In 1955, it seemed that everything was going well for Tony Hancock. Although not quite the beloved national figure he would later become, he was familiar to audiences throughout Britain. A seasoned – if nervous – stage performer and a confident radio artiste, his star was rising. He’d put in a series of well-regarded turns as one of the exasperated foils for Archie Andrews in Educating Archie. He’d just finished his first series of Hancock’s Half Hour in February, and the BBC had immediately commissioned a second. Things appeared to be going well. Then it all started to unravel.
Hancock was contracted to appear at the Adelphi Theatre in Talk of the Town, but theatrical agents George Black Ltd felt there was a conflict of interest. They weren’t happy with Hancock appearing on radio while contracted to do theatre shows, and wrote to Hancock’s agents, Kavanagh Productions Ltd. The BBC began wrangling with George Black’s as to their legal rights, and eventually a compromise was reached. However, the strain took a severe toll on Hancock. Never a comfortable stage performer, he was on stage a few days before recording on the second radio series was due to begin when he walked off before the final number of the first performance. Dickie Henderson – ever thoughtful, kind and generous – stepped in to cover Hancock for that night’s second performance.
Producer Dennis Main Wilson, accompanied by Jimmy Edwards, set off to try and track down their errant friend and star. A tour of London’s watering holes proved fruitless and eventually the search was abandoned for the night. On returning home Main Wilson received a phone call from a Superintendent at Scotland Yard, who happened to be attending the first recording session on a pair of comps tickets provided by the Producer. Hancock had been spotted on the last plane to Rome.
At this point George Black’s rescinded their original agreement with the BBC, on the grounds that if Hancock wasn’t well enough to appear as contracted at the Adelphi, he certainly couldn’t appear on the radio. With angry agents on one side and a clearly exhausted and unwell star on the other, the BBC decided on April 15th that the series would go ahead – but without Hancock. A temporary replacement needed to be found and quickly. In the high pressure recording environment of the 1950s, this situation was – if not common – at least not without precedent. The Goon Show occasionally had to call in last minute replacements for an indisposed performer. Valentine Dyall, Kenneth Connor, Jack Train and Dick Emery all at various times stood in for an unwell Sellers, Milligan or Secombe. Thankfully, a solution presented itself almost immediately this time.
Main Wilson made a call to Harry Secombe’s agent, Jimmy Grafton. Secombe was an old friend of Hancock – the pair toasted the birth of Secombe’s first child together on a deserted Blackpool pier in April 1949 – and he readily agreed to take over. The first show was recorded on the 17th of April; it went out on the 19th and there was no time to change much, so Secombe effectively took on Hancock’s part but under his own name. Hancock remained out of action for several weeks so Secombe continued for a further two shows before Hancock returned to the fray for the fourth recording session. He wasn’t able to resume his performances at the Adelphi just yet, but Black’s relented enough to enable him to make the recording sessions for the BBC.
Nearly sixty years later it’s difficult to judge just how well this last ditch rescue attempt might have worked. Much of this troubled second run is missing : the BBC operating their traditional approach to episode retention of a bandy legged man trying to stop a pig in a passage. Over half of the series is gone, including not only the three Secombe episodes, but also Hancock’s return the following week. It’s a shame, as these four episodes form a little isolated pocket in the more familiar Hancock’s Half Hour that we think we know. They’re a diversion, a side-turning, with little in common with the rest of the series. Or are they? How exactly did Ray Galton, Alan Simpson, Main Wilson and the other cast members deal with the enforced absence of their friend and star? Thankfully the scripts for all four episodes survive: we are able to at least get a flavour of how things might have played.
Episode 1 – “A Holiday In France” – bears little evidence of the turmoil. Although it carries a cover sheet with Secombe’s name – presumably typed after the fact – the script itself carries Tony’s name all the way through, with the exception of the very first page. Announcer Adrian Waller gravely announces:
ADRIAN We present Bill Kerr, Sidney James, Andree Melly and Kenneth Williams in… Hancock’s Half Hour… and in place of Tony Hancock, who is indisposed… meet Harry Secombe.
The following section is struck through –
ADRIAN Tonight marks the return of this notorious radio series… this spotlight on the procrastination of radio comedy stars. I personally had Easter Monday off, but our star? Oh no – a weekend in Paris. But even these good things had to come to an end…
A handwritten annotation gives Adrian a substantially different speech –
ADRIAN I personally was working on Easter Monday, but Bill Kerr? Oh, no. At the end of the last series he left Tony Hancock in England and spent a holiday in Paris with… well he says it was a great friend of his – Harry Secombe.
