Well, here we are. After three weeks of Harry Secombe covering for an indisposed Tony Hancock we’re back to where we started. The regular cast assembled on 8th May 1955 to pick up where they left off with a recording session at the Paris Studios for transmission a mere two days later. Business as usual? Not quite. There’s a debt that needs repaying so it’s time for a fighting fit Hancock to pay “A Visit To Swansea”.
Kenneth Williams is on duty again as announcer, as he introduces…
KEN … Bill Kerr, Sidney James, Andree Melly and Kenneth Williams in… Hancock’s Half Hour
Still no sign of Hancock’s name in the opening credits. No sign of Harry either. Kenneth continues…
KEN Harry Secombe having successfully deputised for Tony Hancock for the last three weeks, he has now left London for his hometown Swansea, With no one left to impose upon, Bill Kerr has had to find alternative ready-made accomodation, the alternative being Hancock’s empty flat, and the “ready-maid” being Andree Melly. Or so he thinks.
We open on Bill and Andree listening to a recording of Harry singing – the script specifies “Heart of a Clown”. “Must be one of the best records he’s ever made”, comments Bill.
ANDREE Wonderful. I’m going to miss Harry.
BILL So am I. He took all his money with him.
It would appear that there’s enough money left for three or four weeks, after which, it’s time for drastic measures – Andree will have to go out to work. Bill pleads exclusion on account of his war wounds…
ANDREE You told me you were in the cookhouse.
BILL We had more casualties there than any branch of the Australian army.
Bill leaves to conduct some important business – once he’s found his billiard chalk. Andree takes a few minutes to listen to Harry again before carrying on with the washing up, at which point…
TONY Ah, home again at last. Hancock’s Haven. The swallow returns to his nest. Three weeks away, and… hello, I left the gramophone on. Hasn’t done the record any good by the sound of it.
There’s an important task to be performed here. Andree’s supposed to be a regular cast member but she hasn’t actually met Tony yet – she came over from France with Bill. This could be awkward.
ANDREE Is that you Bill? You’re back quickly. I wasn’t expecting you till… oh
TONY Good Evening.
ANDREE Good Evening.
TONY Who are you?
ANDREE I live here.
TONY Well, that solves me problem of what to do in the evenings, doesn’t it? How did you get here?
ANDREE Mr Kerr said I could stay here. He said it would be alright.
TONY Well, it looks as though HE is.
ANDREE Oh, you know Mr Kerr?
TONY Yes, we’ve met.
ANDREE Of course! I’ve just realised who you are.
TONY (Pleased) Have you?
ANDREE Yes. You’re the labourer Bill was going to send round to clear this place up!
At which point Tony clocks the devastation left after one of Bill’s all night parties. A few beer stains on the wallpaper – “me contemporary two tones. Ruined! One and six and three a yard.” Some cigarette holes in the carpet – and the chair Tony sits down in having come over all faint (the FX instructions add a simple (TERRIFIC CRASH) at this point).
There’s a scored through section in the script here –
ANDREE Well you see, some things got broken.
TONY Add Mr Kerr’s name to the list, will you?
Rather sweetly Andree breaks down in tears on Tony’s behalf. Tony attempts to comfort her – Andree recovers.
ANDREE You’re very sweet.
TONY I have me moments.
ANDREE I’ve heard so much about you. From Bill.
TONY Have you?
ANDREE Yes. I don’t think you’re ugly.
TONY Of course not, don’t let me face mislead you. Methinks Mr Kerr and myself will be having a few words.
BILL (way off mike, singing) I can’t give you anything but love, baby…
TONY Ah. Hear the gentle lark.
Bill enters, speculating how much they could get for Tony’s radiogram (“about thirty seven pounds” comments Tony drily), at which point Bill clocks just who’s got there ahead of him. He attempts to salvage the situation.
BILL Where have you been all these weeks? We’ve had no word! We thought you were dead.
TONY Quite a little wake you had here last night.
BILL I was only drowning my sorrows. You’ve no idea how upset I’ve been. The mental agony of not knowing where you were. Not sleeping at nights, pacing my room, wondering where to find you, looking everywhere for you.
ANDREE That’s right, he searched my room dozens of times.
Tony attempts to explain his absence by taking off on one of his trademark flights of fancy – “when Whitehall calls, one doesn’t question”. On being pressed further he explains –
TONY I can’t divulge it William, but I CAN tell you this. The gayness has gone right out of Budapest. Oh yes, I know the ghoulash at Pauls is quite piquant, and the Tokay at Nikolai’s – ah! But it’s only surface, William. Underneath… well, it’s nasty. Quite, quite nasty.
