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Hancock’s Half Hour – Theatre Review

For pretty much anyone from Generation X onwards, it’s probably hard to imagine a time when radio was where it was at, and television was just the new kid on the block, the usurper, the young pretender. On the night that ITV launched in 1955, The Archers deliberately timed the death of Grace Archer to coincide, drawing in an audience of 20 million listeners. A figure of that size would be unthinkable now for a TV programme, let alone a radio series. Yet this was par for the course back in the ’50s and ’60s, with many household names being created through shows like Round The Horne, The Navy Lark, The Goon Show, Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh, and Hancock’s Half Hour.

Although the show transferred to across to television in 1956, it started life on the radio in 1954, and ran through until 1959, lasting for a total of six series. Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson are credited – it appears mistakenly – with introducing the sitcom format to U.K. broadcasting; while it seems that they were just beaten to the punch by two other radio comedies which were on about the same time, Galton and Simpson can at least get recognition for popularising the now-traditional sitcom format with British audiences. Legend (or Wikipedia, anyway) has it that episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour were to have been used by the BBC’s Wartime Broadcasting Service as part of scheduled programming to boost the nation’s morale during the first 100 days following a nuclear attack.

To put it simply, the Hancock’s Half Hour radio series was a big deal, and made him one of the nation’s best known – and loved  – comedians. Since his suicide in 1968, his stature has grown, rather than just fading away as you might expect, and he’s still known for providing some of our greatest comedy moments, such as the infamous ‘The Blood Donor’, with its “very nearly an armful” quote. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and over the years we’ve had a number of Hancock impersonations and emulations, such as Alfred Molina in BBC Screen One drama ‘Hancock’, as well as Ken Stott in 2008’s TV biopic ‘Hancock & Joan’.

With some of Hancock’s radio episodes missing from the archives, we’ve also had Kevin McNally bringing original Galton and Simpson scripts back to life in Radio 4’s ongoing series The Missing Hancocks. However, for the last few years, actor and impressionist James Hurn – known for his work on Dead Ringers – has been keeping Hancock’s flame alive with audiences in his one-man show, Hancock And Co – One Man, Many Voices, where he not only portrays one Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, but also the rest of the cast, doing all the parts himself, and even performing original scripts written in the Galton and Simpson style.

As such, Hurn was the obvious choice to portray Hancock in the Apollo Theatre Company’s nationwide tour of Hancock’s Half Hour. Having previously done The Goon Show and Round The Horne as live theatre shows, this follows the same basic concept – taking audiences back in time to experience the recording of episodes of a radio show, done in the style of the 1950s or 1960s, with all the performers dressed to suit the appropriate period, and the set – such as it is – dressed appropriately, with vintage BBC logos, etc. It’s a chance to get a glimpse into something that can never be repeated now, due to the writers and cast of these shows having left us over the intervening years, but a little nostalgia can be good for the soul, especially where applied judiciously, and Hancock’s Half Hour does that with great aplomb.

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The show uses three vintage scripts from the radio series – ‘Hancock In The Police’ and ‘The Wild Man Of The Woods’ from 1957, and 1958’s episode ‘The Americans Hit Town’. The ensemble cast gathered for the tour is as near-authentic as you can get without actually going back in time to the late ’50s. Hurn himself manages to perfectly embody Hancock in all ways, from his sheer physicality and his facial expressions, through to winning delivery of Galton and Simpson’s lines, timed to absolute perfection, and the vocal tics and inflections used. At times, you can almost believe you’re actually in the presence of Tony Hancock, so there can surely be no higher praise than that.

Laura Crowhurt and Tom Capper portray Hattie Jacques and Bill Kerr respectively, and they manage to capture the essence of both actors, without being completely slavish, giving an opportunity for their very own personalities to shine through. Ben Craze’s Sid James is absolutely next level stuff, and besides having more than a passing resemblance to James, when he opens his mouth for the very first times it’s an utterly uncanny experience, and rivals Hurn’s Hancock for being totally uncanny – close your eyes, and you’d be totally forgiven for thinking Sid James was with us still, perfectly capturing his distinctive and idiosyncratic mix of South African and Cockney accents.

Sadly, the weakest link in the chain here was the rendition of Kenneth Williams – despite Colin Elmer (who had previously played Williams in the Round The Horne tour) being credited, on the night of the Birmingham performance (and perhaps others elsewhere on the circuit) he was replaced by Clive Greenwood, who should have been the announcer. It’s unclear if Elmer was indisposed for the evening, or if he would be missing a number of dates; however, his presence was rather sorely missed, as Greenwood’s own rendition as Williams is competent at best, but tends to veer slightly towards caricature. Some of the voices at times also drift, blurring into each other, and changing mid-character for no apparent reason. As Greenwood is also far older than Elmer, it’s a little bit jarring, as Elmer would be far closer to Williams’ age at the time of the original radio recordings, unlike Greenwood due to his relative seniority.

A rather curious choice is coming back after the intermission and opening the second half with a live rendition of the most famous part of ‘The Blood Donor’, with the oft-quoted exchange. Hurn and Greenwood are also dressed in character as Hancock and the doctor, which seems rather strange, as (a) it’s supposed to be a radio performance, (b) Kenneth Williams didn’t play the doctor, and (c) ‘The Blood Donor’ dates from 1961, years after any of the radio scripts used here were recorded and broadcast. However, you can forgive them this slight indulgence and break of chronology, as it feels a little like going to see a favourite band in concert, and them not doing any of their big hits. It’s all good fun, and you can feel the palpable sense of audience anticipation as Hurn comes up to the line, before making it land just like ‘the lad himself’.

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Granted, some of the cultural touchpoints have inevitably dated – most strikingly in ‘The Americans Hit Town’, with all of its references to G.I.s from the local airbase lodging with locals, and the excitement of the ladies of East Cheam, harkening back to the then-relatively recent World War II. However, we still enjoy Shakespeare, and his works date back centuries, so I think the average audience will be able to cope. In many ways, the Hancock character is very Shakespearean, almost bringing to mind Falstaff – a tragi-comic figure who is fat, boastful, preening and cowardly, all in equal measure. It’s a testament not only to Galton and Simpson’s writing, but also to Hancock himself that we still remember the character to this day; it’s also notable that this ‘Hancock’ has outlived them all, and seems set to do so for many decades to come.

No matter what the era, comedy is still comedy, and Galton and Simpson have done a wonderful job of creating laughs which will live on; the Apollo Theatre Company have done these scripts proud, and given us a glimpse back to what it was like during this golden age of radio comedy. Treat yourself to a night in East Cheam, for Hancock’s hour-and-a-half. My point? It’s very nearly an eveningful.

Hancock’s Half Hour is touring the U.K. until 7 April 2019.

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