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24 April 2014
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Hancock's Half-Hour

Tony Hancock in Hancock's Half Hour

There's an argument to be made that the Great British sitcom as we know it started here.

You want a misunderstood, self-proclaimed genius whose lofty ambitions in life are thwarted either by a boorish sidekick or, more often than not, his own painful shortcomings? A man trapped by circumstance? A, let's face it, pompous prig? Tony Hancock is the archetype.

First airing on BBC radio in 1954, the show came along during an era when comedy was steeped in the fast-talking knockabout antics of the music hall. With its character and situation-based humour, Hancock's Half-Hour sounded shockingly naturalistic: almost Pinter-esque by comparison.

Tony Hancock

Former Educating Archie foil Tony Hancock starred as an exaggerated version of himself: Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, a down-at-heel comedian waiting for the big time to hit while he struggled to make ends meet in the inglorious setting of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.

Sid James played his roguish friend, Sid, who'd normally put one over on Hancock before the 30 minutes was up, while Bill Kerr was the hard-of-thinking Australian lodger.

Occasional love interests arrived in the form of Moira Lister and then Andrée Melly, while later series boasted Hattie Jacques as live-in secretary Griselda Pugh.

Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the show was never hot on internal continuity. Hancock's domestic set-up changed weekly to best serve the plot.

Hancock's Half-Hour

Although it was an immediate critical and ratings success, even at this early stage, its leading man exhibited signs of his famously self-destructive behaviour, fleeing to Rome during the recording of the second series, resulting in Harry Secombe stepping into the breach for three episodes.

In 1956, Hancock's Half-Hour spun-off into television and both versions alternated until 1959.

The TV show remained faithful to the radio series, although only Sid James was retained from the cast.

Hancock was quick to prove he had a wonderfully expressive face to accompany that constantly exasperated voice and established himself for all time as sitcom's quintessential loser, constantly moaning: "Stone me, what a life!"

Retaining that shape-changing quality, the programme continued to alter details of Hancock's life on a weekly basis, while a regular cast of actors, who came to be known as the East Cheam Repertory Company, filled in the various supporting roles as and when.

As such, some of the radio crowd did get a look in, including Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams who made regular appearances.

Sid James and Tony Hancock in Hancock's Half-Hour

The radio show wound down in 1959, after nigh on 100 episodes. Meanwhile, on TV, Hancock was becoming concerned at the increasing popularity of co-star Sid James.

Very much the man-on-the-street foil to his own pompous character, it was little wonder viewers were often rooting for the sidekick during their various confrontations.

As a result, the star decreed that following the 1960 series, James was to be dropped and the show would continue without him, re-titled simply Hancock.

Cast

Sid James
performer
Tony Hancock
performer
Alec Bregonzi
performer
Mario Fabrizi
performer
Irene Handl
performer
Patricia Hayes
performer
Hattie Jacques
performer
Bill Kerr
performer
Hugh Lloyd
performer
John Vere
performer
Johnny Vyvyan
performer
Kenneth Williams
performer

Crew

Alan Simpson
writer
Ray Galton
writer
Duncan Wood
producer
Graeme Muir
producer
Francis Essex
producer

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