Tony Hancock, the sad lonely death of a comic giant

On 25 June 1968 iconic comedian Tony Hancock was found dead in a flat in Sydney Australia after taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Things had not been going well for Hancock for some time. His career had been faltering since the mid 1960’s and he was losing his battle against alcoholism. In 1967 he was hospitalised with pneumonia and told that he would be dead within three months if he didn’t stop drinking. His relationship with wife Freddie was incredibly fiery. The pair had separated but were still entangled. Hancock was also embroiled in an affair with Joan Le Mesurier (wife of comic actor John Le Mesurier).

The opportunity to make a 13 part series for the Seven Network in Australia seemed like the perfect opportunity to get away from all the drama. He left the UK in March 1968 and moved into a small flat in the suburb of Bellevue in Sydney, the flat was in the same complex as the home of TV producer Eddie Joffe. Joffe and his wife Myrtle had only recently left the UK too to work in Australia.

Despite the initial rush of enthusiasm and filming getting underway there were signs that things were not going well. Hancock spent a short time in hospital in May. Hancock was only 44 but the years of alcohol abuse made him look much older.

By mid June his state of mind at being alone and as far away from home as it was possible to be was on a knife edge. A few days before his death Hancock entered into a depression after learning that Freddie had obtained a divorce from him (on grounds of cruelty and adultery). When Myrtle went to wake Hancock on the 25 June she found him lying on the bed in his underwear, an empty vodka bottle by his side and tablets strewn about. He was still holding the pen that had written his final words – a note asking for love to sent to his mother and another saying “things just seemed to go wrong too many times.”

Freddie issued a statement saying “I can only say two things. I married in 1965 a man I loved very deeply and who for some years prior to that I had represented as an artist whose talent I considered of the highest possible standing. But I am absolutely shattered by the news. I am devastated.”

On Sunday 30 June the Sunday Mirror carried an extensive interview with Frankie Howerd talking about Tony Hancock and the inner turmoil comedians can face over the need to be constantly funny. He told Lionel Crane “I do not think he died simply because his career had slipped. He was a spiritual man, a good man who was lost in an emotional jungle. He couldn’t get out.” He continued “he was a performer of genius. He lost his judgement of what was the best thing for him to do simply and solely because of the emotional turmoil going on inside him.”

Sid James, the former co-star of Hancock’s Half Hour who had been unceremoniously discarded by Hancock in 1960, said he was “terribly shocked” by his death.

An inquest took place in Sydney on 4 September 1968 where coroner J.J. Loomes confirmed that Tony Hancock died from the effects of amylobarbitone, self administered while under the influence of alcohol.

Around three episodes worth of material for the TV series he was working on was completed.

A memorial service was held on Thursday 18 July 1968 at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London.

Willie Rushton of all people, brought his ashes back to England where they were buried in St Dunstan’s Church. When details of his will were published in December 1968, he left £32,559 which after death duties resulted in a net worth of £18,702. He left all his property to his mother.

The opening sequence from Tony Hancock’s 1968 Australian series for Channel 7.

Evening Post 25 Jun 1968, 4 Sep 1968
Aberdeen Evening Express 25 Jun 1968
Coventry Evening Telegraph 25 Jun 1968
Daily Mirror 25 Jun 1968
Birmingham Daily Post 25 Jun 1968
The People 14 Jul 1968
The Birmingham Post 19 Jul 1968
Coventry Evening Telegraph 13 Dec 1968

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.