Classic TV Revisited: Hancock’s Half Hour

Watched by more than 10 million people – huge figures for those days – this comic classic (which aired on the BBC from 1956-1961) had Hancock as the pompous loser, “the lad himself”, constantly at odds with the world, with brilliant scripts by Ray Simpson and Alan Galton.

Starring: Tony Hancock, Sid James, plus other very familiar faces from British comedy, including Irene Handl, June Whitfield, John Le Mesurier, Clive Dunn, Warren Mitchell, Patricia Hayes.

The first great BBC sitcom.

Why was it so good?
As well as being a superb comic actor with years of radio and variety experience, Tony Hancock had the perfect writers in Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – not to mention Sid James as his roguish housemate and that unforgettable “H-h-h-Hancock” theme.

Tell us a few of his jokes, then.
Sorry – the show was a pioneer of character comedy, not a joke machine.

What was funny was Hancock’s pomposity, stupidity and glum fatalism. But there were plenty of witty lines, I grant you.

Hmm, you sound a bit pompous yourself when you put it like that.
If you don’t watch your lip I’ll give you a punch up the bracket. That was one of his catchphrases, by the way. That and “flippin’ kids!”

A pint? That’s very nearly an armful!
Ah, now you’re thinking of The Blood Donor, made in 1961 and not strictly part of Hancock’s Half Hour

After six series and 57 shows, Hancock wanted a change. In his final BBC series – called Hancock – he left Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, for digs in Earls Court and dispensed with the services of Sid James. These last six shows were five minutes shorter because Hancock was eager for them to be sold to an American commercial network.

He didn’t succeed.
No, he was much too British for the American market, and by this stage, his personal problems were starting to affect his work.

Sounds ominous.
Hancock was recovering from a car accident when he recorded The Blood Donor, so he read his lines from cue cards. This became a habit when he moved to ITV. His alcoholism didn’t help, either.

At least he had Galton and Simpson.
Not after he sacked them.

Didn’t he make a film with them?
Yes, The Rebel, about a talentless artist inadvertently hailed as a visionary. Unfortunately for him, the Americans renamed it Call Me Genius – giving US critics an excuse to maul it.

So his career was on the slide.
Sadly. The ITV series got so bad that he wound up accepting an offer to film a sitcom in Australia playing Hancock the Pommie immigrant. At about the same time his second marriage ended and, in June 1968, aged 44, he committed suicide.

As Spike Milligan put it: “He went around closing doors on everybody and eventually closed the door on himself.”

How influential was he?
He’s revered by modern comedians raised on repeats and videos of classics like The Bedsitter, The Missing Page and Twelve Angry Men.

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.