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Thursday, 13 February 2014

SOME BOOKS ABOUT… Tony Hancock



TONY HANCOCK (and friend), 1962




Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock was a comic fiction who lived in an imaginary place called East Cheam and had total reality for millions of people.  Anthony John Hancock (12 May 1924 – 24 June 1968), clown, was not content with this and searched for more reality, and more truth until he finally lost himself in a fantasy world.
DAVID NATHAN



Those unfamiliar with the work of Tony Hancock, the great English radio, television and variety comedian, may like to watch this episode from season seven of his hit BBC TV series Hancock's Half Hour, which originally aired on 23 June 1961.  It's a comic masterpiece titled The Blood Donor which captures everything that made him such a beloved figure in every part of the British Commonwealth prior to his death, while shooting a new TV series in Australia, in June 1968.  [NOTE:  The sound doesn't start until after the credits have rolled.


The Blood Donor, 1961




Arrow Books/Random House, 2000
CLIFF GOODWIN When The Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock (2000)

Books about dead celebrities tend to fall into one of two categories –– warts and all 'exposés' which focus exclusively on the more salacious aspects of their subjects' lives or highly respectful 'authorized biographies' written with the full cooperation (and sometimes under the strict supervision) of their subjects' relatives and legal executors.  The truth, as with most things in life, probably falls somewhere in between these two extremes and, in the case of Cliff Goodwin's When The Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock, can make for illuminating if occasionally harrowing reading.  

The author is obviously an admirer of Hancock's work but never allows that admiration to cloud his judgement when it comes to revealing what drove and tormented the comedian prior to his 1968 suicide in Australia, where he had come in a last-ditch effort to salvage what was left of his alcohol and drug ravaged career.  It's a balanced biography, neither condemning nor condoning Hancock's erratic and often irrational behaviour, but rather examining his life year by year to reveal how his performing persona developed and the influence, largely negative, that success had upon his life both in and out of the spotlight.  The comedian's life was a charmed one in many ways but one which began to unravel and then spiral out of control as his alcoholism worsened and his habit of disassociating himself from those who'd been instrumental to his success –– his writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, his comedic foil Sid James, his agent Phyllis Rounce – took its toll on these friendships and, in time, on his ability to make full and effective use of his astonishing comedic gift.  

Goodwin's plain journalistic style of writing – which occasionally assumes a needlessly melodramatic tone in an effort to heighten the 'drama' of events which seem dramatic enough without requiring further embellishment –– enables the reader to get a real feel for the showbusiness world of 1950s and 1960s England, its variety theatres, radio and TV studios and locally staffed film sets (an unthinkable proposition in the very different, largely outsourced film industry of the twenty-first century).  Hancock knew and was friendly with most of the great names of the golden era of British radio and television comedy –– Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, John Le Mesurier and Jimmy Edwards to name just a few –– and Goodwin's many references to them, and to his co-stars Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques, helps to place Hancock's own story firmly in the context of his times, shedding valuable light on how his idiosyncratic and unique style of comedy was born and laboriously perfected.  

If you only want to read one book about Hancock's short but troubled life, then this is probably the book to choose.  It's thoroughly researched, containing a full chronology, extensive notes and complete cast lists, and also includes a transcription of the comedian's 1960 Face to Face interview with BBC TV journalist John Freeman –– a probing analysis of his personality which exposes the banal, pre-rehearsed 'celebrity interviews' of today as the crass, self-indulgent time fillers they invariably and so transparently are.  It was Freeman's interview, many of Hancock's friends believed, which provoked the endless questioning of his talent which, as the years dragged on, warped, eroded and eventually destroyed it.   

The photograph chosen for the cover of this book, taken by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, is also one of the best I've ever seen of Hancock, capturing in this one unguarded moment much of the inner anguish and confusion he hid so well from the public during his time as Britain's best loved comedian.

When The Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock is no longer in print.  ABE Books has many second-hand copies of the book available on its website.





Ariel Books/BBC, 1986
FREDDIE HANCOCK & DAVID NATHAN Hancock (1986)

Freda 'Freddie' Hancock (née Ross) met a rising star named Tony Hancock while he was performing  in the English resort town of Bournemouth in 1954 and became first his press agent, then his mistress and finally, in December 1965, his second wife.  (His first wife, a former Lanvin model named Cicely Romanis whom he married in 1950, also became an alcoholic and followed him to an early grave in 1969 at the age of thirty-eight.)  The marriage officially lasted one year, his alcohol-fuelled self-destructiveness effectively destroying a relationship which had been, in some respects, the stablest and most rewarding of his life.  But Freddie realized, as so many others associated with Hancock came to prior to his death, that hers was a choice between trying to keep him alive and sober or attempting to save her own threatened sanity.  'I loved Tony,' she told her co-author David Nathan while they were originally preparing this short but lovingly written biography in 1969, 'and I never ceased to love him.  But loving him and living with him were vastly different propositions.'

