Over forty years after his death, Tony Hancock is remembered for his comic talent, but like so many great comedians, his life was far from being a happy one. After his death by suicide, fellow comedian Spike Milligan said of him: “He went around closing doors on everybody and eventually closed the door on himself.” It seems ironic that a man who brought, and continues to bring, so much joy to fans found it so difficult to sustain lasting relationships with everyone, from wives to friends and colleagues.
Anthony John Hancock was born on 12 May 1924 in Birmingham, England, to parents Jack and Lilian, who later moved the family to Bournemouth. Jack Hancock was an entertainer, although he never reached the levels of fame that his son was later to achieve. Unfortunately, Jack died while Tony was still young and his family life changed dramatically. Further tragedy was to hit the family during the war when Tony’s older brother, Colin, went missing, presumed dead. Tony also played a role in the war; he joined a concert party that entertained the troops in war zones. It was during this time he met other future household names such as Peter Sellers and Graham Stark.
After the war ended, Tony struggled to achieve the success he wanted, although he did manage to work regularly. Scoring a regular role in the radio show, Educating Archie, started to bring his name into the public arena. However, it was meeting scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson that really cemented his name as a publically recognised entertainer. Together, the three worked on different shows, which eventually led to the BBC approving a new show which starred Hancock, simply known as Hancock’s Half Hour. It was Galton and Simpson who gave Hancock the nickname Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, which many people believed was his real name.
Hancock the character was a miserable, cynical man fighting against the boredom and stupidity of everyday life, but thanks to his comic timing and delivery of the excellent script by Galton and Simpson, as well as the show’s co-stars, Hancock’s Half Hour soon became an enormously popular comedy. His co-stars included such names as Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Williams and Bill Kerr. The show was initially broadcast on radio between 1954 and 1959, but it was later to be adapted for TV and ran successfully from 1956 to 1960.
Despite the success of Hancock’s Half Hour, it wasn’t to continue and his personal life was frankly a mess. Always a social drinker, he began to turn to alcohol more and more frequently, especially when he split from Galton and Simpson in 1964. Tony was convinced that he could write his own material, but these attempts were not as successful as he had hoped. He also famously split from his co-stars; in the case of Sid James, for example, it appeared that he wanted to avoid becoming a double act and it was clear that the public had begun to see them as such. Deeply hurt, Sid James went on to forge an enormously successful career on his own. At the same time, Tony’s two marriages failed. He was married to Cicely Romanis from 1950-1965, when the marriage ended in divorce, at least partly because of his problems with alcohol.
He then married his agent, Freddie Ross, in 1965, with whom he had been having an affair while still married to Cicely. By that time, however, alcohol had really got a grip of him and when Freddie tried to stop him drinking, he would lash out at her. Unfortunately, the more he drank, the more his career floundered, and without the comic timing for which he was so well-known, it became clear that his career was coming to an end. Freddie left him in 1966 after a number of suicide attempts and divorced him two years later.
By that time, Tony had moved to Australia to work on a TV show, with the hope of resurrecting his career. After a promising start, he turned to alcohol yet again and spent days on end in an alcoholic haze. Just three days after Freddie was granted a decree nisi, Tony Hancock came out of a binge and went to ask his neighbour for something. Unfortunately, his neighbour was out and Tony, apparently realising just how alone he was, returned home and took an overdose on June 25, 1968. Tony Hancock suffered for his art and it certainly didn’t make him happy. However, his legacy as one of the best British comedians of the twentieth century still lives on.