It is nearly sixty years since the last radio edition of Hancock’s Half Hour was transmitted in December 1959 – 102 episodes and six series after the first in 1954. So to remember the original broadcasts you have to be, like me, over 70 – most of the audience at Richmond fell comfortably into this category! I usually listened to the Sunday repeat which in 1959 was on the “Light” Programme sandwiched at 6.30pm between “Sing Something Simple” and “Take it From Here”. If this was the golden era of Radio Comedy Tony Hancock was its undisputed star. With scripts of rare and consistent genius from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and, for much of its life, a supporting cast of comic talent in Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques and Bill Kerr, “Hancock” set a standard against which later generations of comedians and writers tested themselves.
The “Apollo Theatre Company” has pioneered the stage presentation of legendary radio comedy including “Round the Horne” and “The Goon Show”. They take the original scripts and present them as if the audience was attending the recording of the show. It is a simple and engaging format and as one who has occasionally attended the real thing at various BBC studios I can confirm its authenticity. The three scripts presented in the new show are Hancock in the Police (1957), “The Americans Hit Town” (1958) and “The Wild Man of the Woods” (1956). By this time the show had developed a pattern and a cast list that worked and had a listening audience of around 4 million despite the growing competition to the “wireless” from television (now two channels after the launch of ITV in 1955).
“Hancock’s Half Hour” revolved around the talent of “The Lad Himself” – Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – and the extraordinary scripts that Galton and Simpson delivered week after week. In some ways, radio is more flexible than TV and there is more scope for the wacky. Whilst the core of the series’ was Hancock and friends in 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam, there were no limitations on where the scriptwriters could take them. The locations and action was often totally surreal – here including in a bomber when the US Air Force sets up a base in East Cheam. In another episode when Hancock and Kerr decide to become policemen and all the shops on their beat get burgled (Sid James inevitably found a way of getting tips from his friends!) And in “The Wild Man” Hancock wants to get away from it all and decides camp out in a forest – Sid finds a way of monetising that as well.
The originality of “Hancock’s Half Hour” on the radio was that it did not rely on gags but more on character and situation – it was one of the first “Situation comedies” and certainly the most surreal. But there are jokes which, in some instances, might not be allowed in our more “correct times”. This from “The Americans”. Hattie, a woman of considerable size of course, has met an American airman:
Hattie: Oh Mr Hancock, guess what? I’m getting married.
Tony: Stone me! They’ve only been here two hours.
Hattie: It was love at first sight. He swept me off my feet.
Tony: What was he driving? A bulldozer?
The challenge for anyone playing Hancock is considerable. His biographer John Fisher described his talent “… the greatest reader of a script ever, capable of giving, at first sight, an almost perfect rendition…the ability to project to the microphone only so far and not beyond to the live audience…the skill … [to] use the briefest of pauses to change comic direction, swerving with the élan of a matador”. Above all it was his timing that was sublime – a skill that great men of the theatre need to have, but often don’t. At least to Hancock’s degree! So for James Hurn, who has made something of a speciality of playing the Lad from East Cheam, it must have been a challenge.
One that, I have to say, on the evidence of this new show he falls a bit short of achieving. Hurn acts Hancock rather than impersonates him. He looks nothing like him – by a long way not tubby enough! He does some Hancock facial expressions well but the voice is variable. At the beginning of the show, I thought he missed the timbre of the voice by a long way and he also seemed much more rushed in his delivery than the real thing. By the third episode he was much better, slowing his delivery which helped the familiar Hancock way of speaking to emerge. But, as I say, this is not an impersonation or a realistic imitation.
Tom Capper does a fine impression of Bill Kerr getting the actor’s sardonic Australian speech style well. I loved Ben Craze’s Sid James and he had the look of the man as well. Colin Elmer, despite looking worryingly like Basil Fawlty, was a very good Kenneth Williams and Laura Crowhurst captured Hattie Jaques’ charm, as well as her girth! Clive Greenwood is an authentic BBC announcer and also plays Dr MacGregor in a bonus – a brief but well-performed excerpt from “The Blood Donor” at the beginning of the second half This was the start of a long run for “Hancock’s Half Hour” and there is work to do. The uniqueness of Tony Hancock makes it a very special challenge but undoubtedly a worthwhile one. I wish all involved in the enterprise well.
Review by Paddy Briggs
TONY HANCOCK fans will be in their element this autumn as the first ever UK tour of the classic radio comedy Hancock’s Half Hour opens at the Richmond Theatre on 28th January, before touring to theatres across the country, culminating in a special gala performance at the Leicester Square Theatre, London on 7th April.
In 1954, Tony Hancock burst onto the airwaves of the BBC Light Programme with a comedy show unlike anything the British public had heard before. Playing a less successful version of himself and surrounded by a cast of fellow comedy greats including Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams, Hancock’s Half Hour was one of the first programmes in the genre we now know as sitcom.
Written by young up-and-comers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who later went on to create Steptoe and Son, Hancock’s Half Hour redefined radio comedy and has had people laughing non-stop for the past 65 years. Now, 65 years after its first broadcast, Apollo Theatre Company, who recently produced UK tours of classic radio comedies, The Goon Show and Round the Horne, bring the show to the stage for the first time.
James Hurn as Tony Hancock
Ben Craze as Sid James
Laura Crowhurst as Hattie Jacques
Tom Capper as Bill Kerr
Colin Elmer as Kenneth Williams
Produced and directed by Tim Astley
Hancock’s Half Hour is at Grand Opera House York on Thursday 5th October, 2023.