The BBC has a lot to answer for, not least the wiping out of great swathes of our cultural heritage from the 50s, 60s and 70s. Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s seminal ‘Not Only… But Also’, large swathes of early ‘Doctor Who’, the Wednesday Play, the Apollo moon landings coverage…. Anyone putting together double bills of lost episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour from the original scripts would have enough material to fill about 25 separate evenings (26 radio episodes and 21 TV shows, all lost at the moment, though there’s still a chance that some fan is sitting on an attic full of bootleg tapes somewhere).

Tony Hancock, the Lad from East Cheam, was the first great comic creation of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, who went on to write ‘Steptoe and Son’. Though they didn’t quite invent the radio sitcom, they created the first radio character who was capable of sustaining a complete show. In this they drew a lot on Hancock’s own personality: a vainglorious parvenu with delusions of social and cultural grandeur, forever let down by his own limitations of class, education, intelligence and income. ‘Steptoe and Son’ created two characters in Albert and Harold which were roles for actors – Wilfred Bramble and Harry H Corbett were not the only ones to play them. The fictitious Hancock by contrast depended entirely on the genius and personality of Tony Hancock himself, and all efforts to recreate the scripts by others such as Paul Merton have come a cropper.

The two episodes presented here are one each from the radio and television series. ‘The Winter Holiday’ (Series 3, Episode 5, Nov 1955) goes through the horrors of a fortnight’s November holiday in Brighton after Sid James has conned Hancock out of all his money in a Find the Lady game on the train down. Both the show and the character are still finding their feet; Hattie Jacques has yet to appear as Miss Pugh the secretary, and instead Hancock is lumbered with a bland and unconvincing girlfriend in Andrée Melly. There’s more emphasis on a slightly surreal plot rather than character observation, although the script does boast one excellent scene between a drowning Hancock and a ‘Stop Messin’ About’ Kenneth Williams as a lifeguard. It’s a straightforward presentation of a radio broadcast to two mikes, complete with Sound FX girl banging doors and tinkling glasses in the background. Going down this route needed more follow-through – the studio warm-up in particular – and scene-setting. More than the TV episode, it depends on knowledge of the people, and the surviving body of work.In ‘The Italian Maid’ (Series 4, Episode 7, Feb 1959), Hancock has matured and developed into the real article. He has an extended riff on housework, over a mop and bucket, at the start, which is the kind of solo turn that he did best: “This is no life for an international playboy….. Look at these hands; they’ve held their last violin.” Hancock is persuaded by Sid to hire a maid, who turns out to be an Italian hottie who has Sid and Tony stumbling over themselves and each other to impress her. Of course no housework is done. The production presents this as a complete play, complete with a wonderfully evocative and detailed 1950s set.

The efforts at impersonating the original actors are only intermittently successful. Christian Darwood does a good nasal Williams as the lifeguard, and has the laugh off pat, but doesn’t bother with imitation in his other radio character. Luke Adamson as Sid doesn’t get much beyond the laugh. But the whole thing stands or falls by John Hewer’s interpretation of The Lad Himself. Vocally he is uncannily accurate in intonation and timing. Physically too he’s as near as a Fringe production has a right to expect. What he misses is the melancholy and defeat lurking behind the eyes. Hancock always knew deep inside he was a failure, and that all his bluster was whistling in the dark. Hewer smiles too much, laughs even, more Billy Bunter than anything.

How dated is Hancock? For my generation, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is an unforgettable part of the soundtrack of our childhoods, inseparable from the Sunday roast, and I still have friends with whom I can quote great swathes of Galton-Simpson dialogue: ‘I thought my mother’s cooking was bad but at least her gravy used to move about.’ The fan club, mainly male, is alive and well, and the White Bear audience was full of middle-aged men swapping memories of treasured episodes and Hancock trivia before the show. The younger element laughed more politely, as if they could see its quality in an abstract intellectual way but didn’t feel touched personally. The MacMillan years of aspiration – ‘You’ve never had it so good’ – seem as distant as the Middle Ages now.

Nevertheless, I’m happy to report an overheard dialogue between two twenty-somethings leaving the pub at the end. “You know,” said the girl, “It was a lot funnier than I expected.”

Reviews by Peter Scott-Presland

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The Blurb

Written by the perennial duo Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, this show marked the very first time these scripts have been performed for nearly sixty years, when they were first broadcast featuring "the lad himself" Tony Hancock with Bill Kerr, Sidney James, Andrée Melly and Kenneth Williams. This new play featured the radio episode A Winter's Tale and the television episode The Italian Maid, which have been especially adapted for the stage by arrangement and approval with Tessa Le Bars Management and Classic Comedy Scripts.

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