Sidestepping the fact that the above picture of Tony Hancock looks a little bit like my friend Paul Jonhston (not so much in that Hancock physically resembles Johnston but rather that it captures some essential secret about him like a picture of his soul taken with a psychic instamatic), I’d like to talk for a second or two about Hancock’s Half Hour and how the format of it was so freakin’ genius that it almost hurts that there’s nothing along these lines on TV at the moment.
My TV critic friend, Alex, gave me a book of Hancock radio and TV scripts for a birthday present. I’ve been putting off reading it because (a) reading scripts when you’re not a TV executive is sad and shit and (b) I vowed to stop taking Alex’s recommendations after he gave a thumbs up in his column for the Spielberg’s dispicable mincing of War of the Worlds.
But reading them yesterday (and watching a HHH DVD I subsequently went out and bought) made me realise how incredible a series this was for myriad reasons:
Firstly, the format can only be described as an anthology sitcom: one in which there is no continuity whatsoever between episodes and one in which the situation is a roving one. I’m not entirely sure there are any other anthology sitcoms out there at all and it is a format I’ve been thinking about for a while after someone suggested I write a sitcom pilot myself (I’ll write more about that project here when I actually get around to penning more than one piece of dialogue for it). The ramifications of a sitcom with a roving situation are tremendous: the show becomes an experiment in situation comedy, playing with the actual situation of the comedy rather than dialogue or wackiness or reincorporation (a process used by sitcom writers and stand-up comedians which involves the ‘bringing back’ of previously mentioned ideas to “hilarious” effect – Harry Hill is very good at it but in Friends and Frasier it proves sentimental and embarrassing). It takes sitcom to its bare bones and meddles with the most basic elements of it. It also speaks volumes for the respect held by the BBC for Tony Hancock and Sid James et al to let them get away with something so unstructured.
Secondly, the fact that Hancock plays ‘himself’ is bizarre and wonderful. Hancock is a celebrity. Sometimes his celebrity status comes into play such as in an episode in which he’s trying to get a room in a packed out hotel, but most of the time he is presented on the show an unemployed idler or as an untalented nincompoop on his first day in a new job. Yet he is still ‘Hancock’. The fact that ‘Hancock’ and Hancock are slightly different entities is discovered when Hancock fluffs a line: as the shows were broadcast live, mistakes were often made, but when they were made, the studio audience would go nuts as though that was what they had been waiting for all along and Hancock would say something like “now now, let the artist speak”. Wonderful. And strangely reminiscent of certain modern sitcoms (sorry to mention Curb Your Enthusiasm again but it’s a prime example), which are apparently self-indulgent and a uniquely postmodern phenomenon. But it ain’t. Because Hancock was doing it back in the 1950s.
Incidentally, Hancock’s Half Hour was a massive break in tradition when it first appeared on the radio (I’m getting this from the intro of the script book I’m reading) in that it was essentially a sitcom and not a sketch show. Hancock rocked.
It was also awseome that he topped himself. I know this sounds weird, but comedy is all about neurosis and self-status and ‘tears of a clown’ and so the hallmark of a truly good comedian is the taking of his own life either in a roundabout way (as with Peter Cook and his amazing exploding anus) or directly. Larry David will have to do the same thing if he wants to get a statue erected in LA.
I’m not usually a fan of comedy from ‘them days’. I usually find it all a bit laboured and of-it’s-time and comics/writers/shows that are supposed to be the shiz-niz are seldom actually funny or inventive at all and that people who like them now are caught up in some sort of anti-critical web of other people’s nostalgia. But Tony Hancock was the tits. I’m a fan. And he was right to sack Kenneth Williams: in this show he was shit.
Are there any other Hancock fans in my immediate blogosphere?