Hancock is as much the story of a relationship as it is the story of a doomed comic genius whose weekly half hour radio and television broadcasts literally brought the entire British nation to a halt every Friday night for seven successful years.  Freddie's attempts to make her client and lover see what he was doing to himself –– which included leaving him on numerous occasions and once tipping an entire bottle of brandy over his head when he was supposed to be abstaining and had thoughtlessly asked her to pour him a drink – fell on deaf ears, resulting in five failed suicide attempts on her part before she finally found the courage (and the sense) to walk out on him for good in July 1966.  Despite this, and the frequent beatings Hancock subjected her to after her foolish attempts to wrench vodka bottles from his hand, she never ceased to hope that he would one day conquer his demons and begin to appreciate, as she and so many of his contemporaries in the British entertainment industry did, what a rare and unique talent his was.  Nor was she alone in finding this portly, round-shouldered man with 'funny feet' ('look like two kippers strapped to my ankles, they do' was how Hancock himself described them) and a remarkably expressive face charming and irresistibly attractive.  Freddie was only one of many people, female and male, who fell in love with Hancock and drove themselves to the brink of madness in their quest to ease his self-inflicted suffering.

It's a tribute to Freddie's generosity of spirit that she did not make her biography the muckraking exposé it could have so easily become in unkinder and less affectionate hands.  It's by no means an exhaustive biography but it's a useful and enlightening one for any admirer of Hancock, revealing him as a deeply flawed man with chronic emotional problems and not, as some would have it, a humorless monster obsessed with becoming an international superstar in the style of his even more successful friend and competitor Peter Sellers (another inspired comedian who was no stranger to addiction, psychiatry and prolonged episodes of masochistic self-destruction).  Freddie admits that she was naïve, that she ignored the advice of her family and that of Hancock's friends who tried to make her see she had to leave him, but nowhere does she state that she ever regretted having him in her life.  'He was an exciting personality,' she recalls.  'He did not smile all that often, but when he did it was worthwhile.  His eyes smiled a lot.  He had a lasting effect on me from that moment.'  This book is a testament to the love she felt for him, inevitably misguided and eventually spurned though it was.

Hancock was last reissued in 1996.  ABE Books has many second-hand copies of the book available on its website.  You can also find Lady Don't Fall Backwards, a similar 1988 memoir by HANCOCK's other mistress JOAN LE MESURIER, wife of his friend and occasional Hancock's Half Hour guest star JOHN LE MESURIER, on the same site by clicking HERE





Methuen Publishing Limited, 1999
EDWARD JOFFE Hancock's Last Stand: The Series That Never Was (1999)

Edward Joffe was a South African-born, Scottish-based television director who was given the unenviable task of directing Hancock's last ever television series, provisionally titled Hancock Down Under, which had been commissioned by Australia's ATN7 network and featured brand new, tailormade scripts authored by Melbourne-based writer Hugh Stuckey.  The program, which was filmed entirely in the Seven network's Sydney studios and featured Hancock as a newly arrived immigrant trying to come to grips with the Australian way of life, was considered, by the comedian's agent and virtually everyone who knew him, to be his last chance of recapturing and perhaps even replicating the success of his BBC years, when Hancock's Half Hour, in both its radio and television formats, had regularly been enjoyed by audiences numbering in the millions.  Hancock himself apparently knew this was his last chance to salvage what was left of a career all but ruined by his addictions to alcohol and prescription medication and approached the project with a newfound sense of purpose and, at least initially, with the intention of remaining completely sober and drug-free throughout the long and, for him, tedious months of filming.  

He flew to Australia in March and, after spending some time in hotels, eventually moved into a house on Birriga Road in the expensive eastern Sydney suburb of Bellevue Hill with Joffe, his wife Myrtle and their three young children.  The Joffes occupied the upper two floors of the house, while Hancock lived alone in a small, self-contained flat on the ground floor overlooking the garden.  It was an arrangement the producers of the show had encouraged, believing that having his director so close would in its turn encourage Hancock to curb his excessive alcohol and drug intake, both of which once again became prodigious within a few weeks of his arrival in Australia.  It was in this Birriga Road flat that Hancock was found, dead in his underwear with a cigarette still clamped between his badly scorched fingers, by Joffe on the morning of 24 June 1968.

This was, of course, a dismal end to what had been a sad and wasted life and it's a tale that might have been more poignantly told by a better writer than Joffe, whose style tends towards the twee, self-serving and annoyingly glib at times.  The book's one saving grace is that it reveals Hancock trying to understand and confront his own self-destructiveness and its consequences, fighting to regain control of a career which had hit rock bottom following his separation from Freddie Ross and the failure of his one man show – which saw him turned down flat by his former writers Galton and Simpson after he'd begged them to write new material for it –– to wow audiences at London's Festival Hall and other, so-called 'safer' venues in Aden, the Isle of Man and Australia.  

