Classic Radio Revisited: Hancock’s Half Hour

The life and times of Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock, self-appointed sage of East Cheam although it was actually billed as ‘a series of programmes based on the life of the lad himself from the files of the Police Gazette’.

When was it on?
November 1954 to December 1959, some 200 shows in all.

Where was it set?
23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.

Who were the star turns?
Apart from Hancock himself, other regulars were Sid James as his unscrupulous landlord and Bill Kerr as the good-hearted Australian, a contradiction in terms on a par with ‘fun run’. The first series also featured Kenneth Williams as the unctious Snide with his familiar greeting of ‘Good evenin” and Moira Lister as Hancock’s girlfriend. She was replaced in the second and third series by Andree Melly as Hancock’s new French mademoiselle. New to the fourth and fifth series was Hattie Jacques as secretary Griselda ‘Grizzly’ Pugh.

Did Hancock ever miss any episodes?
Yes, he was ill at the start of the second series and his place was taken by Harry Secombe. They looked the same on radio…

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Who wrote it?
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson who went on to create Steptoe and Son

How did it come about?
Tony Hancock had been in ‘Educating Archie’ (playing tutor to a ventriloquist’s dummy – even the greats have to start somewhere) and a series called ‘Happy Go Lucky’ where his jokes were supplied by Galton and Simpson. G & S then decided to build a new series around Hancock.

How was Sid James cast?
Galton and Simpson had seen him in the Ealing comedy ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ and knew he was the ideal foil for Hancock, but the trouble was, they couldn’t remember his name. Even when they did track Sid down, he nearly didn’t make it through the series. He was so nervous when he first did the shows that he used to wear a trilby with the brim pulled down over his eyes because he was scared of looking at the audience. He kept shaking and couldn’t keep the script still, thereby causing strange rustling noises. He tried putting the script on a music stand but half-way through one broadcast the stand collapsed and the pages floated off in all directions.

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What was the distinctive opening?
A few notes on the tuba composed by Wally Stott, followed by Hancock’s stuttering, breathless announcement of ‘Hancock’s Half-Hour’.

What was a typical scene?
Hancock bemoans his lot in life and has his pomposity cuttingly deflated by Sid.

Who tuned in?
Most of Britain. It was the same when the show switched to TV in 1956. Fish and chip shop owners complained to the BBC that they had no customers for 30 minutes every Friday night when Hancock’s Half-Hour was on.

What were the show’s catchphrases?
Kenneth Williams’ ‘Oooh, stop messing about’ was created on the show, much to the annoyance of Hancock who dismissed it as ‘cardboard comedy not based on truth’. Judging by Williams’ diaries, the two men weren’t exactly bosom buddies.

Any real-life resonance?
The very last episode, ‘The Impersonator’, was an attack on TV commercials which was a shade ironic since Hancock went on to make a nice little earner from ads, notably for the Egg Marketing Board.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.