It’s business as usual after this, with Harry playing Hancock’s lines. Minimal adjustment is made – there just wasn’t time. Funnily enough, this might not appear to be as much of a problem as you would think. Although Secombe’s comedy persona is a lot more voluble than Hancock’s – all noise, giggles, raspberries and nervous energy – it’s easy to imagine this following scene being dropped into a Goon Show with Ned of Wales at the helm. Seagoon could quite easily deliver this with the pitch rising, getting faster and faster as we reach the end of the speech. All it needs is a Grytpype -Thynne “you silly twisted boy” in place of Bill’s capper line. Kenneth Williams does his usual sterling role playing every other cast member that the regulars couldn’t manage.
KENNETH Attention all passengers. We will be arriving in Dover Harbour in approximately half an hour. All Foreign Nationals are advised to get their passports ready. Will American Service Personnel please stand by their cars, and British Tourists please note, this is your last chance for cheap fags and booze.
TONY/HARRY Ah, Dover. (Pomp and Circumstance music under, rising to a crescendo) There she stands, rising majestically above the cold grey waters. Those great white cliffs which for centuries have welcomed home the traveller to his native shores. The castle, set high above the sea, proudly symbolising the domination with which we jealously guard our island home. Dover… whose unfaltering courage in our darkest hour shone like a beacon across the troubled continent… an inspiration to Britons the world over. If the British Empire lives for a thousand years, the name of Dover will forever ring in our ears. Dover, oh Dover, I humbly salute thee.
BILL (slight pause) Tub?
BILL That’s Calais. You’re facing the wrong way.
The rest of the script is a flashback to the misadventures of the lads in Paris. Having presumed they were booking for Southend (Harry to Bill – “that’s the last time I leave you to make the arrangements”), our heroes fetch up in the capital under the impression they’re in Blackpool – well, both cities have a great iron tower rising in the middle of them, it’s an easy mistake to make.
Bill, by the way, is beginning his evolutionary journey backwards down the ladder. While still quite sharp and not yet the amiable idiot he’d become in latter series – Billo The Performing Man is quite a long way off – he’s definitely a lot thicker and more gullible than he was in the first series as subsequent episodes will definitely show. First evidence of this appears when he comments while they’re in the middle of the English Channel – “the Thames gets a bit wide here, doesn’t it?”.
Before too long, Harry and Bill are locked up for attempting to underpay their fare – six and three instead of twenty five thousand francs. Harry’s soon living out his persecution fantasies, thinking he’s about to be executed (“please make sure the blade is hollow ground, I have tender skin”). They’re eventually released by an infinitely weary Kenneth Williams, the other prisoners having clubbed together the bail money because they couldn’t stand the noise.
Having been cleaned out by a passing Alan Simpson – Bill spends the last of their cash on dirty postcards – our heroes are reduced to busking in the street. Oddly enough, the Parisians don’t seem overly impressed by their spirited rendition of “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, and eventually, Bill and Harry fetch up at a British Travel Agent, with the intent of cashing a cheque in order to get them home.
HARRY Hmmm. Trans World Tours. Paris, Birmingham, Bolton and Oldham. On Parle Francais, Hier Spricht Mein Deutsch, English spoken, American understood.
Needless to say, the owner of the travel agency is one Sidney James – “when I’m on the run from the police, I travel at reduced rates”. A classic James fiddle follows, with Harry and Bill initially signed up the Foreign Legion, then put further in debt by trying to buy themselves out. Eventually, Sid procures some passports.
SIDNEY Just let’s jot down your descriptions. Hancock, five foot six. Weight thirteen stone, brown hair, blue eyes, flat feet. Kerr, five foot nine, eleven stone, no hair, red eyes and BIG feet. Right. as soon as I can get two drunks who look like that up a dark alleyway, you’ll be alright.
And so, the lads manage to make it back to the Dover ferry. Not, however, before they encounter… HER.
As Sidney gives them a night on the town a lovelorn Harry/Tony finds himself alone in the middle of a masked ball with nothing but a phrasebook for company.
