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Classic Radio Revisited: Hancock’s Half-Hour

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What was it all about? 
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 unctuous 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…

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.

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.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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