Some things don’t date. This isn’t often the case with comedy – much of it is so topical that it’s only funny while its themes and characters are current, but Hancock’s Half Hour first aired in 1955, and in 2009, the skits still made me laugh outloud in my car (luckily the windows were closed). What makes for really good, classic comedy is often the insights into human nature and its frailties that underlie it. This is certainly the case with Hancock's Half Hour.
Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson created a kind of fictional version of the comedian Tony Hancock along with his talented cohorts Sid James; Hattie Jacques, Bill Kerr, and Kenneth Williams, that picks up, albeit farcically, on truths about relationships, friendships, and desire. The show later went on to become a television series as well, but it really shines in audio where listeners can hear it in its original radio form. The episodes are certainly low tech by today's standards, but the characters themselves provide enough visual cues and background noise to entice the modern listener.
This particular CD contains four of the best episodes from the series – 2 on each CD, making up two hours listening in total (easy maths, even for me). The first show, "The Last of the McHancocks" is a good opener, although most of the humour relies on some sense of Scotland and the Scottish “character” (filled with rather funny stereotypes of course so not for the sensitive Scot). In this one, Tony is left a Scottish castle by his deceased uncle McHancock, and when he goes to claim it, he ends up doing battle with Seamus McNasty in the Highland Games.
McNasty is a particularly juicy character played, with appropriate largeness (or is that largess) by James Robertson Justice. This episode is followed by the weaker "East Cheam Drama Festival," which is slightly dated, containing a spoof of John Osborne’s rarely performed Look Back in Anger. It is still funny though, as we hear bungled acting attempts at "Jack's Return Home," and "The Life of Ludwig Van Beethoven" both of which dissolve into a kind of slapstick chaos which is reasonably enjoyable even as it pushes the envelope.
The next CD includes the prescient "Visiting Day," where Hancock is visited in the hospital by his friends Syd and Bill, who end up sprinkling him with Winkles (a small edible shellfish), destroying his headphones, and causing him to damage his other leg. Although there are funny moments in this one, in light of Hancock’s own later misery and suicide, hearing his pain and discomfort amongst his friends is almost sad and poignant – though Hancock himself isn’t a particularly appealing character in this one. My favourite episode is the last one, "The Threatening Letters," where Hancock receives a number of letters from a disgruntled listener who has vowed to kill him. The mixture of humour, suspense, and downright ridiculousness is just right, and this one will leave you wanting more.
There’s something quite exciting about the live quality of this show, and it is even more powerful now when we’ve all become used to technological sophistication and smooth packaging in our listening. This CD forms part of a 3 volume series, and for those who want any kind of understanding about classic British comedy – the kind of comedy that underlies most of what we listen to or watch today — it’s a must.