High-profile during the 1950s and early 1960s, he had a major success with his BBC series Hancock's Half Hour, first broadcast on radio from 1954, then on television from 1956, in which he soon formed a strong professional and personal bond with comic actor Sid James. Although Hancock's decision to cease working with James, when it became known in early 1960, disappointed many at the time, his last BBC series in 1961 contains some of his best remembered work ("The Blood Donor"). After breaking with his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson later that year, his career declined.
Hancock was born in Southam Road, Hall Green, Birmingham, Warwickshire, but, from the age of three, he was brought up in Bournemouth, Hampshire, where his father, John Hancock, who ran the Railway Hotel in Holdenhurst Road, worked as a comedian and entertainer.
After his father's death in 1934, Hancock and his brothers lived with their mother and stepfather Robert Gordon Walker at a small hotel called Durlston Court, in Gervis Road, Bournemouth. He attended Durlston Court Preparatory School, a boarding school in Swanage (the name of which his parents adopted for their hotel) and Bradfield College in Reading, Berkshire, but left school at the age of fifteen.
In 1942, during the Second World War, Hancock joined the RAF Regiment. Following a failed audition for the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), he ended up on the Ralph Reader Gang Show. After the war, he returned to the stage and eventually worked as resident comedian at the Windmill Theatre, a venue which helped to launch the careers of many comedians at the time, and took part in radio shows such as Workers' Playtime and Variety Bandbox.
Over 1951–52, for one series, Hancock was a cast member of Educating Archie, in which he mainly played the tutor (or foil) to the nominal star, a ventriloquist's dummy. His appearance in this show brought him national recognition, and a catchphrase he used frequently in the show, "Flippin' kids!", became popular parlance. The same year, he made regular appearances on BBC Television's popular light entertainment show Kaleidoscope, and almost starred in his own series to be written by Larry Stephens, Hancock's best man at his first wedding. In 1954, he was given his own eponymous BBC radio show, Hancock's Half Hour.
Working with scripts from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Hancock's Half Hour lasted for seven years and over a hundred episodes in its radio form, and, from 1956, ran concurrently with an equally successful BBC television series with the same name. The show starred Hancock as "Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock", living in the shabby "23 Railway Cuttings" in East Cheam. Most episodes portrayed his everyday life as a struggling comedian with aspirations toward straight acting. Some episodes, however, changed this to show him as being a successful actor and/or comedian, or occasionally as having a different career completely, such as a struggling (and incompetent) barrister. Radio episodes were prone to more surreal storylines, which would have been impractical on television, such as Hancock buying a puppy that grows to be as tall as himself.
Sidney James featured heavily in both the radio and TV versions, while the radio version also included regulars Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and, successively, Moira Lister, Andrée Melly and Hattie Jacques. The series rejected the variety format then dominant in British radio comedy and instead used a form drawn more from everyday life: the situation comedy, with the humour coming from the characters and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Owing to a contractual wrangle with producer Jack Hylton, Hancock had an ITV series, The Tony Hancock Show, during this period, which ran in 1956-57.
During the run of his BBC radio and television series, Hancock became an enormous star in Britain. Like few others, he was able to clear the streets while families gathered together to listen to the eagerly awaited episodes. His character changed slightly over the series, but even in the earliest episodes the key facets of "the lad himself" were evident. "Sunday Afternoon at Home" and "The Wild Man of the Woods" were top-rating shows and were later released on an LP.
As an actor with considerable experience in films, Sidney James became more important to the show when the television version began. The regular cast was reduced to just the two men, allowing the humour to come from the interaction between them. James's character was the realist of the two, puncturing Hancock's pretensions. His character would often be dishonest and exploit Hancock's apparent gullibility during the radio series, but in the television version there appeared to be a more genuine friendship between them. Hancock's highly-strung personality made the demands of live broadcasts a constant worry, with the result that, starting from the autumn 1959 series, all episodes of the series were recorded before transmission. Up until then, every British television comedy show had been performed live, owing to the technical limitations of the time. He was also the first performer to receive a £1,000 fee for his performances in a half-hour show.
