Saturday, December 29, 2012

The East Cheam Repertory Company Presents: Hancock's Forty-Three Minutes

One of the greatest television series that you may have never seen is a series from the 1950s into early 1960s called Hancock’s Half Hour. This series starred comedian Tony Hancock and was a great series which highlighted a couple of things that were not done at the time in BBC comedy but is now very familiar to us. The series which was written by Galton & Simpson would later bring us the great series Steptoe and Son but here they took Tony Hancock and turned him into a character of the series. Tony Hancock did not play any specific character that had its own name, the character’s name was Tony Hancock. In this fictitious world, Tony Hancock often worked for the BBC, just like the real Tony Hancock. This Tony Hancock sometimes had his own radio series called Hancock’s Half Hour, just like the real Tony Hancock. In fact, all the main characters kept their names. In the TV version that was really just Tony Hancock and Sid James. In the series, Hancock may have the same profession of the real Hancock but that’s where it ended. In the TV/radio series, Hancock was talentless; the real one was extremely talented. Sid James was basically a minor criminal and a con man in the series, constantly trying to get Hancock to enter into one of his dodgy schemes.

Watching Tony Hancock and Sid James on Hancock’s Half Hour is simply sublime. I dare anyone to watch 3 episodes and not be taken by the charm and wit of not only the superb scripts but the chemistry between Hancock and James. It is so good. A personal favourite of mine is from Series 5, The Economy Drive. These two performers are at the height of their success in the series. It’s a shame these episodes are not re-ran more as they are so much fun to watch. In 1957 there was going to be a Christmas themed episode that would air of Hancock’s Half Hour. When I originally watched this a couple of years ago for the first time, I figured I would be in for a treat as I have been enjoying the series but never got around to this particular episode. Seeing that it was 43 minutes opposed to the usual 30, I was really looking forward to seeing what trouble Hancock would get into and what sort of scheme Sid James was planning. Sadly, I would be disappointed when I watched Hancock’s Forty-Three Minutes and I had not seen that episode since. Now, the time had come where this episode was picked for my holiday viewing. Now being more familiar with the series, would my views on this yuletide edition change?
Hancock’s Forty-Three Minutes TX: 23/12/57

A lot of comedy utilizing comedians done in the UK at the time of this series was variety shows. In some ways it wasn’t too far off from Vaudeville. I personally am not a big fan of that type of program and prefer something with some continuity that is more along the lines of a sitcom such as Hancock’s Half Hour. Unfortunately, Hancock’s Forty-Three minutes is a variety show with a lot of different acts. The premise of the special still fits into what the core of the series is about. Hancock is doing a broadcast for the BBC from Television Theatre and has stupidly left the booking of the acts to his “business manager” Sid James. As Hancock is on stage, since the special has already started, Sid comes out to let Hancock know that not only does he not have any acts but there is no money left. Sid has basically used the money to buy drinks down the pub. After some banter back and forth Sid let’s Hancock know that he did gets some acts and to start with there are some dancing girls!
Suddenly a chorus line of large overweight women come out dressed as dancing girls can-canning across the stage. Hancock is shocked by what he sees and tried to stop them by putting all his weight behind them. Cue the fat jokes! Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a fat joke like anyone else but this is Galton and Simpson writing this episode. They are some of the best scriptwriters ever. It seems a little too lowbrow humour for me. We will see the dancers back a couple of more times and each time with the same level of quality jokes. What does make me smile though is that there are a couple of times when Hancock makes some kind of fat joke about them that one of them is visibly smiling and is about to laugh. That makes it a little bit better for me.

