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The Old Un's Notes - The 100th Anniversary of the birth of Tony Hancock

Features | By Harry Mount

Happy 100th, Tony Hancock – in The Wrong Box, 1966

The wonderfully lugubrious comedian with his trademark homburg and astrakhan-collared coat

Stone me!

This 12th May marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Tony Hancock (1924-68), the wonderfully lugubrious comedian with his trademark homburg and astrakhan-collared coat, and the somewhat dilapidated lodgings at 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.

After catching the acting bug in an RAF wartime entertainment unit, Hancock got his big break with his eponymous half-hour radio – and later TV – series broadcast from 1954 to 1961.

Playing a down-at-heel comedian who merged with his real personality, he was beset by a supporting cast of conmen and oddballs, including the future Carry On troupe of Sid James, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams.

It was the show’s wonderfully observed focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life that made it a work of comedic genius. In the process, it paved the way for the likes of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as every tragic British sitcom star from Rupert Rigsby to Alan Partridge.

Unfortunately, Hancock was also one of those comedians cursed with the ability to make other people laugh and himself feel miserable. He struggled with alcoholism and depression, and never quite became the major film star he aspired to be.

In an effort to kick-start his career again, he agreed to film a 13-part TV series for the Seven Network in Australia. In June 1968, he killed himself there, overdosing on sleeping pills and vodka in a small rented flat in Sydney, aged just 44.

‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times,’ he wrote in a farewell note.

These unpublished photographs (pictured) come from Hancock’s last film cameo in The Wrong Box (1966). He played a detective in this frenetic Victorian romp, released two years before his early demise.

The rare stills were given to Oldie contributor Philip Glassborow by his second wife, Freddie Hancock.

Hancock had very little to do in this movie, but audiences were always delighted to see him in just about anything.

His glory days at the BBC were long gone. His second feature film had flopped. Likewise his ITV comedy series. He’d recently been most visible in some commercials for the Egg Marketing Board.

As the late Barry Cryer said, Hancock discarded his brilliant writers, and his wonderful supporting actors, his agent – and almost everyone close to him – before, finally, tragically discarding himself.

This story was from Spring 2024 issue. Subscribe Now