Hancock became anxious that his work with James was turning them into a double act, and he told close associates in late 1959, just after the fifth television series had finished being recorded, that he would end his professional association with Sid James after a final series. Hancock left others to tell James. His last BBC series in 1961, retitled simply Hancock, was without James. Two episodes are among his best-remembered: "The Blood Donor", in which he goes to a clinic to give blood, contains some famous lines, including "A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful!"; in "The Radio Ham", Hancock plays an amateur radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a yachtsman in distress, but his incompetence prevents him from taking his position. Both of these programmes were re-recorded a few months later for a commercial 1961 LP, produced in the same manner as the radio episodes.
Returning home with his wife from recording "The Bowmans", an episode based around a parody of The Archers, Hancock was involved in a car accident and was thrown through the windscreen. He was not badly hurt, but suffered concussion and was unable to learn his lines for "The Blood Donor", the next show due to be recorded. The result was that Hancock had to perform by reading from teleprompters, and could be seen looking at camera or away from other actors when delivering lines. From this time onwards, Hancock came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts whenever he had career difficulties.
In early 1960, Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by former Labour MP John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock, who deeply admired his interviewer, often appeared uncomfortable with the questions, but answered them frankly and honestly. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is often argued that this interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later difficulties. According to Roger, his brother, "It was the biggest mistake he ever made. I think it all started from that really. ...Self-analysis - that was his killer."
Cited as evidence is his gradual ostracism of those who contributed to his success, such as Sidney James and his scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson. His reasoning was that, to refine his craft, he had to ditch catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well-known oily catchphrase 'Good evening'. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, knowing it was just Williams doing a funny voice.
Hancock starred in the 1960 film The Rebel, where he plays the role of an office worker-turned-artist who finds himself successful after a move to Paris, but only as the result of mistaken identity. Although a success in Britain, the film was not well received in the United States: owing to the existence of a contemporary television series of the same name, the film had to be renamed, and the new title, Call Me Genius, inflamed American critics. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times thought Hancock "even less comical" than Norman Wisdom.
His break with Galton and Simpson took place at a meeting held in October 1961, where he also broke with his long-term agent Beryl Vertue. During the previous six months, the writers had developed – without payment and in consultation with the comedian – three scripts for Hancock's second starring film vehicle. Worried that the projects were wrong for him, the first two had been abandoned incomplete; the third was written to completion at the writers' insistence, only for Hancock to reject it. It is believed that Hancock had not read any of the screenplays. The result of the break was that Hancock chose to separately develop something previously discussed, and the writers were ultimately commissioned to write a Comedy Playhouse series for the BBC, one of which, "The Offer", emerged as the pilot for Steptoe and Son. That "something previously discussed" became The Punch and Judy Man, for which Hancock hired writer Philip Oakes, who moved in with the comedian to co-write the screenplay.
In The Punch and Judy Man (1962), Hancock plays a struggling seaside entertainer who dreams of a better life; Sylvia Syms plays his nagging social climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier a sand sculptor. The extent to which the character played by Hancock had merged with his real personality is clear in the film, which owes much to Hancock’s memories of his childhood in Bournemouth.
He moved to ATV in 1962 with different writers, though Oakes, retained as an advisor, disagreed over script ideas and the two men severed their professional (but not personal) relationship. The initial writer of Hancock's ATV series, Godfrey Harrison, had scripted the successful George Cole radio series A Life Of Bliss, and also Hancock's first regular television appearances on Fools Rush In (a segment of Kaleidoscope) more than a decade earlier. Harrison had trouble meeting deadlines, so other writers were commissioned, including Terry Nation.
