Hancock's Half Hour on the stage at 70

Hancock's Half Hour. Image shows from L to R: Sidney Balmoral James (Sid James), Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (Tony Hancock). Copyright: BBC

Comedy fan, performer and producer John Hewer, founder of Hambledon Productions, discusses his love of Hancock's Half Hour, ahead of taking a stage production of three missing television episodes on the road.

Few classic comedy fans would dispute the enormous impact of Tony Hancock's Hancock's Half Hour, which reinvented the British sitcom and continues to entertain audiences decades later. Originally a radio series, its popularity led to the format being transferred to the relatively new medium of television. This in itself was something of a gamble; while a series and its creatives switching back and forth is now commonplace, at the time it was still revolutionary - only Life With The Lyons had accomplished such a feat previously, aided by a duo of film escapades beforehand. Hancock's new TV series, first broadcast in 1956, became so popular that 63 television episodes were broadcast in total. Yet its legacy, and its constant rediscovery, is a wild tale of its own: a total of 48 radio and television episodes have vanished from the BBC's archives, although that number would be greater but for some recent finds. To celebrate its 70th anniversary, Hambledon Productions is bringing back three of the lost television episodes to new audiences.

Hancock's Half Hour. Image shows from L to R: Alan Simpson, Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (Tony Hancock), Ray Galton. Copyright: BBC
Hancock's Half Hour. Image shows from L to R: Alan Simpson, Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock (Tony Hancock), Ray Galton. Copyright: BBC

The enduring appeal of the original series is obvious: the cast, stacked with familiar names Sidney James, Hattie Jacques, and Kenneth Williams (on the cusp of securing international fame through the Carry On series), represents the cream of post-war British comedy. But it's Tony Hancock's unique vocal comic delivery that makes the episodes so enduring. The series is the perfect marriage between a performer and his writers. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson captured not only a comical snapshot of post-war Britain, but also managed to pick up on Hancock's performance idiosyncrasies and run with them, creating a series that transcends both performers and writers.

With increasing buzz around both Hancock's own centenary (12th May) and the 70th anniversary of Hancock's Half Hour (2nd November), it feels unimaginable that recent episode recoveries are a historical fluke. The scripts, too, only survive because they were stored in rows upon rows of filing cabinets in Ray Galton's cellar, meticulously filed away. For the avid comedy historian and the passing Hancock fan, that basement room proved to be a literal Aladdin's cave.

Re-staging this series was an obvious fit for Hambledon Productions, who have staged lost Steptoe And Son sketches and John Antrobus and Spike Milligan's wrongfully neglected gem The Bed Sitting Room, in part thanks to our deep love and respect for the original material. But it also came from a personal connection to the comedy, which I read years before working on Steptoe or Spike.

I first discovered the scripts in 2010, when Galton & Simpson published The Lost Hancock Scripts, which included five radio scripts and five TV scripts. I read them on my London commute and was glared at by the entire Tube carriage when I couldn't stop laughing. A terrible faux pas, but a revealing one: clearly, the scripts stood the test of time and deserved to be rediscovered. A pipe dream, at that point, until I met Ray and Alan at a book signing in 2012 at the BFI Southbank and struck up a working relationship with them through their agent, the equally prolific manager Tessa Le Bars. I asked if Hambledon could produce the lost episodes, which hadn't ever been staged. We mounted one radio episode and one TV episode later that same year, culminating in a week's residency at the White Bear Theatre in London.

Cast and crew members of Hancock's Half Hour, including Sidney James, Mario Fabrizi and Tony Hancock, pictured on set. Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Since 2014, BBC Radio 4 has lovingly and successfully rerecorded all the lost radio episodes, but no one has touched the lost TV episodes, apart from a one-off exploration in a mini-series titled Lost Sitcoms, which saw the classic The New Neighbour revived and broadcast in 2016.

To coincide with the two landmark anniversaries, the opportunity to stage others was too good to pass up. First in 2012 and now in 2024, Hambledon Productions could hand-pick their favourite episodes to bring to new audiences. It follows a current, exciting trend, as recordings are still being found: in 2022, a Suffolk teacher and avid collector stumbled upon a true anomaly - the only Hancock episode to guest star the mercurial Peter Sellers, previously lost, which the BBC immediately re-broadcast. This weekend, as part of a BBC Radio 4 Extra night dedicated to Hancock, another 'missing believed wiped' episode is to receive its first transmission since the 50s - A Visit To Swansea, guest starring Harry Secombe. However, missing episodes of the television series, at least for now, seem to remain lost to time.

Casting tribute shows is never easy. There will always be parts of the new performer that are integral to them, as well as their inherent comic timing, which it would be unwise to try to mask. You lose some of the life of a show if you only try to imitate. But we've been immensely lucky to work with Colin Elmer, who has a long history of playing Kenneth Williams, and who brings a charm and wit to his performance that always connects with audiences. I was particularly nervous about casting Sid James, whose unique South African-Cockney accent is nearly unplaceable, so it was a stroke of luck to find Luke Adamson, whose decades-long love for the actor allowed him to inhabit his vocal quirks, first in our original 2012 production and again in 2024.

The cast of Hancock's Half Hour: The Lost TV Episodes 2024 stage tour. Image shows left to right: Colin Elmer, Iona Crampton, John Hewer, Hattie Chapman, Luke Adamson
The cast of Hancock's Half Hour: The Lost TV Episodes 2024 stage tour. Image shows left to right: Colin Elmer, Iona Crampton, John Hewer, Hattie Chapman, Luke Adamson

Choosing the episodes to recreate from such a rich archive was its own challenge, too. We wanted to pull out the quirks, the unexpected gags, and the visual humour that made the television episodes so unique, but also to remind our audience how much the series influenced the sitcoms that have followed it. Not an easy job, but I think we've struck the right balance with the three we've chosen: an episode from Series 1, in which Hancock must marry to secure a vast fortune; another in which Sid persuades Hancock that he's an amnesiac Russian prince; and a final Series 2 episode in which Sid and Tony auction off a stuffed eagle before discovering that it was filled with bank notes.

Like all tribute acts, we hope that the show offers a wonderful feeling of connection: audience members and performers alike love and respect the material; the original performers are lauded and the scripts are unaltered. As a performer, I want to be meticulous: we can't bring Tony, Sid, Hattie, Kenneth and Liz back to life, but we can honour their genius with affectionate revivals. And hopefully, we can extend their legacy to the next generation too.

Hancock's Half Hour: The Lost TV Episodes tours the UK from Tuesday 17th September to Friday 29th November 2024.

The Lost Hancock Scripts

By Ray Galton, Alan Simpson and Galton & Simpson

Over 100 episodes of Hancock's Half Hour were produced and broadcast, first on BBC radio from 1954 and then on TV from 1956. Receiving critical acclaim at the time, and making a star of the cantankerous Tony Hancock and roguish Sid James, Hancock's Half Hour made history as the grumpy grandfather of British sitcom.
Galton and Simpson, who also wrote the internationally successful Steptoe And Son, became writing legends. Thanks to them, we are able to enjoy these lost scripts from the early series. Stories range from observational comedy to the surreal and include Father Christmas being put on trial (part of a Christmas special), and Tony and Sid entering the 'Mr East Cheam' beauty competition.

Not only are the scripts transcribed in their entirety, but we also show where some amendments were made, and the text is peppered with photos of the cast and background information. A great gift for Hancock fans young and old, as well as followers of comedy classics.

Includes 10 complete 'lost' scripts from both the TV and radio series.

First published: Monday 25th October 2010

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