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Legends of comedy
SO the story goes, whenever Hancock’s Half Hour came on the television the pubs would empty.
It’s an indication of the esteem the life of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, as created by the genius writing team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, was held in at the time.
Hancock’s Half Hour successfully made the transition from a successful radio show between 1954 and 1959 to television in 1956 – making it arguably the first great BBC sitcom.
And throughout the eponymous star’s collaboration with the two writers, the material got better and better. The team’s final series together in 1961 is often upheld as their greatest achievement, containing not only the brilliant Archers parody The Bowmans and constricted comedy of The Lift but also their finest half-hour, The Blood Donor.
The admiration has continued long after Tony Hancock’s untimely death by his own hand in 1968 – not least for friends Mark Brailsford and Roy Smiles.
“Without knowledge of Hancock, I wouldn’t be a writer, performer or director of comedy,” says Brailsford, who is also behind Brighton’s monthly satirical revue The Treason Show. “Most people who do comedy look back at Hancock and those Galton and Simpson scripts and see them as a masterclass of how to write and perform comedy.”
Smiles was the man who introduced Brailsford to Hancock by lending him some of his tapes in the 1990s. The pair used to do a sketch about Hancock locked in limbo as part of their comedy show Radio City. This concept has been expanded in Smiles’s script, which took him 20 years to write.
“It’s set in limbo after the terrible event in 1968,” says Brailsford, who plays the funnyman. “But he is still enveloped in the officialdom that used to drive him mad in life.
“It is a celebration of his life – we didn’t want to do any ‘tears of a clown’ rubbish.”
Brailsford was approached by his old friend to play the part of Hancock in October, telling him, “You’re the same age Hancock was when he died, you ought to play him.”
The play, which is going to Edinburgh’s Gilded Balloon for the entirety of the festival, is being directed by another Brighton-based Hancock fan, Paul Hodson, who wrote and directed the Fringe First winner Meeting Joe Strummer.
While in limbo, Hancock is joined by his fellow co-stars, including Kenneth Williams, John Le Mesurier, Patricia Hayes and Sid James among others. All 11 characters are being portrayed by the trio of Mark Farrelly, Caroline Cook and Brightonian Chris Cresswell.
One of the most nerve-wracking moments for the production team was an email from Galton and Simpson once they heard about the play.
“Roy has written plays about The Goons and Monty Python,” says Brailsford, referring to Smiles’ previous hits Pythonesque, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival before moving to BBC Radio 4, and the West End-bothering Ying Tong – A Walk With The Goons.
“Their agent sent us an email asking if they could see the script. We knew we were on safe ground, as Roy never takes anyone’s material or rips them off. “We sent the script off at 10am and by 6pm we had an email back saying Galton and Simpson had enjoyed the script and wished us the best of luck for Edinburgh.
“Roy won’t thank me for saying this, but I think it made him cry – the knowledge that they know he’s alive and like his writing. It was a vindication of all those years.”
Road to Edinburgh: The Lad Himself, is on at The Nightingale, above Grand Central, Surrey Street, Brighton, on Friday, July 27, and Saturday, July 28.