Though I hope I’ve not got many, one of my comedy blind spots is the work of Tony Hancock, I can vaguely remember watching Hancock’s Half Hour when it was repeated as a child and I’ve seen the odd clip over the years, but it has been decades since I last watched anything the man has done. I was more than aware of his reputation of course, but that didn’t prepare me in the slightest for this 1961 British comedy which is an absurdly offbeat mockery of uptight English society and the art world.
Hancock plays a character called Anthony Hancock and a handy voice over at the beginning gives us an exposition dump with Hancock firstly fed up with the tiresome routine of his daily life, but also seeing himself as far, far better than everyone else. This theme carries on when he’s at his workplace where he often secretly draws poor caricatures of his colleagues, but when the office manager (John Le Mesurier) pulls him up on it the red mist descends and Hancock goes off on a rant about “I’ve got greatness in me, I can feel it” and “I’m not a machine, I’m flesh and blood” and even starts choking his boss.
Upon returning home his long suffering landlady (Irene Handl) discovers that he’s been working on a sculpture in his room, with said sculpture being a monstrously odd bit of weirdness, a freakishly ugly attempt at art that’s supposed to be “Aphrodite at the waterhole” but no one would ever have guessed that in several millions years, if not billions, and Handl mocks his other work all of which are routinely awful. Hancock’s a delusional so and so however, and when kicked out of his lodgings he decides to head off to Paris to make it as an artist.
There he meets and makes friends with the far more talented Paul Ashby (Paul Massie) who is fooled by Hancock’s art criticism even though the man’s clearly talking nonsense when he comes out with things like “Your colours are the wrong shape”, and thinks it’s incredibly helpful, with the joke being that Ashby thinks Hancock’s work is deliberately basic and infantile, and it’s not just that Hancock is only as talented as a vaguely competent six year old. But soon everyone thinks he’s great, Ashby throws a tantrum and gives up art, leaving Hancock his work and through a very vague misunderstanding soon art critic Sir Charles Brewer (George Sanders) thinks Ashby’s work is Hancock’s, and farce ensues.
Hancock’s sometimes dour, sometimes enthusiastic lead feels a bit bi-polar on occasion but this is no bad thing, though occasionally he borders on the unsympathetic as he’s such an egotistical sort and the joke is hammered home far too often that it gets tiresome. Some of the satire of arty ways hasn’t aged too well either, and a joke about how all the existentialists mirror those who worked in stuffy old England because they all wear the same uniform is a little obvious and trite a gag.
Most of the time this is a very likeable romp, but it’s one of the more predictable comedies out there and could easily have had a good twenty minutes cut from it. But Hancock does have a great way with deadpan one liners, his awful art never ceases to amuse, and there’s a decent selection of supporting actors who make this more than the one note affair it occasionally threatens to become, with its mockery of arty types and pretentious thinkers largely hitting home, with Dennis Price especially great as a Dali like individual who sleeps on bookshelves and has a cow living inside his home.
Perhaps it’s because its now almost sixty years old that some of the jokes feel a bit familiar, and none of the female cast get a great deal to do other than adore Tony, bar Irene Handl who gets some amusingly vicious lines. But otherwise this has some sharp satire and a nicely acerbic line of thought, and Hancock is a fantastic lead, with this being yet another reminder of how tragic it is that he took his own life and that he didn’t go on to create more tv series and films.