It's been a while since I've done a blog about one of my comic heroes but the performance of one of my short stories in London provides me with an opportunity to talk about Tony Hancock.
Actually I don't really want to talk about Tony Hancock so much as I want to talk about Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, the persona Hancock added to scripts penned by two of the greatest comedy writers this country has ever produced: Galton and Simpson. ('St John' is pronounced 'sinjun' by the way. Don't ask.)
Brits love a loser. I don't know what it is about the British but we do love rooting for the underdog. I look at the comedians we've produced over the years and they really are a downtrodden lot. I'm thinking here primarily of those who came out of the last gasp of the musical hall tradition, drifted into radio after being demobbed and appeared as if my magic on our 12" TV screens in the nineteen-fifties. I'm thinking here of the likes of Charlie Drake, Spike Milligan and Norman Wisdom among others, all of whom played the little guy so well.
Hancock had a different take on his underdoggedness – he refused to accept it. Hancock had an attitude. And by 'Hancock' I mean both the actor and his character who in all fairness was simply a gross exaggeration of the actor. The character was pompous, pretentious and opinionated and yet also surprisingly naïve and gullible at times. Hancock the actor was insecure, desperate for success but unable to cope with it when it came.
Galton and Simpson, who wrote most of his classic episodes, were very forward-thinking writers. And experimental, don't forget. Everyone always goes on about the pauses in Pinter but he was certainly not the first. And although they didn't invent the situation comedy, they ensured its continued future as a staple of TV programming for decades to come. And I've already written about how they took the essence of Beckett and transformed it into unmissable TV gold with Steptoe and Son.
What was striking with Hancock's Half-Hour is the fact that what they were presenting was such a radical departure from the rapid fire humour of people like Ted Ray, Max Miller and the nothing less than frenetic Goon Show. Hancock would mope around his house (23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam – the worst area of a very genteel neighbourhood) sighing and huffing as in the classic episode 'The Bedsitter' which opens with him lying on his bed blowing smoke rings:
'The Bedsitter' Part 1
And, if you want to see how that all pans out, here're links to Part 2 and Part 3.
What I find of particular interest is the fact that in their biography of him Freddie Hancock and David Nathan devote five whole pages to showing just how detailed the script was for this episode. Elsewhere in the book they make this observation:
From the moment the perfection of the creation was achieved the clown struggled to free himself from it. It was like watching a man trying to lose his own shadow.
Hancock suffered from depression, became dependent on alcohol and finally died under questionable circumstances alone in a hotel room in Australia; the general consensus is that it was suicide but no one knows for sure.
The private life of the comic is always something that has fascinated me, indeed the private life of any public figure. Really what fascinated me is truth. It always has.
Which bring us to my short story 'Funny Strange', performed recently by Liars' League in London.
The narrator in my short story 'Funny Strange' is not Hancock, not either of them. But he was modelled on him. I wanted to portray the clown's other face, a comedian at the end of his career and nearing the end of his life. The story was written not long after the first series of Alan Bennett's Talking Heads had been aired and I had been totally inspired by his monologues. Not all of my stories are monologues but I enjoy the format immensely.
It's a short piece, less than 1700 words, so I don't have time for anything more than a single theme. Hancock was obsessed with philosophy off camera, in particular the thorny issue of life's meaning so I make my comedian similarly preoccupied:
A comedian told a joke in a forest but there was no one there to hear it. So was it funny? I don’t know the answer to that one either. All I know is that once my audience turned their backs on me I stopped being funny, there was no one to be funny for, no one to entertain. “Crack joko ergo sum,” as the pigs say in Latin: I joke therefore I am.
It was written as a short story but in my head it's always been a monologue.
I am sure of my identity. I'm not always happy with it but unlike the actor, I know of no alternative. And when you're hugely successful being someone else it must be difficult returning to the old you. When you're a comic it must be hard not to look at the universe as one big joke and maybe not a very funny one at that.
The comedian in my story is at the end of his career. Rather than having died I tried to imagine where someone like Hancock would've ended up. Norman Wisdom now suffers from vascular dementia and is in a care home. So bad is his memory that he no longer recognises himself in his own film. I wanted my comic to remember everything and he does. He bemoans the state of the country, the falling standards of stand-up comedy, his marriage and his life. It was fascinating a) listening to an actor bring the man to life and b) listening to the audience respond to his excellent characterisation. The actor, Clive Greenwood (who stepped in at the last minute I'm told), plays the comedian as an Eastender – east end of London that is (think Bob Hoskins and you're right on the money) – and it's perfect. I sent them an e-mail when the story was accepted with a few pointers, explaining who the character was modelled on, but saying that the accent was not as important as the social class – he had to be a commoner so he could've done a north of England accent or even a Glaswegian would've been fine, but the choice he made was perfect, in fact we recently watched Hoskins on TV in a monologue and I think Greenwood might be a better Hoskins than Hoskins. Apparently he does a mean Charles Hawtrey too.
Anyway, something a little different today. Here's a video of the recording. There's no picture but a set of slides of the text. It's 11 minutes long and I just sat with a stupid grin on my face all the time it was playing, even when it got to the sad bits. I really hope I get the chance to provide them with something again. You can see the full text of the story on the Liars' League website along with an audio link should you prefer.