We don’t do Manifest Destiny here in England. Our linear narrative died with Queen Victoria. Instead we have characters, and the greatest of these is the Petit Bourgeois Monster: a narcissistic Nowhere Man, his key trait is inappropriate over-extension, a desperate act of compensation to fill the grey inner void. France had Existentialism; we had TONY HANCOCK (1924-68). This legendary comic actor perfectly encapsulated pre-Beatles Britain’s banality, bemusement, boredom and bitterness. On his 1956-61 TV show, Hancock — a comedy performer riddled with anxieties, cursed to failure in every attempt to invent himself or find agency — played a version of himself. He endlessly vacillated between ridiculous pretension and bathetic ignorance, often within the space of a single sentence. Hancock’s perfect timing and endless reserves of lugubrious outrage created a pinnacle of postwar culture. (Half of the country tuned in every Thursday. Forget Facebook: this was real Social Media.) Sadly, Hancock was a more intense and tragic narcissist than the character he performed on TV. Thus a brilliant supporting cast gradually disappeared, as did his writers, the unsurpassable Galton and Simpson; Hancock was a genius, but never in isolation. In 1968, he made a final gesture that was undoubtedly authentic and self-authored, but the opposite of funny.
BRITISH HUMORISTS as HILO HEROES: Tony Hancock | James Joyce | Peter Sellers | Edward Lear | Jerome K. Jerome | Jimmy Finlayson | Stan Laurel | Screaming Lord Sutch | Eric Idle | Roald Dahl | Joanna Lumley | Keith Allen | Ricky Gervais | Steve Coogan | Sacha Baron Cohen | Stephen Merchant | PG Wodehouse | Flann O’Brien | Samuel Beckett | Kingsley Amis | Tommy Cooper
On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Joseph Beuys, Ian Dury, Edward Lear, Katharine Hepburn, and George Carlin.
READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New Gods (1914-23) and the Postmodernist (1924-33) generations.