Ask anyone about when the Golden Age of British Television actually was, and you’ll most probably get different answers from everyone you speak to. However, when it comes to the Golden Age of British Radio, it invariably tends to be the period which runs up until the 1960s or 1970s, when TV sets become more commonplace in living rooms around the country.
Tens of millions would flock around their radiograms and Crystal sets, which is the sort of ratings modern TV shows can only dream of. One of the major superstars of the airwaves was Anthony John Hancock (better known to the nation as a fictional version of himself, one Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam). Urban legend has it streets and pubs would empty as people rushed home in order to hear the latest exploits of The Lad Himself. Hancock’s Half Hour was a national institution even before it transferred over to BBC Television.
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Not that it needs much help, but doing his bit to keep the Hancock flame kindled at the moment is James Hurn, impressionist and actor, who was touring the UK earlier on this year as part of the Apollo Theatre Company’s production of Hancock’s Half Hour. Hurn is an old hand where playing Hancock is concerned – prior to appearing with the Apollo Theatre Company, he was doing his very own show – Hancock And Co – One Man, Many Voices – starting in 2016, where he not only played the whole ensemble cast, but also wrote brand new material in the style of Ray Galton & Alan Simpson.
After his last sell out tour in 2018, Hurn’s brought his one-man show out again for a new run. However, not content just to do the same thing all over again, he’s actually put together an entirely new programme, with one ‘lost’ episode being paired with two more totally original episodes which he’s again penned himself. The staging of the show is minimal, but effective – just a microphone stand, along with a hatstand to accompany it, which bears a solitary flat cap of the type as worn by Sid James in the TV version of the series. There’s no need of fancy sets or props, given that it’s about recreating a radio experience.
His original material is easily up to the standard of Galton & Simpson’s scripts, which is no mean feat considering how high they set the bar. ‘The Inheritance’ sees Hancock finding out that he’s lost an uncle, but potentially gained a windfall, only to end up not getting quite what he expected. A nice touch is doing a spot-on impersonation of John Le Mesurier as an auctioneer, as Le Mesurier appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour (his wife also had an affair with Hancock in real life, trivia fans); it’s a cheeky touch to write in Le Mesurier’s Dad’s Army catchphrase at one point, particularly as that show was several years later, but Hurn does such a sterling job with the writing as well as the impression, an minor anachronism like that is easy enough to let slide.
The second newly-penned segment – ‘The Fitness Regime’ – sees Sid James up to his roguish best, in the very best tradition of the series, as he manages to manipulate Hancock into starting a health & fitness kick, only to find that the only pounds he’s likely to end up losing will be from out of his wallet. The other tale making up the show is ‘Sid James’ Dad’, which was a lost episode for many years; while a recording of it did surface relatively recently, it’s of such poor quality that it feels as though the only way to be able to hear it properly is as part of Hurn’s current tour.
Hurn’s skill comes not only in being able to put together brand new scripts which manage to fit in near-seamlessly with the original radio show, but also managing to extrapolate how the performances would have sounded if the original actors had been in them, and making them sound totally authentic. You can also see why Hurn calls himself ‘The Voice Wizard’, as what he does in bringing the characters to life is nothing short of magical – although it’s ostensibly a radio show, Hurn adopts the physical characteristics of each actor as he’s performing, such as screwing up his eyes and adopting a slight stoop when playing Sid James, for example.
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In fact, his impression of James can only be described as uncanny, and you could easily believe it was him on stage if you close your eyes. Perhaps the trickiest to pull off is Hattie Jacques as Griselda Pugh, Hancock’s prissy, long-suffering secretary; however, Hurn manages to do enough to really sell his portrayal of her. One of the real highlights is when he tackles all of the different characters and voices that Kenneth Williams took on, from a posh, plummy tone as a GP, to the famous nasal and weaselly cadence of ‘Snide’ (he of the “stop messing about” fame), along with an exuberant and flamboyant physicality.
Great comedy is timeless, so it really is a great accomplishment to be able to write something new which not only feels as if it’s from a bygone era, but also manages to capture the flavour and spirit of work produced by some of the greats, both in terms of the writing and the delivery too. Stop messing about, and make sure you get to see Hancock And Co.
Hancock And Co – One Man, Many Voices is touring the UK until November 2019.