What else could follow up a fat joke other than a trained monkey in a suit doing tricks on stage,  Now, at this stage if you are a big fan of Hancock’s Half Hour and is reading this, please know that I know what Galton & Simpson were trying to do with this episode. Hancock does not want a program at the level we are getting but these are the types of acts that Sid is hiring. Hancock would see a Vaudeville type program below him yet this would be all that Sid knows. This is a knock on those types of programs with a couple of other things thrown in. This is another example of how nothing ever works for poor Hancock. I do get it. I just don’t enjoy it. To my point at the beginning of the paragraph, I am not a fan of animals doing tricks. That’s just me. The audience on the show enjoyed it; hell even the chimp appears to enjoy it.
Now, there are some funny parts to it. Such as prior to the chimp and his owner on stage, Hancock and two other people (including Mario Fabrizi from The Army Game) juggle with each other which ends with all of them basically throwing stuff at each other which nearly erupts into a fight between them. Max Geldray did a couple of songs with his harmonica. Max was a regular on The Goon Show. We get a fun segment where Sid brings out a paper tearer who leads Hancock to think the man will tear the paper and make new designs out of it. In actuality, the paper tearer just takes pieces of paper and tears them up. Then we get the Keynotes.

The Keynotes were a group of musicians that played with Vera Lynn on her program. They make an appearance on this program as one of the big acts. They sing 2 songs, “Wake Up Little Suzy” and “Gypsy in my Soul”. The good news is that they are talented. The bad news is that they are so cheesy. With every camera angle change, The Keynotes do this sweeping head movement to go to the next camera angle. There is about 4 people doing this and it is hilarious. It isn’t a simple head movement change but more the heads move in an exaggerated way in unison. They went to the Lawrence Welk School of Choreography for sure. I am also aware that this is how performances were done back then; that doesn’t make it any better.
We end this extravaganza with a retelling of The Three Musketeers with special guest John Gregson. It’s the usual sort of thing. The scene is planned out well but different things interrupt the flow of the scene so “hilarious” mistakes are made. For example, John Gregson is “late” to the performance and the part where he should enter the scene in a dramatic fashion is multiple different scenarios so they redo that part multiple times by opening the door where Gregson should be waiting. One of the times it’s the chimp. I am not saying this isn’t funny, it’s just by the time we get to it I am no longer into it. I am bored by the whole thing at this point which frustrates me. I love Hancock’s Half Hour and I love older television. I just think this is a poor effort for the series.

It is interesting with John Gregson in the episode. He is a name that I am not familiar with and I needed to look him up. In some ways, he may be a casualty of the era. I know a ton of British actors but his name was unfamiliar to me and this was even after looking up his credits to see what he has done. This is not to impugn the success and credit of this actor but he is a rare one that I have not heard of before. As I mentioned before this episode had Mario Fabrizi, Max Geldray, John Vere and also Dennis Chinnery who many people will recognize from Doctor Who Genesis of the Daleks and The Twin Dilemma. Chinnery appeared in quite a few Hancock Half Hour episodes and always plays the “straight” man which he does very well. Someone else who plays that role well in this series even though he was not in this episode is Hugh Lloyd. Fantastic stuff!
Although I didn’t think much about this episode, I did treat myself to three episodes of the radio series which were Christmas related:

Hancock’s Happy Christmas TX: 23/12/56
The radio episodes are different from the TV episodes as Hancock not only has Sid James but also has Hattie Jacques (a personal favourite of mine) as Hancock’s secretary Ms. Pugh, Bill Kerr and also Kenneth Williams who plays all sorts of characters in the most brilliant way. In this episode Hancock is very bah-humbug about Christmas but ends up being lumbered with some children at an orphanage to give them a great Christmas. This is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas where Hancock warms to them. In fact the kids end up blackmailing everyone into giving them more presents. The children really make this episode and it is a delight.

Bill and Father Christmas TX: 25/12/58
Bill still believes in Father Christmas even though he is in his 30s. Hancock has to dress up every year as Father Christmas to keep the charade going. Bill finds out only to mentally revert to his 8 year old self due to the huge disappointment. The doctor who is checking out Bill’s condition tells Hancock, Sid, and Ms. Pugh to play along with Bill as if they were his old friends in Australia to help him break out of this. Bill associates Sid and Ms. Pugh with friends he had back home but of course he associates Hancock with a kid he never liked. Warren Mitchell guest stars in this episode.