HANCOCK Oh said Tubby, how unhappy I am. Ho Hum. Now, let’s see. Useful phrases. “Je Vais Vous Embracer”. I am going to kiss you. “Vous L’essyez et je vous donnerai un coup” – you do, and I’ll thump you one. End of love section. “At the draper’s shop”. “Qu’est ce que vous avez dans les pantalons canvas” – “What have you got in canvas trousers?” Ooo, I’m going to use that lot, aren’t I? Avez-vous… ooops!
At which point, Andree Melly treads on his foot.
In the previous series, a sort of love interest was provided by Moira Lister. Lister having headed off between series it seems that a new female co-star was required – Hattie Jacques and the immortal Grizelda Pugh still being some way off. Andree Melly arrives lumbered with a thick French accent (something which Galton and Simpson freely admit gave them headaches as the series wore on).
Romance is in the air, Andree having correctly spotted that Harry/Tony is English – “what Frenchman would wear a bowler hat on top of his beret?” Thankfully, this being a masked ball, the moment of truth can be safely deferred until midnight – the point at which lovers traditionally reveal themselves to each other. A rather sweet interlude follows with the two dancing, and Andree genuinely appearing to like Harry/Tony. The usual Hancock pomposity is almost entirely absent, confining himself to a comment about his dancing ability – “you’d better watch me feet in the Charleston. When I get going they’re in and out like flashing sabres”.
All too soon, midnight approaches.
ANDREE Ah, it’s midnight. Time to take our masks off.
HANCOCK At last.
ANDREE The most exciting part of the evening. We remove these hideous papier mache masks and see each other for the first time.
HANCOCK Go on, then.
TONY (admiration) Andree…
ANDREE I hope you’re not too disappointed with me.
TONY Andree – you’re… you’re beautiful. I… I hope you’re not too disappointed with ME.
TONY I’ve had mine off since ten o’clock.
Back on board the ferry, there are plans to throw Bill’s mucky books over the side – with any luck they’ll wash up at Great Yarmouth and they’ll be able to get them back with a tidal chart. Tony’s still lovelorn, reminiscing about their earlier visit to the Louvre. Unfortunately, they’ve brought Bill along.
ANDREE Have you seen Rodin’s “Kiss?”
BILL No, but I’ve seen two mice bite each other. (LAUGHS) Get that. Rodins… rodents… two mice. That was a joke. (LAUGHS) An English joke. (DRIES) I’m Australian myself.
Further evidence of the lack of time available for rewrites follows, with one of Hancock’s traditional chats with a passing Alan Simpson. A regular feature of the first series, these little interludes always involve a tall story and gentle interjections from Simpson (do they?) Yes, they do. (oh, right. So then what?). In this one Simpson’s a curator, and Hancock claims to be an artist – an impressionist – “what do you think of this one? Hallo Archie, Hallo Brough, well, well well.”
Soon enough though, lovers meeting ends in forced farewells. It’s time for Harry/Tony to leave, but not before a final passionate clinch with Andree.
TONY Goodbye Andree, I must go. It’s getting dark, my train leaves soon. One last kiss before I go. Oh, Andree (KISS) Oooh, you’re cold, my darling. It won’t be for long. (KISS) I’ll be back. Put your arms around me, Andree. Andree, please put your arms around me. Andree…
ANDREE Tony, I’m over here. That’s the Venus De Milo.
Back at Dover, our heroes have arrived at Customs. Tony/Harry’s trunk is suspiciously heavy. There’s a reason for that – Andree’s inside, having decided to come back to England with our lovestruck hero. Kenneth Williams is not impressed – “So, smuggling livestock into the country, eh?”, and Tony/Harry gives in, ordering a porter to take his bags. To Dartmoor, which is inevitably where he’s going to end up.
And that’s the end of the first episode of this remarkable parallel universe version of Hancock’s Half Hour. Bill’s continuing reverse evolution notwithstanding, things seem more or less as normal – Sidney’s on the fiddle, the Simpson/Hancock chat is intact. Without Moira to bluster at, the Hancock character is a bit more vulnerable, a bit more lonely than he is wont to be at this point. One assumes that Secombe played it more or less straight – an excellent comic actor, I’m sure he wouldn’t have insulted Hancock by pastiching him. He’d have found his own way. Thankfully, by the next episode the production team had a little more time to steer things, and in “The Crown Jewels”, we see a little more Harry and a bit less Hancock. How do things turn out? Tune in next time. Closing Theme, Up To End. Segue, Playout.