BILL Seaview Hotel, Bognor Regis.
BILL The label on your suitcase.
Eventually Tony cops to it. He’s had a cold in his head and it took him seven weeks to get over it. “With the size of his head, it could be”, murmurs Bill.
At this point it’s worth pausing to realise that Harry’s been covering for Tony within continuity as well – standing in on the radio show the fictional Hancock, Sid and Bill do for the BBC. All of which leads to this unsurprising revelation – Tony isn’t altogether comfortable with the reaction Harry got on his show while he was away.
TONY I must admit, he was very funny. I laughed. I laughed a great deal. I thought I was going to cry.
BILL Harry did a wonderful job. He made you look a bit sick. You should have heard the people laugh.
TONY Well, of course they would. Look at the shape of him. Short little fat bloke. Don’t know what they see in him.
Another deleted section follows –
BILL What talent the guy’s got. Sings like a dream.
TONY So can I. (SINGS) “Be my love, for no-one else can end this yearning…”
BILL My, what funny dreams you have.
Andree and Bill begin to apply pressure on Tony to thank Harry for covering. (“He got paid!” protests Tony). The others think that’s not sufficient, and Tony should show a bit of gratitude.
Another deleted exchange –
ANDREE It WOULD be a nice gesture.
TONY I could think of better ones.
Since Harry’s gone home to Swansea Bill and Andree suggest paying Harry a visit – “that’s practically abroad!” “Not as far as Budapest”.
There’s a train leaving shortly so with a blast of “Genevive Hancock” (Disc 5, Band 1 of the BBC’s music library, Hancock’s Half Hour for the use of) and a nifty crossfade, we arrive at Paddington.
Deputised to get the railway tickets Tony has the misfortune to get Kenneth Williams at the booking office. The script direction reads (PRECIOUS) which I presume comes out as Kenneth’s traditional Snide character –
KENNETH Oh, I do envy you. Swansea. It’s so beautiful at this time of the year. I took the wife there for a holiday last year, she likes Wales, you know, and we had a lovely time, really, only five days rain during the whole week we were there.
This exchange goes on for several pages with Kenneth utterly refusing to allow Hancock to get in. There’s much play about his sister-in-law. She’s got a bad back, apparently. When he finally does get the upper hand Hancock turns the table on him, spinning one of his tall war stories and showing Kenneth just how to bore for Britain. Eventually though, both run out of steam –
TONY Oh, er… three returns to Swansea please.
KENNETH You’ve got the wrong window.
TONY What do you… look, please… can’t you try to make an allowance just this once? I’m in a hurry. My train leaves in two minutes. Please, can’t you possibly give me three returns to Swansea?
KENNETH I very much doubt it… this is the Underground.
Tickets finally procured our heroes make a mercy dash for the train, only to be blocked by a ticket inspector – Kenneth again. Bear in mind by this stage Tony and Kenneth have been at it for about five or six minutes of solid to-and-fro dialogue –
KENNETH So you’re going to Swansea, eh? Lovely place, you’ll like it. I’ve got a brother on the Underground goes to see his sister-in-law there every year. It’s her back, you know, gets seized up… OOOOOOOW, my shin!
They dash for the train, now well and truly leaving the station (“Come on Bannister, grab my hand”, exhorts Bill to a knackered Tony) but it’s all to no avail. They’ve got to wait for the next one but thankfully this gives Bill time to go and stock up on reading material. Once comfortably on board with five hours to go to Swansea he settles in for a literary feast.
ANDREE You’ve dropped your glasses.
BILL Oh thanks.
TONY Funny glasses, aren’t they?
BILL (ENGROSSED) Mm? Oh, they’re my reading glasses. They make everything stand out much clearer.
HANCOCK Show us those books. Diana Dors in 3D. Sixteen classical poses in 3D. Artistic nude studies in…
BILL I’m interested in photography!
Tony attempts to interest Bill in the passing countryside – “I’m more interested in Diana Dors than in Pigs and Sheep” – at which point a certain absent member of the cast finally joins them. Sid’s on board, doing carriage to carriage retail – car seat covers, coal, electric light bulbs – “I’ve been from one end of the train to the other”. He asks them where they’re off to.
