A comic of the tragedy of working life

December 9, 2009

Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography
By John Fisher
HarperCollins, 2009
627 pages, $33 (pb)

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 smutty double-entendres, 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 Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography analyses the man, his artistic persona, and the essence of his comedy that 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 scriptwriters in the business, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

They 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.

With one of those chemically perfect support casts (Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr and Kenneth Williams), they 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 was 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 US 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 cliche to say 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. However, this began a 7-year slide in his career, feeding his self-doubt and insecurity as his ratings plummeted, overtaken by, among 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 was the lethal combination that led to 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.

Fisher exhaustively tells of the rise and fall of Hancock, but he is rather less vocal on one of the main reasons for Hancock's achievements.

Hancock described himself as a socialist (this gets one sentence in a 627-page biography), as did Galton and Simpson. Fisher only hints at this 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 fulfilment.

Hancock was also a fervent atheist and strong sceptic of war (he had lost his elder brother in World War II).

His disillusion with war and religion helped to make Bertrand Russell, the rationalist pacifist, his most admired philosopher.

The Blood Donor, one of Hancock's most famous sketches, included a wonderful send-up of unscientific and racist views about the "purity" of "white" blood.

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, especially if the point was to change it.

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