By the start of the 1960s, Tony Hancock was on a career high. Having worked his way up from entertaining in the army to doing radio variety and revue shows, his big break came in the early 1950s, when he became part of the cast of radio series Educating Archie, where he was the foil for a ventriloquist’s dummy (yes, I know: ventriloquism on the radio). Not too long after, he ended up with a radio series of his own – Hancock’s Half Hour – which later transferred to television.
It was when he was riding the crest of his popular success – thanks in no small part to the fantastic scripts by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – that Hancock came to set his sights on more than just BBC TV and radio, and had the lofty ambition of being an international star. Galton and Simpson put together a script for a feature film to showcase Hancock, called The Rebel. For the first time, audiences could see him in colour, on the big screen, which will have been a real novelty back then.
The Rebel brings us a variation upon the familiar Hancock character from the TV and radio shows – a rather pompous and self-important individual, with ideas far above his station, and aspirations to be seen as a great artistic talent. Some might say it isn’t that far away from Hancock the man, and Galton and Simpson do seem to have somewhat amplified certain aspects of his personality in order to bring us the ‘Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock’ we’re used to.
In The Rebel, he plays Anthony Hancock, frustrated office worker who has a self-proclaimed artistic bent. Feeling stifled by the humdrum, workaday life of being just a clerk, he packs it all in and moves on a whim to France, in order to try and make a living selling his paintings, as well as hoping his creative genius will be seen and appreciated by others. However, he finds infamy in a rather unexpected way, and – as with anything Hancock touches – it ends up with him finding himself in an awful pickle.
Given that the counter-culture movement of the 1960s had yet to establish itself, The Rebel probably wasn’t as well received as Hancock had hoped due to it being ahead of its time; as a satire, it would perhaps have been better placed if it had come out in the middle of the decade, coming after the emergence of pop artists like Warhol, with his infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans. It still effectively skewers all sides, going from the 9-to-5 grind (with its very stiff, bowler-hatted city gents living out in the commuter belt), to beatnik culture, the arts scene, and the filthy rich with more money than sense.
It also tries to give Hancock the broader international appeal he was seeking, by moving him away from the provincial, parochial East Cheam setting audiences in the UK would be familiar with, and taking him ultimately to Monte Carlo. The script also leans toward farce, with there being a case of mistaken identity at the core of the story, leading to misunderstandings, and Hancock finding himself getting out of his depth as he tries to go along with everyone’s misconception, only to get into deeper bother as things start to spiral out of his control.
Although he asked Galton and Simpson to work on another film script for him, it all came to naught, and he parted ways with his longtime writers, deciding to try and chart his own course when it came to his efforts to become known worldwide. The result of all this was The Punch And Judy Man, which Hancock co-wrote, and ended up giving us something of an insight into the real man, with the finished film being semi-autobiographical in many ways. For the first time since his early radio days, he also wasn’t playing a variation upon the familiar ‘Hancock’ character.
It’s telling that while discarding most of the familiar trappings, he goes back to his childhood, setting the movie in a seaside town which has seen better days – while he was born in Birmingham, he grew up in Bournemouth, so in many ways it was like coming home for him. However, The Punch And Judy Man is far from being a comedy, and veers into darker territory, which would have likely wrong footed his audience; a lot of what we see on screen mirrors his real life.
Hancock’s character, Wally Pinner – a Punch and Judy man – finds himself in a failing marriage; at the time, Hancock’s real life marriage was coming to an end, and much of the bitterness and regret can be seen here. Pinner’s wife, Delia (Sylvia Sims), is the aspiring social climber here – rather than Hancock, for a change – and seems trapped and frustrated by the fact that despite wanting to better herself, her husband is despised and looked down on by some on the local council, including the Mayor (Ronald Fraser).
In a time before ‘staycations’, and just as package holidays were becoming widely available and popular, this was really the last hurrah for seaside towns, a fact that’s reflected in the story here, as the Mayor wants to turn the resort of Piltdown into a huge resort and destination – it seems that Delia Pinner isn’t the only one bent upon betterment and improved social standing. There’s a marked dig here at pretention and snobbery, albeit in a different way than in The Rebel.
There are still moments of great charm in the movie, including the famous scene where Wally and a young boy from his Punch and Judy audience mirror each other perfectly, gesture for gesture, while eating ice cream sundaes; however, the overall tone is far more introspective than The Rebel, and the broad slapstick climax feels oddly misplaced as a result. Overall, there are moments of quiet desperation and melancholy, unlike anything that we have seen in Hancock before. The move back to black & white also feels like an oddly retrograde move for someone who was trying to launch themselves onto the global stage, but this seems to match the curious subject matter.
Network Distributing have done a great job in restoring both features to pristine condition, The Rebel in particular looking far sharper than it has in many years, with the colours particularly vibrant, and not washed out as you might have seen on TV screenings. The only minor quibble is that the special features here consist of just a trailer for each movie – Network are renowned for putting together some great value added material for the archive stuff they put out, yet it all feels undeservedly sparse in this case.
Regardless, both Blu-rays are well worth adding to your collection, whether you’re a Hancock fan, or just an aficionado of British comedy films. In the words of Mr. Punch himself, that’s the way to do it.