The Tony Hancock Collection Review
One of Britain’s greatest comedians, Tony Hancock was at the height of his popularity and success when he came to make his first of only two feature films. The move to the big screen marked a significant milestone and turning point in his career, but it would turn out not to be for the best. Having worked for seven years on the radio, he made a successful transition of his show ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ onto TV, where it ran for five years, initially with many of the familiar company of players from the radio series, all the shows written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Hancock however - much like the character he played in the series – had greater ambitions for sophistication and was getting as tired with the limitations of the TV and radio format as he was with the character and the funny catchphrases. He gradually started cutting off the familiar supporting actors from the series, eventually starring in his own show ‘Hancock’, but what he really wanted was a successful film career like Sid James, his partner on many of the Hancock’s Half Hour shows, and other comedians like Norman Wisdom and Peter Sellers.
His ambitions and success were rewarded with a three picture contract with the Associated British Picture Corporation, though in the end he only made two films, both included in this Tony Hancock Collection set. The Rebel, written by Hancock’s regular TV and radio scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, was successful and well received – in the UK at least. It didn’t bring Hancock the international success and credibility he was looking for however, so he sacked his long-term writers and hired Philip Oakes to write his next film The Punch and Judy Man. Increasing difficulties with alcoholism and in his marriage however were taking their toll on Hancock, and this fed through into the film, Hancock’s drinking problems causing him to have great trouble learning and delivering his lines.
Tony Hancock’s fall in the sixties would continue through a shambolic TV series for ITV and a last ditch attempt at keeping a career going through a move to Australia. It was there in Sydney that, depressed, lonely and disillusioned, Tony Hancock committed suicide in June 1968.
The Rebel - Robert Day, 1961
Scripted by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock’s first venture into full length feature film doesn’t vary a great deal from the character seen and heard in the Hancock’s Half Hour TV and radio shows. When it does extend beyond the character slightly however, and more significantly, when it stretches beyond the half-hour show format, the problems start to show.
A bookkeeper for the appropriately anonymously named company United International, Anthony Hancock has had enough of the monotonous office lifestyle and decides to leave the rat-race and live his dream of being an artist in a Montmartre garret in Paris. There’s only one problem – even though he thinks he is a genius, he’s not really a very good artist. This isn’t necessarily a problem in the circles in which he mixes, since he is able to pass off his naïve approach to art as something new and fresh, and finds himself lauded as the founder of the Infantile school of art.
For quite literally the first half-hour of The Rebel it’s classic Hancock’s Half Hour, only in colour, and quite brilliant. A number of the Hancock TV show regular character players all make appearances - John Le Mesurier as his stuffy boss at United International, Liz Fraser reprises her role as a diner maid, a role she performed in the classic “The Economy Drive” episode of HHH, and even Mario Fabrizi pokes his head up in his cheeky-chappie manner. Best of all Irene Handl takes over the Patricia Hayes role as Mrs Cravat, here his landlady who when she sees an ugly hulking great sculpture in her living room, is certainly not an art lover – “But I’m an impressionist!”, protests Hancock, “Well, it don’t impress me!” responds Mrs Cravat, who promptly sends him packing from what might well be 23 Railway Cuttings.
Past the (Hancock’s) half-hour mark however, the film starts to flounder. Galton and Simpson in their first attempt at writing for a feature length film soon run into problems with pacing and have difficulty in expanding the character of Hancock beyond the boundaries of East Cheam. Taking Hancock to Paris, they not only fall into every Parisian starving artist cliché imaginable, they more or less take all the humour of the situation second-hand from Stanley Donen’s much more witty and satirical Funny Face (1957). Hence we get surrealist and existentialists, all dressed in black and wearing berets – Nanette Newman a poor substitute for Audrey Hepburn – intoning the words of wisdom imparted to them by their guru - here the bizarrely cast Dennis Price. More silliness ensues when an art impresario (George Sanders) mistakes Hancock’s flatmate's paintings for his work and proclaims him a genius. There’s a lot of wonderful playing by Hancock, even in this rather standard comedy of errors and simple Emperor’s New Clothes premise, but it never breaks beyond the format of a half-hour Hancock show episode, and is somewhat less amusing when drawn out to an hour and a half.
The Punch and Judy Man - Jeremy Summers, 1962
Unhappy with the lack of international success and seeking more credibility as an actor, Hancock fired Galton & Simpson and his agent, all long-time friends and colleagues, and took a different approach towards comedy for his second film, The Punch and Judy Man. Setting the film in an English seaside resort, writer Philip Oakes worked with Hancock on the storyline, which has autobiographical elements, drawing on characters and entertainers that Hancock would have been familiar with growing up in Bournemouth as the son of a stage comedian. Oakes, almost without Hancock realising it, would also incorporate elements from Hancock’s current unhappy marriage situation into the script.
