Tony Hancock

By: Greg Rowland
May 12, 2011

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.

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HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

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.

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What do you think?

  1. The first three lines reprogramme my conception of Englishness; “inappropriate over-extension” also applies to David Brent in The Office, Rigsby in Rising Damp – for his attempts to understand Miss Jones’ bohemianism – even Del Boy’s gallic malapropisms.

    “He endlessly vacillated between ridiculous pretension and bathetic ignorance, often within the space of a single sentence.” See also: my twenties.

  2. Ah, Tony Hancock leads us into a world of wonderful British comedic actors of the time; Syd James, Hattie Jacques, Eric Sykes and the glorious John Le Mesurier.
    Le Mesurier was married to Jacques, she was his second wife who left him for a younger man, his third wife left him for Hancock, but he remained a gentleman to the end. He attributed his ‘calculated vagueness’ to ‘extra long cigarettes’!
    he was impeccable in Dad’s Army as the upper class but slightly down at heel sargeant Wilson.
    I don’t know whether the USA was ever blessed with Dad’s Army; in my foolish opinion the most perfect comedy ever shown on TV.

  3. Dad’s Army does keep on re-inventing itself. But I think Are You Being Served and Benny Hill were the shows that got the most exposure (oo-er) in the US.

    Captain Manwairing does over-extension, but it’s normally just silly rather than inappropriate. Perhaps he’s Middle-Middle class, but he’ll never be as posh as WIlson

    WHy did John Le Mesurier and VIncent Price never work together?.

  4. Oo-er!

    I was a big Benny Hill fan as a 13-year-old — most likely because Hill seemed like an overgrown 13-year-old.

  5. Got this from TIME best blogs.
    Good site.
    Yes, we were all Hancock fans – esp. his radio shows. Remember the ‘blood-donor’?
    He did not really transfer to TV that well, like say
    Frankie Howard. (the ‘Archers’ excepted)
    Hancock is/was a great comedian – he was quoted in pubs for a decade or so.

    the ‘pre-bbbbbb’ is a bit off the mark.

  6. Thanks Bob — fair enough on the alliteration point. His comedy type is not restricted to his generation. But I think it’s a short-hand that contrasts American (surface) optimism at that time.

    I like the TV work but you’re right about something being lost. I’m thinking of that great radio bit where Kenneth Williams turns up at Stonehenge, playing the local policeman. He takes all the stones back to his house for safe keeping every night, on his push bike.

  7. I’ve been trying to think of something clever or enlarging to say about this but it is so dead-on I can only offer: bravo!

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