Comics. Photo & text: Harry Secombe (5/5)

 

Tony Hancock in a pub near Elstree Studios, 1966. Photo © Harry Secombe/Willinghurst Ltd.

[Tony Hancock committed suicide in Sydney, Australia on June 24th 1968.]

Tony Hancock by Harry Secombe*

Comedy is the business of a comedian and laughter is the prerogative of its audience. It follows, therefore, that whereas a comedian must deliver his comedy, the audience does not have to give up its laughter. He is then, at the beginning of his act, in a state of conflict with his audience.

Anyone who does a job of work and at the end of the day has nothing tangible to show for it, apart from his salary, has every reason to feel insecure. All the average comic is left with at the end of his career are some yellowing newspaper cuttings, perhaps an LP or two, and a couple of lines in The Stage obituary column. But if he is one of the few greats, he leaves behind a legacy of laughter when he is gone, especially – and such is human nature- if there has been an element of tragedy in his life.

Tony Hancock was one of those rare ones who are bedevilled by success. He was never completely happy in a variety theatre; the strain of doing the same performance night after night and trying to invest it with an apparent spontaneity was more than he could bear. That was why he took to television so well; it removed him from the treadmill of the music hall and the twice nightly revue and gave him new situations in which to work his magic.

Of the rampaging, drunken, self-destroying Hancock depicted in so many stories, I knew very little. I have drunk with him and been drunk with him in the days when we were both young and inexperienced comics fresh from the services, but it was all good-natured tippling then. I met him many times later and at one time stood in for him on his radio show. But I will always think of him as he was, pristine and shining with ambition at the threshold of his career. What happened to him subsequently is for others to chronicle and argue about. I found him gentle and self-mocking then. The demands of his profession shaped him, destroyed him and eventually killed him, but he served it well. If anyone paid dearly for his laughs it was the lad himself. May he lie sweetly at rest.

* First published as the preface to Roger Wilmut’s Tony Hancock ‘Artiste’, Methuen, 1978.

© Secombe Estate 2011