Tony Hancock is often referred to as a ‘genius’ and I believe the appraisal to be accurate and I am going to attempt to explain why, using a particular example of his radio work which I think showcases his talent beautifully.
Before I do, I want to make one more bold statement about the writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, whom I too believe to have been geniuses.
That’s a lot of geniuses… or genii, if that’s a better term?
It seems improbable that so many should be clustered together on one project BUT, let us pause for a moment…
It’s actually not that uncommon for geniuses to group together and produce super-work.
The Beatles are an example in pop music where three song-writing geniuses were present in one place – along with a genius producer, so you could argue there were at least four at work in that scenario, maybe more if you want to make a case for Ringo’s distinct and tasteful drum work, which fits the product so perfectly.
The Goons, in a contemporary sense where Hancock is concerned, also featured the work of multiple geniuses.
All great art has a touch, or sometimes more than a touch of genius to it.
So, really, it’s not that much of a step too far to suggest Galton and Simpson were geniuses as well.
Their scripts were of such a consistently high standard that most of their work with Hancock has stood the test of time easily.
But the quality of the writing is not the only issue with them.
They demonstrated with Hancock and later with the two leads in Steptoe And Son, that they knew the performers they were writing for.
Fine for them to scrutinise and deliberate over “an armful” or “very nearly and armful”, because that was the kind of comedy language detail which they knew made a difference, while Hancock’s talent lay in the delivery – the timing of the line if you like – which I believe to have been largely a natural ability rather than something which was planned.
This makes sense when you look at the evidence of more than a few sources who regularly say that Hancock’s first performance was usually his best.
Repetitive takes took away his spontaneous edge and worked at odds with his innate ability to understand the comedy in language and deliver it naturally.
That’s where Hancock’s genius was.
He could take the work of two other geniuses and present it in a way which, rather than watering it down, instead augmented it and connected with the audience.
Call it timing, if you like, but there is more to it than that.
I’ve read that Hancock himself was an admirer of Pinter’s work.
If true, that certainly makes sense, if not then there are still parallels.
Every pause and utterance in Pinter’s scripts have been poured over by intellectuals and analysts for years.
My contention is that Galton and Simpson’s use of language can be seen to be every bit as carefully constructed as Pinter’s.
The example I wanted to use (mentioned at the start) is their script for the 1958 radio broadcast known to Hancock fans as Sunday Afternoon At Home, which is a superb example of both writers and performers at the top of their game – drawing comedy from language in desperately mundane conversations which shouldn’t be funny – but because of the way they are presented actually form the bedrock of most situation comedy, as we know it now.
Just look at how that show begins:
“Oh dear… oh dear, oh dear…” Hancock sighs as the sheer boredom of the Sunday afternoon is projected through the speaker.
The pauses are as important as the words themselves and the delivery is everything.
Sound familiar to Pinter scholars?
What follows is half and hour of absurd, yet familiar exchanges about wallpaper patterns, music, games, the newspapers, the activities of the neighbours, a visit from one highly irksome neighbour indeed and a host of other trivialities and yet the comedy is always at the forefront.
There are a few one-liners in there (“I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about” and “Yes, well I’m so sorry you’ve got to go now”), but in general the comedy comes from the language and the connection with the audience.
We understand or empathise with the characters in their situation.
This comedy does not rely on silly voices (though Clark the neighbour’s voice is border-line), but rather on taking a run-of-the-mill setting and nudging it ever so slightly into the realm of the absurd and the futile.
Hancock himself said that the point of his work was to highlight a certain “pomposity” and it is the positioning of the character, with the grand ideas and aspirations (or delusions) into that everyday life setting that we all know, which creates the conflict – the drama, if you will, in Pinter (though sometimes the humour too) and the comedy in Galton and Simpson’s work, all predicated on language.
This script is actually high art.
It is ironic then that in the process of attempting to make fun of the pompous or the grandiose, Hancock et al were actually creating an artform arguably on a par with that which they were lampooning.
I say ‘lampooning’ and I mean that in a very loose sense, perhaps ‘emulating’ would be a better word; I don’t believe that they were attempting to satirize English society in the 1958s or serious forms of literature, that would be too strong a way to describe it, but rather gently exposing the kind of “quiet desperation” that Pink Floyd would sing about 15 years later.
Galton and Simpson’s language is the language of empathy and Hancock’s delivery is so perfectly nuanced and fine-tuned to it that we, the audience, although laughing at him and his forays into the realm of fantasy, are also simultaneously willing him to succeed, perhaps because we know he never can.
There are numerous other examples of near-perfect dialogue in the Hancock scripts – the farcical exchange between the lad himself and Sid James over the stealing of a chair in The Christmas Club springs to mind, but this particular script is pretty much a showcase for this style of comedy, which has echoed down to the present day.
Take virtually any subsequent or current character-driven British ‘sitcom’ and you’ll see the influence of Galton and Simpson – and Hancock.
I won’t go through them, you can use your imagination on that one, but trust me, it’s there.
If you’ve never heard Sunday Afternoon At Home I envy you, because the experience is there waiting for you, for the first time.
It is a masterclass in language-based comedy and for me at least, represents the very pinnacle of the form on British radio, every bit as valid as art as ‘traditional’ literature (whatever that is) or cutting-edge theatre.
Hancock always wanted to move on, to explore other media… and once you have pushed one medium to its limits, who can fault him for that?
What he went on to do in entertainment is for another blog, but Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio occupies a special place for therockandrollguy.com in the pantheon of great and significant art.