and over a hundred episodes, featuring Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and over the years Moira Lister and Hattie Jacques. Examples of the radio programmes may be heard on the digital radio station BBC 7 each Tuesday, for instance on-line at 19:30 London time (=GMT during the winter months) at the official BBC7 site (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7).

Hancock's television career as star began in 1956, innitially on ITV, but it was the BBC-TV version of Hancock's Half Hour (later Hancock) that established him in the medium.

The classic Hancock characterisation referred to himself as Anthony Aloysius StJohn Hancock - being a larger-than-life version of Hancock's real self. In rhe TV series the regular cast was reduced to Hancock and James, allowing the humour to come from the interaction of the two men. James was the realist of the two, but also more of a Jack the lad type who would puncture Hancock's pretensions. Hancock was to become anxious that his work with James was turning them in to a double act, and the last BBC series in 1961 was without James. Despite the contemporary criticism of Hancock, many consider this to contain the best of Hancock's BBC work.

Two of the episodes of Hancock's last BBC television series are probably his best remembered work. The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood. This contains classic lines such as, A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful! (The doctor's response: "You won't have an empty arm...or an empty anything!") Another well-known episode is The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays a ham radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a ship in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking its position. Both of these episodes were later re-recorded for a commercial 1961 LP in the style of radio episodes, and these versions have been continuously available ever since. The original TV versions have since been released as part of VHS and DVD compilations, and the soundtracks have also (a little confusingly) been released on CD.

Shortly before recording the original version of The Blood Donor Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, but his confidence was shaken and he was unable to learn his lines, with the result that the recording was made with Hancock using teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script) so that he could read the lines instead. Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.

International Dreams and Introspection

Hancock also starred in the 1960 film The Rebel (aka, Call Me Genius in the USA) where he plays the role of an office worker turned artist who meets international acclaim after moving to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. The film was not well received in the United States; owing to a conflict with a contemporary series the film had to be renamed and this inflamed American critics. Hancock was later to dismiss the film as crude and its failure was a contributory factor in his disastrous break with his writers, Galton and Simpson, after the last television series for the BBC.

Hancock always dreamed of being a major international star, but failed to realise that his style of humour was uniquely British. This was demonstrated by his second starring vehicle, The Punch and Judy Man (1962), in which he plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life. Sylvia Sims plays his nagging social-climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier plays a sand sculptor. The film's humour is bitter-sweet and understated and perfectly tailored to British audiences. It has been suggested that American audiences, used to a more brash style of humour, would find the movie slow-moving and dull. His television shows were, however, frequently broadcast in Australia.

In early 1960 Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions - but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later depression.

Later Years

He moved to ATV in 1963 with different writers. Coincidentally, the series clashed in the television schedule with Steptoe and Son written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Comparisons were not flattering.

Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by now alcoholism had disipated much of his talent. Hancock went to Australia in March 1968 and he committed suicide in Sydney in June.

There is a statue in his honour in Birmingham.

Recordings

In the last few years, the BBC has issued CDs of the surviving 74 radio episodes in six box sets, one per series. There have also been video releases of the BBC TV series, but only two Region 2 DVDs to date, the first Hancock: The Best of Hancock featuring five episodes from the last TV series, the second Hancock's Half Hour: Volume One containing the surviving episodes of the second and third TV series (none of the first series are known to exist), plus a Christmas special. Presumably if the latter is successful further volumes of remaining episodes will be released.

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Tony Hancock Facts

Birth NameAnthony John Hancock
OccupationActor
BirthdayMarch 12, 1924
SignPisces
BirthplaceBirmingham, England, United Kingdom
Date of deathJune 26, 1968 (age 44)

Selected Filmography

Hancock (1961) tv
Hancock's Half Hour (1956) tv
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