‘Lost Sitcoms’ review: ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ remains as funny as ever

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In 1956, one of the most popular shows in the UK made the jump from radio to television and cemented the situation comedy as one of the small screen’s most enduring genres.

Hancock’s Half Hour wasn’t the earliest British sitcom, but it was the first to flourish.

From the beginning, writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, producer Dennis Main Wilson and Tony Hancock himself were united in a desire to move away from the variety format prevalent in comedy at the time and develop a new series without funny voices, musical interludes or stand-up routines, creating instead a series of 30 minute plays that drew their humour from the characters and the mundanity and inanity of their everyday lives.

Across six radio and seven TV series, the show’s ground-breaking format was an enormous success. Hancock became a household name and the lugubrious, self-aggrandising, snobbish, deluded, forever frustrated non-achiever he played – Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – became a blueprint for countless classic comedy characters to come. Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, Rick from The Young Ones, Arnold Rimmer, Alan Partridge and David Brent all contain traces of the Hancock DNA.

The real Hancock’s career burnt out all too quickly. Sid James was the only member of the radio cast to become a regular in the TV version of Hancock’s Half Hour; he too was jettisoned for the final series in 1961 and the last episode marked the end of Hancock’s work with Galton and Simpson.

Hancock was attempting to distil character-based comedy to its purest form, but he ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. His subsequent work was a sorry imitation of what had gone before and his calamitous private life, aggravated by a chronic addiction to alcohol, robbed him of the ability and opportunity to turn things around. He committed suicide in 1968, aged 44.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the first radio broadcast in 2014, a series of Missing Hancocks was commissioned: new recordings of episodes no longer in the BBC’s audio archives. Kevin McNally played Anthony Hancock, with Simon Greenall taking Sid’s role and Kevin Eldon as Bill Kerr, Hancock’s Australian sidekick. Robin Sebastian appeared in all the parts originally taken by Kenneth Williams. The series was well received by Radio 4 audiences and a second run was aired in 2015, with more scheduled to follow later in 2016.

Now, as part of BBC Four’s Lost Sitcoms season, and to celebrate 60 years since the original programme transferred from radio to TV, Kevin McNally reprises his performance as Hancock in a brand new version of ‘The New Neighbour’, one of the original Hancock’s Half Hour television episodes that no longer exists. (The original radio version of the story is also missing from the archives and a remake featured in the first series of Missing Hancocks).

Sebastian and Eldon also return from the radio version (the latter portraying the tenant living in the flat above Hancock’s rather than Bill Kerr, who did not appear in the TV series) while Simon Greenall is replaced by Jon Culshaw as Sid. Katy Wix takes the role of Hancock’s secretary, Griselda Pugh.

When Hancock’s Half Hour first moved to television, Galton and Simpson found their writing changed very little: there was some visual action, but the majority of the scripts remained as monologue/dialogue-based as their radio predecessors, playing to the strengths of the actors.

The staging of ‘The New Neighbour’ is much the same. Entirely studio-bound with only three sets and no special effects or flashy camera tricks, director Ben Gosling Fuller is free to concentrate on the actors and the vintage material they’re performing.

Tony Hancock (KEVIN MCNALLY)

The script has barely been tinkered with since it was adapted for television in 1957 (unlike the unlamented ITV series Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson’s…, which featured classic stories updated for modern audiences) yet the tale of Hancock’s new next-door neighbour and his mysterious nocturnal behaviour stands up perfectly well in 2016. Only a roll call of Fifties politicians might be lost on contemporary viewers.

Kevin McNally is excellent as Hancock playing Hancock, capturing Tony’s rhythm and energy without lapsing into Black Country parody. It’s only on the classic Hancockian expressions that he seems a little stilted, as if too aware of their significance to tackle them head on. Robin Sebastian, on the other hand, is at his most comfortable when launching into Kenneth Williams’s catchphrases, pulling off Snide’s ‘Stop messin’ about!’ with gleeful aplomb. When he’s firing on all cylinders, it’s a note perfect impression.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Jon Culshaw’s Sidney James. His performance is an improvement on Simon Greenall’s attempt at gravelly mimicry in the radio series, but Sid’s rusty saw-dipped-in-brown ale cackle is as difficult to impersonate as his wire wool barnet. Culshaw looks and sounds like a Poundland Alan Sugar. Kevin Eldon’s fastidious, nervy Mr Harris beats his Bill Kerr hands down, but Katy Wix’s performance as Miss Pugh is more Andrée Melly than Hattie Jacques. Her exchanges with McNally are too affable to match the memorable battles between Hancock and his indomitable secretary.

Recreating our lost television heritage is a tightrope walk between tribute and caricature. Happily, ‘The New Neighbour’ is very much the former. It’s not a new Hancock’s Half Hour, but it’s the next best thing. The mundanity and inanity of everyday life remains as funny as ever.

Airs at 9pm on Thursday 8 September 2016 on BBC Four.

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