Tony Hancock.

By John Fisher

Printed: 2008

Publisher: Harper Collins. London

Edition: First edition

Dimensions 17 × 24 × 5 cm

Language: English

Size (cminches): 17 x 24 x 5

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In the original dustsheet. Black cloth binding with gilt title on the spine.

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Tony Hancock was regarded as the best radio and television comic of his era and the founder of the British sitcom. A man whose star burned brightly in the eyes and ears of millions before his untimely death. This is the first fully authorized account of his life.

Review: Tony Hancock, at his peak in the 1950s, made one third of the British population laugh. He did it, not by telling jokes or delivering the smutty double-entendre, but by finding humour in the clash between the common person’s dreams for a better life and the serial disappointment of those dreams. John Fisher’s biography of Hancock analyses the man, his artistic persona, and the essence of his comedy that had made Hancock Britain’s most-loved comic. Born in 1924 to a semi-professional music hall family, Hancock got hooked early on the thrill of making people laugh. He served his apprenticeship in provincial variety clubs and radio where his aptitude for the comedy of character brought him to the attention of the BBC and two of the best comedy script writers in the business, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who combined to produce his greatest achievement, Hancock’s Half Hour, on radio and TV from 1954 to 1961. Hancock’s skill with interpretation, timing, delivery, vocal inflection, body gesture and facial expression captured every nuance of Galton and Simpson’s scripts, and, with one of those chemically perfect support casts (Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr and Kenneth Williams), turned their fictional home at 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, into everyone’s site for the mugging of aspirations by reality. East Cheam was a shabby south London suburb, struggling with poverty and rationing after the war, and a rebuttal to the Tory Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan’s, catch-cry of `You never had it so good’. Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (Hancock’s radio and screen persona) aspired to the good life but was doomed by his lowly class. The added pomposity and pretensions of his character made for a doubly humorous fall without ever losing his identification with all those who knew through bleak experience that life is not as it should be. Hancock could make humour literally out of nothing (such as the boring Sunday afternoon), extracting comedy out of the “dreary minutiae of humdrum existence”. Hancock, and Galton and Simpson, were admirers of the American humorists, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, who were masters of this brand of humour. Walter Mitty, the fictional subject of a famous Thurber short story, also inspired the daydreams of heroism, excitement and adventure in the fantasies of Hancock, yearning for something better than grimy suburbia or a lonely Earls Court bed-sit. It is not a cliché to say that Hancock suffered for his art. He sought perfection and was plagued by self-doubt, not helped by a life-long struggle with learning his lines. Every night on TV (or stage) was like a first night and he would usually be physically sick. This core anxiety soon intensified, as, seeking new directions and international film recognition, Hancock moved on from Galton and Simpson and the BBC. This began, however, a seven year slide in his career, feeding his self-doubt and insecurity as his ratings plummeted, overtaken by, amongst others, Galton and Simpson’s new vehicle, Steptoe and Son. Alcohol was Hancock’s recourse but this only served to destroy his technical comedic gifts. In his private life, he became violent towards his women partners, and suffered psychotic episodes and mood swings. Clinical depression, vodka and barbiturates provided the lethal combination for Hancock’s suicide in Sydney in June 1968, aged just 44 – “things seem to go too wrong too many times”, said his suicide note. It is ironic that Hancock, whose character made life bearable for so many others, was unable to save himself in the end. The rise and fall of Hancock is exhaustively told by Fisher but he is rather less voluble on one of the main reasons for Hancock’s achievements, for Hancock described himself as a socialist (this gets one sentence in a 627 page biography) as Galton and Simpson also called themselves socialists (this is only hinted at by Fisher in describing Galton as a “pen-pusher” at the Transport and General Workers Union). The socialist politics of Hancock, Galton and Simpson gave them a genuine sympathy for the lives of the Hancock public with their disappointments and antagonism to those who stood in the way of fulfillment. Hancock was also a fervent atheist and strong skeptic of war (he had lost his elder brother in World War 11), and his disillusion with the self-feeding hypocrisies of war and religion helped to make the rationalist and pacifist, Bertrand Russell, his most admired philosopher. Hancock identified, and personified, the “two basic ingredients of good comedy” – it should be “both funny and sad”. Hancock knew that to laugh at the human condition you had first to be able to cry at it if the point, as the socialist Hancock also knew, was to change it.


Anthony John Hancock (12 May 1924 – 25 June 1968) was an English comedian and actor. High-profile during the 1950s and early 1960s, he had a major success with his BBC series Hancock’s Half Hour, first broadcast on radio from 1954, then on television from 1956, in which he soon formed a strong professional and personal bond with comic actor Sid James. Although Hancock’s decision to cease working with James, when it became known in early 1960, disappointed many at the time, his last BBC series in 1961 contains some of his best-remembered work (including The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham). After breaking with his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson later that year, his career declined.

About the Author  – John Fisher is a TV producer and has written many entertainment-related books.

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