One of the sadder anniversaries of 1968 is that it is 40 years since the suicide of Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best loved comedians, in June 1968 at the age of 44.
At the height of his popularity, 15 million people tuned into the radio programme Hancock’s Half Hour. It was broadcast from 1954 till 1961 and doubled up as a television show from 1956.
The 1950s were the decade when the British people were being assured, in the words of Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, that they’d “never had it so good”.
It was an era that saw the rise of the supermarket, new shopping centres and commercial television. Class and class conflict were supposed to have withered away under the impact of increased prosperity and social mobility.
Sociologists celebrated this “consumer revolution” and spoke of how the working class were now all middle class – a line echoed by New Labour some four decades later.
But the 1950s were also the years that saw the beginnings of the social and political protests that were to reach such a glorious climax in the 1960s. Playwright John Osborne captured this mood of rebellion in his 1956 play Look Back In Anger.
Tony Hancock understood that the role of humour was to unmask the social reality. Together with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, he set out to revolutionise British comedy.
They created a character – Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – who burst the bubble of complacency and revealed a British society that continued to be racked by class conflict and contradiction.
Hancock played a pompous character, puffed up with his own importance, whose social and intellectual posturings were always overturned. His humour highlighted the absurdity and irrationality of society with its rampant inequality and social striving.
The character lived with his entourage in Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, the worst area in a genteel neighbourhood – “East” because he couldn’t quite make Cheam itself and “Railway Cuttings” suggesting Victorian grime and soot.
In the radio series, Hancock is surrounded by a set of characters almost Dickensian in their eccentric detail – Sid James the lumpen conman, Hattie Jacques the overbearing secretary, Bill Kerr the innocent colonial and Kenneth Williams in many roles.
In a decade of alleged “equality of opportunity”, Hancock is the one who never made it. He is a seedy, bedraggled individual who lives in a fantasy and tries to impress the world but never succeeds in elevating himself above his fallen position.
He is the Shakespearean actor who never gets a part, the election candidate who polls one vote. He is the war hero, parachuted into the heart of Germany, who turns out to have been a deserter. He is the blood donor who asks whether you get a badge for giving blood.
Hancock believes he was born for better things than his sleazy life in dreary suburbia. He hates the rich and powerful who frustrate his search for fame and social acceptance.
He tries to join the upper class Athenaeum Club, but is refused membership on the grounds that he doesn’t fit in. However, he will be allowed to join if he can travel around the world in 80 days. He takes three months to reach Grimsby.
But Hancock is also the little man up against it, fighting a system based on arbitrary authority and bureaucratic convention. As foreman of a jury, confronted by a pompous judge, he tells the defendant in a robbery case, “Don’t worry, mate, I’ll see you get a fair trial.”
His Christmas savings accidentally fall into the coffers of the Police Benevolent Society. They refuse to return the money on the grounds of “lack of machinery”. “No machinery?” Hancock mutters, “For the money you’ve had off me, you could buy an engineering works.”
Tragically, Hancock fell victim to the very society whose values he pilloried so remorselessly. He broke from Galton and Simpson in 1961 in an attempt to extend his comedy, hoping to achieve international status.
Instead it was the trigger for a seven-year downhill slide, accompanied by an increasing dependence on alcohol. This culminated in his lonely death on 24 June 1968 in Sydney, Australia. “Things just went wrong too many times,” his suicide note read.
The 1950s were a time when noble birth was still a mark of status, even though the wealth and power of the old landed aristocracy had long passed into the hands of the corporate ruling class.
Noble birth might not mean so much today, but since the 1980s we have seen power becoming even more concentrated in the hands of the corporate elite. This has led to widening social inequality and the rise of a culture of celebrity that drives ambitious young people to aspire to emulate the “rich and famous”.
The social divisions and snobbery that Hancock relentlessly parodied are still recognisable features of our world – and his humour thus remains as relevant as ever.