Laughing with Tony Hancock

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A memorial to Tony Hancock in Birmingham. Pic: hisgett

This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of 1968, that iconic year of struggle continues to provide inspiration in the fight for justice and equality. But there was also a sad anniversary: 2018 marked 50 years since the suicide of Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best loved comedians, aged just 44.

At the height of his popularity 15 million people tuned into the radio programme, Hancock’s Half Hour, broadcast from 1954 to 1961, which doubled up as a television show from 1956.

The 1950s were the decade when the British people were being assured, in the words of Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, that they’d “never had it so good.” It was an era which saw the rise of the supermarket, new shopping centres and commercial television.

It was the period when class and class conflict were supposed to have withered away under the impact of increased prosperity and social mobility. According to many sociologists, it was the decade that witnessed the “consumer revolution”, with the working class now all middle class. But there was a deeper reality that needed to be unmasked.

Tony Hancock understood that the role of humour was to lay bare social reality and, together with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson — who virtually invented the sitcom — revolutionised British comedy.

Galton (who died as I was working on this article, aged 88) was 16 when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, spending four years in a sanatorium where he met Simpson (who died last year, aged 87). They would later go on to write the classic series, Steptoe and Son and be awarded a BAFTA fellowship.

Hancock, Galton and Simpson created a character — Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock — who burst the bubble of complacency, revealing that British society continued to be racked by class conflict and contradiction. The 1950s were also the years that saw the beginnings of the social and political protest that were to reach such a glorious climax in the 1960s.

By setting Hancock up as a pompous character whose social and intellectual posturings are always overturned, his humour highlighted the absurdity of our society with its social striving and inequality.

In this decade of alleged “equality of opportunity”, Hancock was the one who never made it. He is a seedy, bedraggled individual who lives in a fantasy and tries to impress the world by wearing a Homburg hat and Astrakhan collar.

He is the man of noble birth, brought up at “Hancock Towers”, who constantly strives to elevate himself above his fallen position. He is the Shakespearean actor who never gets a part, the election candidate who polls one vote, his own. He is the war hero, parachuted into the heart of Germany, who turns out to have been a deserter. He is the blood donor who asks whether you get a badge for giving blood.

Hancock believes he was born for better things than his sleazy life in dreary suburbia or, later on, in a lonely Earls Court bedsit.

He hates the rich and powerful who frustrate his search for fame and social acceptance. He gets his own back by relentlessly parodying their smugness, arrogance and snobbery. He tries to join the upper class Athenaeum Club, but is refused membership on the grounds that he doesn’t fit in. However, he will be allowed to join if he can travel around the world in 80 days. He takes three months to reach Grimsby!

Hancock represents the collapse of the grandiose into the mediocre or the bewildered. He is the founder of the East Cheam Festival of Art, rival to Edinburgh and Salzburg, who ends up wishing he’d stayed home to watch the boxing. He is the aspiring intellectual who wrestles with philosophy, but has to consult the dictionary every two words.

Hancock is, in addition, the little man up against it, fighting a system based on arbitrary authority and bureaucratic convention. As foreman of a jury, confronted by a pompous judge, he tells the defendant in a robbery case: “Don’t worry, mate, I’ll see you get a fair trial.”

His Christmas savings accidentally fall into the coffers of the Police Benevolent Society. They refuse to return the money on the grounds of “lack of machinery”. “No machinery?” Hancock mutters, “For the money you’ve had off me, you could buy an engineering works.”

Tragically, Hancock fell victim to the very society whose values he pilloried so remorselessly. He broke from Galton and Simpson in 1961 in an attempt to extend his own comedy, hoping to achieve international status. It was the signal for a seven year downhill slide, accompanied by an increasing dependence on alcohol.

By the 1950s, although the wealth and power of the old landed aristocracy had passed into the hands of the corporate ruling class, noble birth was still a mark of status. Since the 1980s, power has become even more concentrated in the hands of the corporate elite, with the culture of celebrity arising out of this, driving ambitious young people to aspire to emulate the “rich and famous”.

Hancock’s humour thus remains as relevant as ever.