Playing Wally Pinner, working the Punch and Judy stand on the beach at Piltdown, there is consequently an air of sadness in Tony Hancock’s portrayal of a washed-up small-time entertainer struggling to make people laugh and earn a few pennies in a very provincial English manner. Wally’s wife Delia (Silvia Syms) however has higher aspirations, hoping that by having her husband take part in the planned gala festivities for the town’s 60th anniversary, she can make the acquaintance of influential people in the town, the mayor, his wife and a visiting dignitary Lady Jane Catheram. These big-wigs are same people that Wally and his friends regularly make fun of, but he agrees to go along to please his wife.
The Punch and Judy Man is not a terribly funny film, nor is it a particularly good one, but it does at least successfully attain what Tony Hancock set out to achieve, and that was leaving behind the catchphrases and character of the old Hancock in an attempt to show the real person and talent beneath. The subject matter is one that will be familiar to fans of Hancock’s Half Hour – the ambitions for betterment, sophistication, and dealing with class snobbery. The character is also recognisable – Wally a rather child-like figure, not fully grown-up, playing around with kids and acting like one as well with the rest of his entertainer friends on the fringes of respectable society (all of them played by old Hancock’s Half Hour regulars, John Le Mesurier, Hugh Lloyd, Mario Fabrizi and even a cameo by Hattie Jacques).
The film also has a certain charm in the gentle characterisation and the funny satire of English class snobbery and English seaside resorts, but not much else. It achieves this most successfully in the failed Piltdown illuminations which spell out funny messages that are not quite the image the town elders want to promote - but is much less clever elsewhere. A scene of Hancock clowning in an ice-cream parlour with a young boy is sub-Norman Wisdom stuff. Wisdom actually could have done something very funny with a scene like this, but here it is just dragged-out and goes nowhere. Likewise an eccentric walk through the town, taking Wally into a ladies underwear shop, ending with him barking like a dog on the beach, similarly seems pointless and desperate.
However The Punch and Judy Man is not a hard film to like. Despite the fact that this is the first time Hancock has played a leading role that doesn’t use his own name, there is the suspicion that we are getting closer to the real Anthony Hancock than ever before. For that alone the film has considerable merit.
The Tony Hancock Collection is released in the UK by Optimum Releasing as a 2-disc set. The DVDs are encoded for Region 2 and are in PAL format.
The picture quality of the transfer on The Rebel isn’t particularly good. I don’t know if the 1.33:1 aspect ratio is correct - it could be full-frame from 1.66:1 theatrical ratio – but there doesn’t seem to be any real problems with pan and scanning. The print however is quite faded with colours looking slightly off. Blacks consequently look quite murky and flat, and shadow detail is limited. There are a few jumpy frames, minor scratches and some larger marks occasionally, but little that causes any real viewing problems. Overall, it’s adequate and nothing more. (See comments below for additional information).
The Punch and Judy Man has a few aliasing problems and some cross colouration – always more evident on a black and white film – but there are nice crisp tones for the majority of the film, with adequate clarity, sharpness and detail There are a few marks speckling the print in places, but it’s not a badly damaged print. The aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is again questionable, the image being clearly squeezed to show the titles at the start and end of the film, settling down for an apparent 1.33:1 pan and scan for the main body of the film. One or two scenes are consequently cramped, but for the majority of the film the framing doesn’t lose much essential information.
There are no real problems with the sound on either film, the original mono tracks presented as Dolby Digital 2.0. Dialogue is quite clear and audible, if a little dull in tone. There are no great demands placed on either film, so these perform reasonably well.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles included for either film, which is disappointing and not good practice.
The only extra feature is a Commentary for The Rebel by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson in conversation with Paul Merton. The mood is light and chatty, all of them clearly still enjoying the film, but also recalling a lot of interesting facts about its making, about Hancock and about British filmmaking and acting in general. It’s well worth a listen.
Both The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man have serious deficiencies in the scripting and pacing, but in their own different ways they show Tony Hancock as a natural on the big screen and clearly having the ability to forge a movie career for himself as successful as that of Peter Sellers. Sadly, public expectations of who Tony Hancock should be and personal problems with drinking and depression unfortunately never allowed the comedian to achieve this true potential. Optimum’s repackaging of these two films on DVD with barely adequate transfers, also fails to allow these much-maligned but underrated films to be seen in their true light.