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

Comics. Photo Tim Marshall, text Michael Kilgarriff (4/5)

10 Grey Close, Hampstead Gardens, May 1992. Photo © Tim Marshall.

[10 Grey Close was where Tony Hancock lived from 1947-8. Ernie Wise – surrounded by Graham Stark, Patricia Hayes, Barry Cryer, etc. unveils a blue plaque sponsored by the Dead Comics Society.]

From Grace, Beauty and Banjos (1999) by Michael Kilgarriff:

MORECAMBE & WISE (fl1948-84)

Fools Rush In

You’re Only Young Once

Although they had worked together as early as 1940 it wasn’t until 1948 that these two gentlemen formed a permanent partnership – in March of that year at the Palace Walthamstow the young comics were billed, inaccurately, as Morecambe & Wisdom Just Two Guys.

As a double act the team was unique in that the straight man (ERNIE WISE) was the klutz while the comic (ERIC MORECAMBE) was the keener-witted of the pair. We worked with the pair when at the peak of their popularity and were interested to observe how Mr Morecambe personally directed the comedy most meticulously, with Mr Wise nodding benignly in the background.

It is surprising to discover that early in their long association their rôles were reversed, with the comic burden sustained by Mr Wise and Mr Morecambe as the feed.

[Grace, Beauty and Banjos is a magisterial summary of Variety artistes and their ‘bill matter’: the tag lines by which the acts were represented on posters etc.]