One Christmas, when I was about 14 years old, my parents bought me a small CD and cassette player for my room. It wasn’t huge, just big enough to fit on my desk, but it was enough to sit with headphones on and listen to music whilst I wrote into the small hours of the night. It also came with a compilation CD of the very best of rock music which gave me my introduction to The Sex Pistols but that’s not what this blog post is about.
My Mum, who was aware I was writing a lot of comedy at the time, started to buy double cassette packs of old BBC radio comedy shows. Part of me thinks she was in the hope that her son would grow to appreciate what she found to be well crafted comedy, not resorting to ‘shouting and swearing’ in order to get laughs. I’d like to say I rebelled and stuffed the tapes in a corner somewhere never to be heard again. I would have had they not been so good and saw me, at 3am, listening and trying not to laugh too loud in order to wake up the house.
A hero of mine from this era would be Tony Hancock, one of the leading stars of the time and a man who was at the peak of his powers in the 50’s and 60’s. The scripts for Hancock’s Half Hour were written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson and they alone were fantastic, the reality is that Hancock himself made them sparkle. His delivery, timing and facial expression were all top notch. His character in the show is probably the cornerstone of comedy, a man who has lofty ambitions way above his station but is very quickly brought crashing down to Earth. It’s done so well and with such panache that it’s still wonderful to watch today. Rather than me talk endlessly about it I’ll let you watch an episode of the TV version entitled ’12 Angry Men’.
During those nights of listening to the show I was amazed at the structure. There’s really no amazing set up to the show, it’s simply Hancock living with his lodgers in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, a situation which he feels he’s far better than. It’s almost strangely simplistic compared to anything that’s on TV today which was probably the main point behind my Mum’s reasoning. It’s also part of the main reason I liked it so much. Without wishing to sound like some kind of comedy evangelist, there’s a skill on display here in not instantly reaching for dick jokes when the going gets rough. I soon spent many evenings listening to the rest of the episodes which always seemed to take an age to come out of official tapes, probably due to having to be dug up from the BBC archives beforehand. This was 1995 though, they’re all over Youtube and the like now.
Hancock himself was also the very embodiment of the phrase ‘tears of a clown’. Once he gained success he became deeply paranoid that it was his scriptwriters who were responsible and not him so he went out alone. Then he became afraid that it was his co-stars so he had them fired (including Sid James of Carry On fame). Tony Hancock ended up committing suicide whilst in Australia in 1968. His ability and his talent were seemingly obvious to everybody else but him, that in itself is tragic enough.
If you want to know more about Tony Hancock then the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society would probably be the best place to start.