Tony Hancock – the comic genius who could not be saved from his demons

Fifty years ago this week one of Britain’s greatest comedians, Tony Hancock, committed suicide. Lonely and depressed, he ended his life with an overdose of drink and drugs in a rented flat in the suburbs of Sydney, Australia. He was just 44-years-old.  It was a tragic and lonely end, thousands of miles from home, for a man who just a handful of years earlier had been a huge TV and radio star, a household name loved by millions.

 During the 1950s and early 1960s Tony Hancock’s extraordinary comic-timing paired with brilliant scripts by  Ray Galton and Alan Simpson made him the BBC’s most popular entertainer. The inspired sit-com Hancock’s Half Hour ran for 100 episodes on radio and 76 on TV before spawning a one-man spin-off called simply Hancock. 

Based on the life and times of a pompous, misanthropic, down-at-heel suburbanite, the character of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock caught to perfection the prevailing mood of post war austerity. Everybody loved Hancock. They laughed with him and they laughed at him. Stop any dozen people in the street and the chances are they could tell you his fictional address – 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam – without a second thought.

Sadly the real-life Hancock, although desperate for success, was unable to cope with his fame. Dogged by depression and haunted by self-doubt, the more successful he became the more terrified he was of failure. 

He hit the bottle and slowly as the booze robbed him of his talent he became more and more paranoid. He dropped long-standing support-star Sid James fearing that their winning partnership was making them look like a double-act. In Hancock’s head there could be only be one star. Worse still he sacked Galton and Simpson believing that he would do better writing his own material. It was a disaster. 

Soon after reaching Australia, ostensibly to record a new series of career-reviving shows, he was beginning to face the bitter truth. Professionally and personally he was all washed up and had little hope of reversing the situation. 

During that spring and early summer of 2008 in Australia they managed to get a  handful of programmes in the can but Hancock’s new start was already looking decidedly shambolic.  He was boozing hard and TV bosses were forced to send him to a drying out clinic. They also told him that he’d be fired if took another drink. He tried to remain sober but was  frightened and in turmoil. In desperation he retreated to his rented flat and shut the door. His body was found the next day. An empty vodka bottle and a scattering of barbiturates lay at his side. There was a note that said: “Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times”. Family, friends and colleagues were shocked but not surprised by news of his death. Everyone agreed there was a sort of inevitability about it.

Spike Milligan, who for a time shared an office with Galton and Simpson, perhaps summed it up best when, years later, he said of Hancock: “Very difficult man to get on with. He used to drink excessively. You felt sorry for him. He ended up on his own. I thought, he’s got rid of everybody else, he’s going to get rid of himself and he did.” 

Yet those who knew the comedian sober said he was a thoughtful man – gentle, reflective and caring. they watched helplessly as the old Tony was gradually eclipsed by a morose boozer.   

Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham but grew up and launched his early career in Bournemouth. During the years I was arts and entertainments editor on the local daily paper I had the privilege of meeting  a number of his friends at various celebrations of his extraordinary comic legacy. It was telling perhaps that those who knew him best, even those who had seen him wretched, drunk, bewildered and angry, hung onto their memories of the funny, gentle, vulnerable Tony Hancock that they first knew.

Remembering Tony Hancock. Actress June Whitfield with Hancock’s script-writers Galton and Simpson. The late Alan Simpson is left with Ray Galton right.  Photograph Hattie Miles  (2012).

Ray Galton told me that in the early days Hancock was a joy to write for. “We never had any problems with him. He was a pussycat.” While actress June Whitfield  said: ”He was his own worst enemy.” She recalled recording a series with him and sitting waiting for a cue. Hancock seemed distracted and morose and started brooding about the point of his life and career. “He looked at me and said ‘What’s it all about eh?’ I said ‘I’ve no idea Tony but we’re on in five minutes.’ He was a lovely man but I don’t think he ever realised how much everyone thought of him.”

After dispensing with the services of Galton and Simpson, Tony Hancock’s career gradually drifted into the doldrums. He left the BBC and recorded a couple of failed series for ABC. His drinking was out of control, his marriage had collapsed and he was visibly struggling. Friends who tried to help him were ignored and TV executives, fed up with turning a blind eye to his chaotic behaviour, were fast losing patience.  Australia had been Hancock’s last chance to start again and he blew it. Top Aussie comedy writer Hugh Stuckey was drafted in to help a drunken Hancock with the scripts. He would later say he felt less like a writer and more like a minder.”

The sad truth is that it would have taken a small miracle to save Tony Hancock from his demons. The last time Sid James saw his one-time comedy partner was just months before his death. He told an interviewer he was driving down Piccadilly when he spotted  a dishevelled Hancock stumbling along the pavement.

“He looked dreadful. I tried to pull up and get over to him. I got the car parked, but by then he had disappeared. He was so full of liquor he didn’t see me. I wish to God I had been able to catch him, because little things like that can change people’s lives.”

Indeed they can but in the 1960s bi-polar conditions were neither understood nor treated in the way that they are now. Medication wasn’t as sophisticated and alcoholism was often either ignored or treated behind closed doors with a brutal withdrawal regime simply known as The Cure. Hancock, racked with fear and an almost total loss of self-confidence, wasn’t strong enough to deal with the stresses of the high-profile Tv career that in other ways he was perfectly suited to. And there’s the rub.  Tony Hancock’s comic genius was driven by the same obsessive personality traits that led to his ultimate mental collapse. Tragically he just couldn’t cope. Best that we remember his brilliance rather than his tragic decline.. 

  • In a curious twist to this sad tale Hugh Stuckey, the Australian comedy writer called in to help Hancock with his ill-fated final TV project in 1968, died last week just 10 days shy of his 90th birthday. He had enjoyed a long and successful career. 

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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