Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of The Very Best of Hancock. Considering the problems with the source material, this is an acceptable disc of some classic comedy.
Tony Hancock was a comic genius whose fall from grace was one of the most painful and protracted of the sixties. After his triumph in 1961 with the final BBC series and the glorious “The Blood Doner”, surely one of the funniest 30 minutes of TV comedy ever, he became hopelessly restless and ditched his scriptwriters to find what he thought would be more “truthful” comedy. Thus began eight years of wandering from project to project until he killed himself in a hotel room in Australia in 1968. This new BBC DVD celebrates some of his more memorable moments of happier times, although it has a significant flaw that rather spoils the overall package.
The DVD contains five episodes which are supposedly the “very best” – the problem is that they all come from the final series when he had ditched Sid James and had moved from East Cheam to Earl’s Court. This means that several episodes which I would class among the best – “Twelve Angry Men” and “The Missing Page” in particular – aren’t on this compilation, so I hope they are on the upcoming Volume 2.
Anyway, the five episodes included are all of a high standard so I won’t spend any more time whinging about what isn’t there.
This was the first episode of the final series and establishes Hancock as having moved up in society and now living in a bedsit in Earl’s Court. It’s one of the best as well, featuring Tony Hancock on his own and at his most hilariously bitter. It’s a brilliant performance as he blows smoke rings, engages in discussion with a mysterious woman on the telephone and gives his opinions on Bertrand Russell and Jacob Bronowsky – “He’s alright on theory but when it comes to adding up sums he’s right out of his depth”. Funny as all this is, and it is beautifully timed by Hancock, it’s also rather sad as the aura of desperation which always lurked at the back of the comic persona is made clearer and more poignant. Ridiculous as he looks in his tight jeans and his medallion, there’s the quality of the everyman battling against the world which keeps it realistic.
A clever take-off of “The Archers” in which Hancock plays an actor who is sacked from a long-running radio show for his frankly appalling acting and even worse accent. This has some great moments, many supplied by Patrick Cargill as the long-suffering producer having to cope with his temperamental star. Hancock’s attempts to portray Old Joss in the method style by wearing a ridiculous outfit are funny too, although the jokes do get a bit predictable and a basic knowledge of the conventions of “The Archers” is an advantage.
THE RADIO HAM
The weakest episode on the disc, although rated as a classic by some fans. The premise of Hancock becoming an amateur radio fiend is a good one but the development is slow and too obvious. It’s not bad really, just a bit protracted and the central situation of Hancock helping a sailor out at sea would be be funnier without the interruptions from his landlady and the repetition of some of the jokes. One or two good lines rescue it however, particularly his paean to the radio valves, “There’s nothing like a 19D5/87B”.
A great episode with a classic situation; Hancock attempting to deal with the human race in a confined situation. In this case, it’s a lift that is stuck between floors at the BBC, containing a cross section of life’s irritations; a vicar, an Air Force officer, a trendy producer, an airhead secretary and a pompous doctor. The ensemble playing here is superb with members of the stock comedy character actors of the period giving excellent value – Hugh Lloyd, John le Mesurier and Colin Gordon are particularly funny. Hancock is at his best bouncing off a strong supporting cast and his altercation with the doctor is a marvellous moment. He also gets chance to show off his brilliant miming ability in a shambolic game of charades.
THE BLOOD DONER
Probably Hancock’s finest hour and certainly among the best things ever produced by the BBC. It showcases all his strengths and none of his weaknesses and has a script that is constantly inventive and clever. Most of the lines have become over familiar – “A pint ? That’s nearly an armful” – but seeing them in the original context reminds us that a comic genius like Hancock can give a bad line an interesting reading and lavishes such attention on a good line that Oscar Wilde must be spinning around in his grave with envy at never having worked with him. The encounter with the nurse is delicious but topped by the conversation between Hancock and Patrick Cargill’s ‘legalised vampire’ – “Rhesus ? They’re monkeys aren’t they ?”. The episode then goes into a divinely idiotic conversation between our hero and Hugh Lloyd, who achieves the difficult feat of being even more pretentious than Hancock. Incidentally, if you watch the episode, you will notice that Hancock rarely looks at who he’s talking to. That’s because he recently been involved in a car crash and his memory had suffered to such as extent that he couldn’t remember his lines. Consequently, these were pasted up around the studio for him to read. It doesn’t really affect what is a superb episode however.
Given the problems with the source, this DVD is about as technically good as it could be. The sparsity of extras is a bit disappointing though.
The episodes are presented in the original black and white full frame format. The source seems to be the original film recordings of the live transmissions. This is pretty ropey in places but acceptable in others. A thorough clean up of the material would presumably be prohibitively expensive, although I am happy to be challenged on this assumption. The contrast is good as is the level of detail, but there is a lot of interference on the image and constant grain. Both understandable considering the age of the material and, given the BBC’s wholesale junking of their archives in the seventies, we are lucky to have any recording of these shows at all.
The soundtrack in monophonic and acceptable without being particularly spectacular. Again, the limitations of the original material mean that there is a certain amount of hiss and crackling, but this isn’t a major problem and is better than that found on the VHS tape.
There are two extra features. Firstly a reasonably well written but brief profile of Tony Hancock. Secondly, a twenty minute interview with the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. This focuses largely on their writing rather than their relationship with Hancock and is interesting but a little bit superficial. They discuss the period aspects of the show and the structuring along with some anecdotes about the filming. I would have liked to see a more in-depth documentary, such as the superb 1986 Omnibus about Hancock. Each episode has 4 chapter stops and the menu is backed by the theme music.
This is a valuable disc for fans of Hancock simply because it offers some great shows in a durable format with scene access. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity in terms of background material on Tony Hancock. Hopefully, Volume 2 will contain something a bit more detailed.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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