These were dark days for Hancock and this is, for the most part, a very dark book.  Nor, just as sadly, is what was actually filmed of Hancock Down Under – a program plagued by disaster from day one that was only screened in edited form following the comedian's death –– a fitting memorial for a performer who had previously been able to make audiences laugh simply by raising his eyebrow or impatiently muttering the phrase 'Stone me!' to himself.  While the program does offer a few brief glimpses of the old, mobile-faced, incredibly subtle clown of the Hancock's Half Hour days, there are too many moments when the old magic simply isn't there, when it becomes tragically obvious that what you're watching is a sick and scared man trying to will his way back into public favour.  The show, like Joffe's book, is not a must-own item for any but the most obsessive of Hancock fans, who will most likely be disconcerted, as I was, to read of the pitiable conclusion to what had once been such a sparkling career.

Hancock's Last Stand has not been reissued since it was originally published in 1999.  ABE Books has many second-hand copies of the book available on its website.

   



Arrow Books/Random House, 2004
RICHARD WEBBER 50 Years of Hancock's Half Hour (2004)

'One thing,' author Richard Webber writes in his introduction to this fine and indispensable book, 'needs clarifying from the beginning: this is not another Tony Hancock biography.  The tragic life story of one of the nation's finest comedy actors has already been meticulously detailed by other authorsthis book is a biography of a radio and television series, a celebration of a show which, even now, fifty years later, provides pleasure to the millions who continue to listen to or watch Hancock's Half Hour. 

Mr Webber is clearly a man of his word.  His book is an affectionate, lovingly detailed celebration of a program which, incredibly, has remained popular with audiences for over half a century – an audience which includes people, like myself, who weren't born when it originally aired and have only discovered Hancock thanks to the BBC and the canniness of its marketing department, which wisely chose to repackage, re-release and re-promote what most of the world's other major entertainment conglomerates would have thrown away or left to ignominiously rot in their rarely visited vaults.  

The continuing popularity of Hancock's Half Hour is a testimony to its star's ability to simultaneously personify and satirize what may be termed a quintessentially English personality and a quintessentially English view of life.  Hancock was appealing because he behaved no better and no worse than anybody in his audience behaved, was unafraid to portray himself as a deluded buffoon whose pretensions were as numerous as they were ludicrous, a clown whose antics nevertheless revealed, in the beautifully chosen words of novelist and playwright JB Priestley, 'a suggestion of depthsomebody close to "mass man" of today, coming out of the faceless crowd, hopeful, near to glory for some minutes, before the lid comes on again, before he shrugs his way back into the dark.'  That shrug, it could be argued, was the key to what made Hancock so popular –– a willingness to get on with it and not linger over his latest defeat that became, in time, the endearing hallmark of the flawed, all too human 'Everyman' he so effectively portrayed.

This book does not focus on the alcoholism, the drug abuse, the affairs or the two failed marriages, the long slow fall from grace that led to what had probably been the comedian's always inevitable decision to take his own life.  Instead, it turns the spotlight on what should always be the first and last consideration whenever we think or speak of Tony Hancock –– his ongoing ability to make people laugh.  That someone so beloved, who had, in the words of his friend Spike Milligan, 'no enemy but himself,' should die such a lonely and tragic death only makes a book like this that much more valuable as a celebration of what, in anybody's terms, must rank as an outstanding achievement and a legitimately precious legacy.  Boasting full episode guides to all his BBC radio and television programs, a complete unaired script penned by Galton and Simpson (who also provide a short and rather silly introduction to the book), full rundowns of cast and crew details plus a complete bibliography and (nowadays largely irrelevant) list of LP, cassette and video releases, it's a book that definitely belongs in the collection of all true Hancock fans.

50 Years of Hancock's Half Hour is still in print and should be easily obtainable via your local bookseller or favourite online retailer.  Click HERE if you would like to purchase a copy online with free international shipping. 





Macdonald Queen Anne Press, 1987
ROGER WILMUT The Illustrated Hancock (1987)

Like Richard Webber's book, Roger Wilmut's The Illustrated Hancock is a celebration of a body of work rather than a lament for a wasted career and a sadly squandered talent.  What makes it worth owning, as should be obvious from its title, is the assortment of stunning black and white photographs it contains, covering all aspects of the phenomenon that was 'the lad himself' from his early days as a variety performer through his radio and television years and his work as both a star in the films The Rebel (1960) and the unfairly scorned The Punch and Judy Man (1962) and as a supporting actor in big budget, all-star extravaganzas like Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965) and The Wrong Box (1966)Each section is preceded by a short introduction which provides a context for the images and includes quotes from many of those who knew, loved and worked with him.  It's a brief but fitting tribute to a comedian who almost singlehandedly raised the bar of British comedy, paving the way for later and equally gifted generations of 'comedy of embarrassment' performers such as John Cleese, Harry Enfield, Jennifer Saunders, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais.


The Illustrated Hancock has not been reissued since it was originally published in 1987.  ABE Books has many second-hand copies of the book available on its website, along with several copies of Tony Hancock: Artiste, a 1978 biography, fully revised and expanded in 1983, also written by ROGER WILMUT which you can find by clicking HERE.

Special thanks to the person who posted this version of The Blood Donor on YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by comedy fans everywhere.


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