ANDREE Swansea. We’re trying to locate Harry Secombe. Tony wants to thank him for taking over his radio show when he was ill.
SID THANK HIM? Cor blimey, if I was in your shoes Hancock, I’ve MURDER him.
TONY Oh, that’s a silly attitude to take. Just because Harry was a big success. I mean, it was good for the show, I was pleased that he got all the big laughs, I mean, if I wasn’t such a well-established favourite, it might have worried me, but it’s… it’s…. I’ve still got me fans, one or two of them still write, it’s not that… well, I… what did you say you’d do if you were in my shoes?
SID Murder him.
TONY What size boots do you take?
TONY Here’s nine and a half, see what you can do.
Following a deleted sing-song (Bill’s promising rendition of “Eskimo Nell” cut short when he remembers the presence of Andree) Sid suggests they beguile the hours with a game of cards.
TONY No thank you, I’ve played with you before. Strip poker, remember. I had six suits in the wardrobe and I still had to go to work next morning in a barrel.
Bill – forgetting for the moment that Andree is indeed still present – begins to regale the carriage with a dirty joke or two and is interrupted – oh yes – by Kenneth, this time in the guise of an innocent looking Vicar, looking for somewhere to sit. Turns out he’s visiting a relative in Swansea, who has a bad back. As Tony comments, he probably has a relative working on the Underground.
The Vicar seems a nice old soul – albeit one dressed in a sharkskin suit and recently returned from America – “I’m a sort of Billy Graham in reverse”. He “inadvertently” reveals that he’s got two thousand quid on him – he’s raising money for a new church roof. Sid senses an opportunity and invites him to join the card school. Shortly –
KENNETH Well, there we are…. I think that just about cleans you out, doesn’t it gentlemen? That is the expression, isn’t it? Well, good day to you, gentlemen, it’s been such a pleasant journey.
The rest of this scene is scored through. It carries on –
KENNETH … we should have an excellent roof for the church now. Er, before I go, you wouldn’t like to make a little donation to the box, would you?
TONY No, but if you’ll tell us where it is we’ll be your first applicants.
Finally the train pulls in at Swansea.
TONY Rev, just one thing before you go.
TONY Can we have our suits back?
The only address anyone has for Harry is 32 Penwellyn Road. Eventually our tired and weary travellers arrive, to be greeted by Andree doing double service as a Welsh landlady.
TONY I’d like to speak to my dear friend Harry Secombe please.
ANDREE So would I. He left here four years ago without paying his rent. Are you friends of his?
TONY AND BILL No.
TONY Have you any idea where I can find him?
ANDREE Oh no, I couldn’t tell you man, I haven’t stepped foot outside this house for three years now.
TONY I’m very sorry to hear that. What’s wrong with you?
ANDREE It’s my back, you know. I get seized up.
Incredibly, the gag about the sister in Swansea is STILL going… so everyone beats a hasty retreat. Hours of footsore wandering later they encounter the hardest working man at the BBC – at least for the purposes of this script. Yes, it’s Kenneth again, this time playing a little Welshman.
KENNETH Oooh, you’re foreigners from across the border, aren’t you?
TONY We’re English.
KENNETH Well, never mind. We can’t all be Welsh, can we? Now, what can I do for you?
BILL We’re trying to find Harry Secombe.
KENNETH Oh aye, young Harry bach. A fine lad is Harry. I heard him on the electric talking wireless without pictures last week, in that Hancock’s Half Hour. Smashin’, he was. Much better than that fellow whose place he took. What was his name anyway? Oh, he was a dead loss anyway. Harry bach showed him up proper, he did. You’ve never heard such laughs. I wonder this Tiny Hancock has got the nerve to try and follow Harry bach. Of course, Harry’s got the advantage. He’s Welsh, you see.
Finally, Harry’s found. Working down a coal mine. He does it when he’s not working for the BBC because he can’t afford coal on the money they pay him at Auntie. “A grand worker, is Harry. Very handy with the shovel”. He’s working down the mines right now, in that mountain just over there.
TONY There’s no mountain over there.
KENNETH Isn’t there? Cor, he must have knocked up loads of money this week, then.
Sadly their luck’s out – Harry’s just gone down the pit and won’t be back up for eight hours. They’ll have to wait. Or will they? Just coming off shift are three burly Welsh miners – incredibly, Ray, Alan and Kenneth – and they’re just the same size as Tony, Bill and Sid. You can tell they’re Welsh miners, they’re singing “Sospan Fach”.
