||The life and career of Tony Hancock will always have to take into account the way it ended, committing suicide at age forty-four as his status was slipping away just when he wanted to translate his British success at home to an international audience. Could he have been another Charlie Chaplin in the nineteen-sixties? Probably not, since Chaplin's inspiration was to tap into a universality that appealed hugely to the world, but Hancock's entertainment relied on a miserabilist sense of humour that was very much part of the British way of looking at things. And because his persona was depressed, we see that in how he finished.
Yet he would have pointed out he was playing a character in his most famous role as Anthony Aloysius Hancock in his classic radio and television series of the fifties, which made him a superstar, one of the first in British television to be appointment viewing for the nation. Privately he was troubled, of course, and relied on alcohol too much, but his ambition was enough to sustain him - until that ran out. Kenneth Williams, a co-star, famously observed Hancock shut out all his friends and colleagues until he only had himself to shut out as he plummeted into self-destruction, though Sid James would dispute this; however, James was shut out too.
The decline in his fortunes came when Hancock tried to reach that worldwide audience, and he did so with cinema, starting with his starring role in 1961's The Rebel, essentially an opening out of his sitcom which was coming to an end on the BBC. Conceived with his regular writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to win over both his domestic audience and those abroad, it saw The Lad Himself with aspirations towards great art, and once again you can wonder where Hancock got the idea for that plot point. Otherwise, as with many a British sitcom movie to come, it saw him go on holiday, this time to Paris where he seeks acclaim from the art world there.
With all this moroseness dragging down the Hancock legend, albeit unavoidably, it's cheering to learn that despite its laboured satire, there were a good many laughs in The Rebel, which quickly became a cult movie among artists, especially British ones. The point is that his character has the heart of a creative titan, but the talent of a five-year-old, and his paintings he has put so much faith in are terrible to the point of absurdity, so terrible that the art critics and fellow artists alike cannot tell through the usual Hancock bluster that he has no idea what he is doing. This would be inverted snobbery you could take or leave, but for a surprising depth.
Paul Massie played the painter Hancock moves in with to share the rent on their studio and is genuinely talented but ignored when his flatmate fools the rest of his circle and their wider establishment. Back in his office job, our hero practically suffered a breakdown because he could not express himself in that stifling atmosphere (it's like something out of Orson Welles' version of Franz Kafka's The Trial the following year), but given the chance to create, he is happy, or as close to that emotion as he can allow. Yet a twist where he accidentally is given credit for Massie's far better work by dealer George Sanders puts him in a difficult position.
It's significant that through it all, Hancock has absolute faith his artwork is entirely valid, and not "atrocities" (!) as Sanders terms them, since as the old saying goes, the easiest way to destroy a man is to convince him his work means nothing. His vanity is part of the comedy, but it is also why his big screen star vehicles are curiously melancholy, no matter the comedian's skill with his prosaic to the point of ridiculous dialogue. You can enjoy his interplay with landlady Irene Handl, the most typical of the television and radio style, but there's something here the film wants to say about the creative urge that's weirdly profound, as profound as the real man's dejection.
Hancock, however, was not so keen on having his signature character thought of as a tragic clown - he mainly wanted him to be funny, and perhaps this is what decided him to split from Galton and Simpson after one final run of BBC shows, which included The Blood Donor, one of his classics on radio and television. But an interview with John Freeman on the highbrow Face to Face series, where celebrities and important people were quizzed in unforgiving style to get to the heart of their personalities - or their neuroses - had in 1960 made public perception of the comedian wonder if he was actually more sad than funny, an object of pity.
He cannot have liked that, though his personal problems continued to mount up, including heavy drinking and the break-up of his marriage, which were occurring around the time of his second, and as it turned out, last star vehicle on film, The Punch and Judy Man. Without most of his old cohorts (though Hugh Lloyd had a fairly big role and Hattie Jacques was given a cameo as a fortune teller), he had teamed up with his neighbour Philip Oakes to write a script himself, so imagine how much it must have stung when the critics were not kind, and his audience stayed away, signalling his decline in fortunes was well underway.
The Punch and Judy Man may not have any references to suicide, which is more than you can say for The Rebel and its selection of wince-inducing lines, but it did speak of a disillusionment, with showbusiness and with Hancock's native Britain. The seaside town the action takes place in was the fictional Piltdown, a telling name drawn from a famous "missing link" hoax of decades before, indicating the "All that glisters is not gold" attitude you could discern throughout. For the protagonist, a cynical worldview is not one that should be taken lightly, it's something you must work at and hone to get just right so you won't be fooled.
Sylvia Syms played the wife of this, well, rebel, a social climber who does not understand like he does what a sham the dignitaries are in this town, or indeed this country, and agrees to have him stage his Punch and Judy act at the illuminations celebrations the mayor (Ronald Fraser) is holding with a special guest (Barbara Murray as Lady Jane). Hancock is horrified, but complies to keep his wife happy, melting a little at her fragile hopes to better herself and her little shop, and this leads to the film's main setpiece where those celebrations go absolutely swimmingly. Well, not really, but you could guess as much, couldn't you?
The Punch and Judy Man, like The Rebel, became a cult movie after Hancock's death, though in truth it is the lesser film and the laughs are thinner on the ground. For long stretches it comes across as more of a drama, or at least a dramedy, as the character interplay and pricking of pomposity takes precedent, as if Hancock was determined not to have the wool pulled over his eyes by the world that sold him an idea of happiness - love, success, fame - that did not ring true for him once it was his. Certain sequences are patently created as showstopping comedy setpieces, yet have a studied quality that suggests the script was overthinking things.
Take the part where the lead takes pity on his greatest critic, a small boy who has missed his bus home in the rain, so Hancock treats him to a visit to the ice cream parlour; it was evidently all planned out with military precision, but made you more hungry than amused. The Punch and Judy Man was a step down from The Rebel, which at least pretended to have Hancock find fame abroad: when it was released in the United States, it received a poor reception, which seems to have had the comic retreating to more parochial matters in his follow-up, even as he criticised them. "Things seemed to go wrong too many times" read his suicide note as his second career in Australia floundered, but for a viewer there would be curious sympathy for his characters that went beyond Hancock's actual circumstances. Maybe he understood them too well.
[The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man are released on Blu-ray by Network in fully restored editions, looking as clear and crisp as if they were filmed yesterday. Extras are the trailers, and subtitles.
Feast your eyes on clips from both:
Click here to watch The Rebel clip.
Click here to watch The Punch and Judy Man clip.
Click here to buy from the Network website.]