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Hancock’s half-century

It’s been 50 years since Tony Hancock died. But he lives on through impressionist James Hurn. Stephen Griffin spoke to him

07 September, 2018

James Hurn, the ‘Lad Himself’

STONE me, where does the time go? It may be five decades since Willie Rushton flew back to Britain from Australia with Tony Hancock’s ashes but the comedian’s reputation remains undimmed – the “Lad Himself” continues to hold the Great British public in thrall.

Not only do repeats of Hancock’s Half Hour seemingly play on a loop on BBC Radio 4 Extra but there’s Kevin McNally playing ’Tub’ in The Missing Hancocks. And now, to mark 50 years since Hancock’s death, actor and Dead Ringers alumnus James Hurn is to deliver two recently discovered scripts, The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot, at the British Library later this month.

The scripts, by Goons co-writer Larry Stephens, predate Hancock’s Half Hour by some four years. Set in a fictional seaside town, the series was to have been Hancock’s first starring vehicle.

Stephens died when he was only 35 but at the time he was Hancock’s best friend – they were each other’s best men.

“Hancock’d done Variety Bandbox and Educating Archie but this should have been his first main thing,” says James. “It should have done what Hancock’s Half Hour did.”

Indeed, the familiar gullible, pompous, belligerent, petulant Everyman that struck such a chord with listeners, and later viewers, is evident.

“The way I play him I think everyone will recognise him as the Hancock they all know, and the writing is not that much different with regard to Hancock’s own lines. It’s very much of that time period – that sort of gentle sense of humour.”

And James is no stranger to Hancock. For the past couple of years he’s been touring in his own show, Hancock and Co. He plays all the parts in the production, which comprises two vintage episodes and one he wrote himself.

The Vacant Lot scripts, however, were unearthed by Julie Warren, a distant relation of Stephens, while researching a biography of him. Only one of two extant scripts was complete but casting of the original was to include Kenneth Connor and Goons Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers.

The series was never aired but four years later Hancock hit the big time with Hancock’s Half Hour. Teamed opposite Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams, and most notably Sid James, the series made Hancock one of the country’s most popular – indeed loved – comedians. The words of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson made it the stuff of comedy legend – pubs would empty on the evenings it was broadcast. But Hancock, a depressive alcoholic, was never satisfied. His quest for the “truth” in comedy saw him shed not only the entire cast but, fatally, his writers.

Despite his prodigious talent, drink started to take hold and he never managed to rekindle the spark of the BBC series.

Desperation saw him recording an abortive TV series in Sydney when he took his own life on June 25, 1968. His suicide note read: “Things just seemed to have gone too wrong too many times.”

It had fallen to Rushton to inform a British customs official at Heathrow that what he had to declare was Tony Hancock’s remains.

At 43, James wasn’t around when Hancock first aired. But as a self-confessed “old soul”, he was always drawn to comedians of an earlier generation. As a teenager he was captivated by the likes of George Burns, Bob Newhart, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Al Read, but it was, he says, his father – a Kilburn shop-keeper – who introduced him to Hancock.

And what goes around comes around – he’s pleasantly surprised not to look out on a sea of white heads.

“When I started touring my own show, Hancock and Co, I thought that the audience would be a certain age group, even older than I am – but it’s not. It’s fantastic to see that, much like me as a teenager, there are teenagers now who have obviously been introduced to it by their parents and their grandparents and they come along as a family unit.

“Some of these kids come up to me after the show and quote lines from various episodes.”

So, to what does he attribute the show’s continuing appeal?

“I think there’s something in it for everyone,” he says.

The younger fry might find the facial expressions amusing, he explains, whereas adults will respond to the actual gags. “It’s lasted so long because it’s harmless comedy – it’s not rude and there aren’t even any old-fashioned swear words.”

They are timeless, he adds, not least because there are few references to current affairs.

Essentially a character actor, James found himself lured into comedy because that’s where his passion lies. “When I started doing voices professionally in about 2006 I fell into things like Dead Ringers on TV.”

He got that particular gig because they were looking for someone to do Tom Hanks, but if you want to see for yourself just how great his impressions are just take a look at his YouTube channel.

His Sid James is particularly impressive. Was Sid a tough nut to crack?

“It started off as difficult. When I was looking at doing this project [Hancock and Co] a couple of years ago I thought I’ve only managed to master the laugh and maybe one line, so I just knuckled down.

“I discovered things like he was originally from South Africa and so, as I would with any voice, I went back to basics. I find out where someone comes from because even if you don’t hear it in the voice they currently have it’s always there. So with Sid I started with just a generic South African accent and start layering it with the character – Sid’s croakiness and a bit London.”

Pressed to name his favourite impression he opts for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson because of their comic potential but adds: “If listening back to a recording I can’t detect anything of myself I think I’ve done a good job.”

He can rest assured he’s done a great job with Hancock.

The Missing Hancocks: Vacant Lot is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB, on Thursday, September 20, at 7.30pm. Call 01937 546546 or visit
Hancock and Co is at the Museum of Comedy in the Undercroft, St George’s Church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SR, on September 16 (020 7534 1744) and the Canal Cafe Theatre, 2 Delamere Terrace, W2 6ND, on October 20 (020 7289 6054).


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