Having duffed up Ray, Alan and Kenneth for their outfits Tony, Bill and Sid head down the pit. They’re also singing “Sospan Fach”. Just to allay suspicion.
Wonderfully Tony gets sidetracked, having one of his little chats with Alan Simpson. Even more wonderfully, he reveals that these little chats are a feature of the fictional Hancock’s Half Hour he appears in as well. Alan’s interjections are included here in brackets.
TONY … I’m looking for Harry Secombe. He did the radio show for me (I know) Well, you were there. Did he speak to you? (Not a word) No little chats? (Ignored me) I’m not surprised, he’s very unsociable…
Hancock’s jealousy gets the better of him, as Alan rashly reveals that he preferred Harry to Hancock and gets a pickaxe for his pains.
TONY Did my pickaxe go into your head? (Yes) I’m sorry. (It’s alright, it’s only the sharp bit) It’s made a nasty hole, hasn’t it? (Don’t worry) Never mind, somewhere to put your cigarette ash, isn’t it? (Well, exactly). I’ve got to be going now. Give my regards to the wife and the fifteen kids (Sixteen) Well, I haven’t seen you for a few weeks, you lose count. Goodbye. See you next week. Nice man. EVERYBODY hates him.
There’s been a small fat pit pony following our heroes around. On closer inspection it turns out to be none other than Harry. At long last, Tony has the chance to discharge his obligations and thank Harry for his generosity and kindness.
TONY I’ve prepared a little speech. Ahem. I’d like to say on behalf of myself and the assembled cast how much… don’t this coal dust get up your nose? … how much I appreciate your stepping into my radio show and taking it over for me and making it such a success.
HARRY Oh Tony, it was nothing.
TONY Nothing, he says. Flipping nigh ruined me. Well, anyway, thank you.
HARRY Not at all. It was a pleasure. Any time.
TONY There won’t be any more times. I’ll get along to that studio in a wheelchair. Never again will I let anybody else take my place. I’ve learnt my lesson. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to London to do me broadcast… so I’ll just say goodbye Harold, thank you, and… oooooooow!
BILL What’s wrong?
TONY Me back! It’s seized up! Help! Me back. It’s the damp. I shouldn’t have come down. Get a doctor. Ooooow! I can’t move!
HARRY Oh, that’s a bit of bad luck. The doctor only comes down here once a week.
TONY But me radio show. It’s tonight!
HARRY Well, don’t worry about it, Tony, I’ll do it for you. I’ll finish up with a song. That’ll get them. Come on lads, we’ll be late for the show. (Goes off singing) “If I had the heart of a clown…”
TONY No. Come back. Bill. Sid. Don’t do it! It’s my show. Pick me up…
KENNETH This has been Hancock’s Half Hour with Tony Hancock, and his old friend Harry Secombe.
With that, it’s all over. Thankfully “The Holiday Camp” – the next episode to be broadcast – still exists and “Hancock’s Half Hour” continued as normal. What a wonderful way to ease yourself back into things though. Out of the four scripts that kicked off series two, this is far and away my favourite. There’s an easy flow to it with a slight end-of-term feel – a real “thank god, we got through it” sense of relief. The only place it really strains is in attempting to write Andree into her proper place as a series regular – by the next week she’s just there, living with the others and acting as Hancock’s (occasional) love interest. Easy to forgive though.
There’s so much else to enjoy, from the running gag about the sister with the bad back, to Kenneth’s virtual domination of the show with his multiple characters, to Sid’s once-an-episode fiddle backfiring on him spectacularly. The succession of jabs taken at Hancock and his towering jealousy when he discovers he wasn’t missed one bit are a highlight – you can only imagine the levels of aggrieved, suppressed rage Hancock would have injected into those lines. The way the show ends as it began with Harry singing “Heart of a Clown” is lovely as well. That they could pull this off at such short notice… well, it takes my breath away.
All told, these four episodes are a beautiful example of grace under pressure. Under almost impossible conditions, they did it. They really did it, and I can only hope that somewhere out there copies of all four survive. To judge by the scripts they would have been absolutely top-flight Hancock’s Half Hour, even lacking the star. One of the show’s charms was always the supporting cast and I’m sure Sid, Bill, Andree and Kenneth gave totally of their best. They always did. Harry Secombe stepped in for his old friend and held it all together, giving Hancock the time he needed to get back to full strength. I only hope at some point in the future we’ll all get to hear him do it.