Coincidentally, the transmission of the series clashed in the early months of 1963 with the second series of Steptoe and Son, written by Hancock's former writers, Galton and Simpson. Critical comparisons did not favour Hancock's series. Around 1965, Hancock made a series of 11 TV adverts for the Egg Marketing Board. Hancock starred in the adverts with Patricia Hayes as the character "Mrs Cravatte" in an attempt to revive the Galton and Simpson style of scripts. Slightly earlier, in 1963, he had featured in a spoof Hancock Report – hired by Lord Beeching to promote his plan to reduce railway mileage in advertisements. Hancock reportedly wanted to be paid what Beeching was paid annually – £34,000; he was offered half that amount for his services.
Hancock continued to make regular appearances on British television until 1967, but by then alcoholism had affected his performances. He collapsed with a liver attack on 1 January 1967 and was told he would die within three months if he continued drinking. In December 1967, while recovering from a broken rib from a drunken fall, he became ill with pneumonia. After hosting two unsuccessful variety series for ABC Television, The Blackpool Show (1966) and Hancock's (1967), he was contracted to make a 13-part series called Hancock Down Under for the Seven Network of Australian television. However, after arriving in Australia in March 1968, he completed only three programmes, which remained unaired for four years.
In June 1950, Hancock married Cicely Romanis, a Lanvin model, after a brief courtship.
Freddie Ross worked as his publicist from 1954, and became more involved in his life, eventually becoming his mistress. He divorced Cicely in 1965, and married Ross in December of that year. This second marriage was short-lived. During these years, Hancock was also involved with Joan Le Mesurier (née Malin), the new wife of actor John Le Mesurier, Hancock's best friend and a regular supporting character-actor from his television series. Joan was later to describe the relationship in her book Lady Don't Fall Backwards, including the claim that her husband readily forgave the affair; if it had been anyone else, he is quoted as saying, he wouldn't have understood it, but with Tony Hancock, it made sense. In July 1966, Freddie took an overdose, but survived. Arriving in Blackpool to record an edition of his variety series, Hancock was met by pressmen asking about his wife's attempted suicide. The final dissolution of the marriage took place a few days ahead of Hancock's own suicide.
Cicely developed her own problems with alcohol and died from a fall in 1969, the year after the death of her former husband. Freddie Hancock survived her broken marriage and resumed her career as a prominent publicist and agent in the film and television industry. Based in New York City for many years, she founded the East Coast chapter of BAFTA, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
Hancock committed suicide, by overdose, in Sydney, on 25 June 1968. He was found dead in his Bellevue Hill flat with an empty vodka bottle and a scattering of amylo-barbitone tablets.
In one of his suicide notes, he wrote: "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times". His ashes were brought back to England by satirist Willie Rushton, and were buried in St. Dunstan's Church in Cranford, west London.
Spike Milligan commented in 1989: "Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he's got rid of everybody else, he's going to get rid of himself and he did."
There is a sculpture by Bruce Williams (1996) in his honour in Old Square, Corporation Street, Birmingham, a plaque on the house where he was born in Hall Green, Birmingham, and a plaque on the wall of the hotel in Bournemouth where he spent some of his early life. There is also a plaque, placed by the Dead Comics Society, at 10 Grey Close, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where he lived in 1947 and 1948. In 2014, an English Heritage blue plaque was placed to commemorate Hancock at 20 Queen's Gate Place in South Kensington, London, where he lived between 1952 and 1958.
In a 2002 poll, BBC radio listeners voted Hancock their favourite British comedian. Commenting on this poll, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson observed that modern-day creations such as Alan Partridge and David Brent owed much of their success to mimicking dominant features of Tony Hancock's character. "The thing they've all got in common is self-delusion" they remarked, in a statement issued by the BBC. "They all think they're more intelligent than everyone else, more cultured, that people don't recognise their true greatness – self-delusion in every sense. And there's nothing people like better than failure." Mary Kalemkerian, Head of Programmes for BBC 7, commented: "Classic comedians such as Tony Hancock and the Goons are obviously still firm favourites with BBC radio listeners. Age doesn't seem to matter – if it's funny, it's funny." Dan Peat of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society said of the poll: "It's fantastic news. If he was alive he would have taken it one of two ways. He would probably have made some kind of dry crack, but in truth he would have been chuffed."