The Christmas Club TX: 22/12/59
Hancock keeps putting a bit of money away every week with the pub so he can have a nice payout in time for Christmas. This will afford him a nice extravagant Christmas meal. The payout is over £50 which is a huge amount back then. What a shame that Sid accidently gives the envelope with the cash in it to the Police rather than the money they were asking for to give to their charity to help people with nothing. Now Hancock and Sid are the ones who have nothing at Christmas.

Even though the TV and radio series have the same name, there is a lot that distinguishes them from each other. They are both brilliant for their own reasons.  Unlike later TV series such as Dad’s Army and Steptoe and Son that remade the TV episodes in radio episodes, all of the radio Hancock Half Hour episodes are completely different than the TV versions. They are not the same. The only thing they have in common apart from Hancock and Sid James is that they are hilarious. If you haven’t seen the series or listened to the radio series, try and seek it out. Especially the radio series, I think is timeless. It’s a great series especially if you are having a down day. You may want to know that the BBC is an equal opportunity wiper. Both TV and radio episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour are missing. Though to be fair, though some episodes are legitimately missing, I do not know if some were just never recorded because of telerecording technology for the TV series. The show was broadcast live.
Sad News……

Even though it was known he was ill, it still greatly saddens me that Gerry Anderson passed away this week at the age of 83. He had been suffering with mixed dementia. Gerry was responsible for a whole style of filmmaking called Supermarionation. I fell in love first with The Thunderbirds and then anything I could get a hold of that he had his hand in making. The outpouring of sadness from people I have been reading on forums is very nice to see. It is also nice to see that so many people who had met him tell of what a warm and approachable person he was. Very soon, I plan to do a write up about him as I will watch an episode from each of the series that I have of his in my collection. That will be that day sorted and it will be a lot of fun to watch.
Next week: I will write about a series that I have watched and loved for a very, very long time yet has never come up for this blog. I will take a look at 2 episodes of the very classic series Fawlty Towers: Waldorf Salad and The Kipper and the Corpse as I take a master-class in comedy from the great John Cleese!

Have a great week and see you next year!
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Dave G said...

RIP Gerry Anderson - Thunderbirds are gone.

Greg said...

Yea, it's too bad. Thunderbirds had special meanign with Joleen and me.

Alan's Archives said...

Hanock's Half Hour is the best series ever made - well after Dr Who anyway! Thanks for another excellent post!

Greg said...

Hi Alan,

For me Hancock's Half Hour is right up there amongst my favourite series. Galton & Simpson have a very dark sense of humour that really comes out in this such as when Sid and Tony both think the each other is trying to kill them. There is the scene showing both of them in side by side rooms brandishing weapons ready to take the other out if needed. Super funny stuff.

Thank you for the kind words about the article.

Take care,

Alan's Archives said...

You have very good taste my friend - that's one of my favourite scenes too! Both Hancock and Sid James were among the best comedians we ever had and seeing them play off each other is wonderful! Galton and Simpson were master writers too - I got a copy of their 'lost scripts' for Christmas and they're hilarious even without the actors there to bring them to life. And you're most welcome about the kind words - I've enjoyed your site for a long time now and I've been meaning to comment; I really look forward to your posts so please keep adding more!

Greg said...

Hi Alan,

I need to track down the "Lost Scripts". They sound great. I also love the satire Hancock's Half Hour brought to us which I think is brilliant for 1950s television. Just look at my still for this article of Dennis Chinnery. That was the part where he was seriously announcing the special presentation of Hancock, James, and Gregson in The Three Muskateers. The lighting of Chinnery on that is a pure joy because he is playing it so straight but it is an absolute send up!

Once again, I really appreciate the nice words. I love doing this blog and when people say they have read it, let alone like it, is a pure adrenaline rush for me.

Take care,

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