The Punch And Judy Man
A true contrarian, Hancock followed up the cosmopolitan Technicolor escapism of The Rebel with a much more muted and low-key character piece. Though The Punch And Judy Man may feel like a step backwards, with its monochromatic look and bittersweet comedy, it is very definitely a companion piece to The Rebel - with which it shares the same themes of individualism, social one-upmanship and a casual disregard for authority. Newly restored in high definition from the original 35mm camera negative, The Punch And Judy Man hasn't looked this good since its original cinema exhibition in 1962.
Clearly under the influence of the British New Wave, still just about in vogue when the film went into production, and physical character comedians like Chaplin and Tati, Hancock dispensed with long-time writers Galton and Simpson and wrote the script himself, along with broadcaster Philip Oakes (then Hancock's neighbour and, latterly, biographer). As neither were trained scriptwriters, the resulting tale of seaside Punch and Judy man Wally Pinner strikes a somewhat uneven balance between bittersweet comic drama and the more conventional type of droll character comedy for which Hancock had become famous. Without Galton and Simpson's influence Hancock has free reign to pursue his quest of realism, a quality that he felt - not without some justification - to have been lacking in some of his earlier work.
Shot in scintillating black and white by BAFTA award-winning cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who would go on to be Director of Photography on a little thing called Star Wars), The Punch And Judy Man is a much riskier proposition than The Rebel - which was on rather safe ground and riffed its plot on the much-lauded Poetry Society episode of Hancock's radio show. Its mixture of low-key, character-driven humour, meandering plotline and occasional slapstick create a comedy that's altogether more challenging and somewhat bleaker than anything Hancock had done previously.
The opening scenes are very low-key indeed. Viewers with long memories may spot the conflation of radio programme schedules as Hancock dresses in his bedroom to the accompaniment of weekday staple Housewives' Choice - which is followed by a very recognisable Saturday Club. This leads into a near mute breakfast table scene, intended to convey the stasis into which Wally's marriage to Delia (Sylvia Sims) has collapsed. The first big laugh comes as he vents his frustrations by inserting a small posy of flowers into the backside of a china pig. But scenes such as this are few and far between in a movie that, like its central character, drifts along for the most part in an amiable, if unfocused, fashion.
The film's most celebrated and best remembered scene is also its longest: finding himself in an ice cream parlour in the company of an amiable urchin, Wally orders exactly the same ice cream confection as the lad, and proceeds to follow his every move as he attacks the gargantuan confection (Hancock is reputed to have cleansed his palate with vodka between takes). The blossoming relationship between the two characters looks as if it's going somewhere, but is not pursued beyond this sequence. Instead, the almost plotless script gravitates towards a climactic gala ball celebrating the 60th anniversary of Piltdown-on-Sea, which rapidly becomes a bunfight in the most literal sense.
The supreme irony of The Punch And Judy Man is that its downbeat, provincial mood was exactly what Hancock had been seeking to avoid when he severed his relationship with Galton and Simpson - their proposed script, The Day Off, would have seen his character taking a literal busman's holiday, through a succession of scenes that reads like an early draft of Billy Liar.
The Punch And Judy Man signalled the end of Hancock's ambitions as a film star. Its poor performance meant there would be no further offers of starring vehicles, and his subsequent appearances on celluloid were limited to a couple of cameos in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines and The Wrong Box. 1968 saw him decamp to Australia to recreate the character he'd spent the last eight years trying to run away from, before he finally took the advice of Nanette Newman's character in The Rebel.
First released: Monday 30th September 2019
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