The last eight or so years of Tony Hancock's life were the subject of a BBC 'Screen One' television film, called Hancock (1991), starring Alfred Molina. Another BBC drama, Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006), saw Martin Trenaman play the role of Hancock with Michael Sheen as Williams. Hancock's affair with Joan Le Mesurier was also dramatised in Hancock and Joan on BBC Four and transmitted on 26 March 2008 as part of the Curse of Comedy season. Hancock was portrayed by Ken Stott and Joan by Maxine Peake.
Musician Pete Doherty is a fan of Hancock and entitled the first album by his band the Libertines Up the Bracket after one of Hancock's catch phrases. He also wrote a song called "Lady Don't Fall Backwards" after the book at the centre of the Hancock's Half Hour episode "The Missing Page".
Paul Merton, in 1996, appeared in remakes of six of Galton and Simpson's 'Hancock' scripts, which were not critically well received. In 2014, five of the wiped Hancock's Half Hour radio shows, chosen by Galton and Simpson, were re-staged for BBC Radio 4 under the umbrella title The Missing Hancocks, with Kevin McNally taking the title role.
Episodes and anthologies from the radio series were released on vinyl LP in the 1960s, as well as four re-makes of television scripts; an annual LP was issued of radio episodes (without the incidental music) between 1980 and 1984. Much of this material was also available on cassette in later years.
The BBC issued CDs of the surviving 74 radio episodes in six box sets, one per series, with the sixth box containing several out-of-series specials. This was followed by the release of one large box set containing all the others in a special presentation case; while it includes no extra material, the larger box alone (without any CDs) still fetches high prices on online marketplaces like eBay, where Hancock memorabilia remains a thriving industry. There have also been VHS video releases of the BBC TV series.
While five separate Region 2 DVDs were previously issued, some of the surviving episodes were unavailable until The Tony Hancock BBC Collection (eight DVDs) appeared in 2007. Episodes of the radio series are often broadcast on the digital radio station BBC Radio 4 Extra.Orders Are Orders (1954) - Lt. Wilfred Cartroad
The Rebel (US title: Call Me Genius; 1961) - Anthony Hancock
The Punch and Judy Man (1962) - Wally Pinner
Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) - Harry Popperwell
The Wrong Box (1966) - Detective
David Nathan and Freddie Hancock Hancock, (1969 ), William Kimber, BBC Consumer Publishing, ISBN 0-563-38761-0
Roger Wilmut Tony Hancock: 'Artiste', A Tony Hancock Companion, 1978, Eyre Methuen - with full details of Hancock's stage, radio, TV and film appearances.
Edward Joffe Hancock's Last Stand: The Series That Never Was, June 1998, foreword by June Whitfield, Book Guild Ltd Publishing, ISBN 1-85776-316-5 - an account of Hancock's final days, written by the man who found Hancock's body after his suicide.
Cliff Goodwin When the Wind Changed: The Life and Death of Tony Hancock, 2000, Arrow - an extended, comprehensive biography.
John Fisher Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography, 2008, Harper, ISBN 0-00-726677-4
Omnibus: Hancock (1985) A BBC documentary which seriously looks at Hancock's life and work, and his legacy. With contributions by Beryl Vertue, Galton & Simpson, Bill Kerr and producers Dennis Main Wilson and Duncan Wood.
Hancock (1991) A BBC1 'Screen One' production, starring Alfred Molina
Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006) A BBC Four drama about Kenneth Williams, featuring Martin Trenaman as Hancock
Hancock and Joan (2008) A BBC Four drama, starring Ken Stott.