Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Funny Strange

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.


McGuire said...

Excellent monologue, Jim. A nice biography come analysis and dissection of comedy and the comic.
Oddly enough, I thought the actor sounded a bit like Danny Baker more than Hoskins, which I don't think it necessarily a bad thing.

'She was the toughest of rooms.' I love that metaphor. It makes a lot of sense. I particularly like his explanation of his relationship with his wife.

All in all good stuff. It made me chuckle and think about comedy...I have tried my mouth at comedy...I occassionally go to the Stand in Glasgow.

I'll leave you with a quote I always loved in regard to comedy: 'Comedy is a funny way of being serious.'

Speak soon.

Rachel Fox said...

Loved it. Like you, I'm a huge comedy fan and I liked the bit about 'sense of humour'. I've never heard it used that way before (I don't think) but it's very true can't teach someone how to be funny - not really funny. You got it or you ain't.

We watched an old 'Father Ted' on TV tonight...and laughed and laughed!

Jim Murdoch said...

McGuire, glad you liked the piece. I have to say I would die if I had to get up on stage and try and be funny. I find being funny easy enough but not performing. I like being the guy behind the words. I think that comedy is a very powerful tool. I find it very hard not to use it even in the most serious of pieces. Even at my most depressed I never lose my sense of humour.

Rachel, this is one of a collection of stories all based around the senses, not the five, but the rest, the sense of honour, the sense of impending doom, the sense of humour and more. You get the idea.

Rachel Fox said...

I like the sound of that collection! I sense great things for it...

Dave King said...

Magnificent, I think is the word. Loved it, loved it, loved it. You mentioned the pauses in the Hancock scripts, but I always thought the big thing about those programmes was his timing. It was always Spot-on. I hadn't realised that the pauses were in the scripts. Thanks for that, it was anice stroll down memory lane.

Anonymous said...

This is a good story - the character reminds me a little of Archie Rice - and it's a *wonderful* format. I hope they do more of them for you too! Do you just submit to them or wot?

Oddly enough, the most moving and insightful account of the life behind the mask was Kenneth Williams diarys which I have read several times and which I return to often with a sort of morbid fascination that I find difficult to understand.

Rachel: Father Ted always makes us laugh:

Father Ted:
[holding up a toy cow ]
This cow: small
[ pointing out of the window ]
That cow: far away... :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, so you liked it then? You really liked it? And you're right, Hancock's timing was perfect. It's a shame the man was such a mess. The recent BBC4 play with Ken Stott was uncomfortable viewing at times I have to say.

Ken, if you have a look on their site they have theme so you can't just send anything. Of course, you could always write something with them in mind and after hearing this performance I might be tempted to do that once I clear my feel. I've never read Kenneth Williams' diaries though. I've been tempted and if I came across a cheap copy no doubt I'd buy it just to have around the house.

Marion McCready said...

I enjoyed that, especially liked 'even at at time like that I needed a blinking script' and the joke book at the pearly gates! Must be quite bizarre but very gratifying to hear your work being performed.

Anonymous said...

reading this brought back memories of my early teens when quite by accident I listened to the Goons when playing with an old radio that pulled in overseas broadcastts...I was hooked and would sit with my ear up against the speaker every Sunday Night listening toi Harry Secombe and the boys though the crackling and fading of that old radio

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Sorlil, it was fascinating to hear how an actor might interpret the role. I had always imagined it being read aloud but I couldn't envisage a market for a ten-minute monologue so best to leave it as a short story. Of course, now I have heard it there are bits I'd tweak. I think it needs to be made clearer that his wife is only with him in spirit and I'm not sure about the caricatured wife's voice; I'm betwixt and between there because he does a good job with it. Other than that he did a fine job.

And, Confused, yes, I've had a clip of a Goons Show on my desktop for weeks now. I keep planning to write a blog about Spike Milligan, well a couple probably – a lot to cover there – but things keep getting in my way. I will. It's just a matter of time. Having grown up with Monty Python of course The Goons seemed a little tame and I missed the visuals. I listened to an old show a couple of weeks back and I really was taken aback by how frenetic the whole thing was. Good fun mind.

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