Two long-lost Tony Hancock radio scripts from the 1950s receive their belated premiere in Wolverhampton this November as part of Funny Things. The Lost Hancocks take place at The Light House Media Centre on Saturday 4 November 2017.
The story behind the remarkable scripts begins in 1952 when West Bromwich-born comedy writer Larry Stephens convinced the BBC to let him create a new comedy series expressly for his friend, rising radio star Tony Hancock – then best known as a supporting player.
Entitled Vacant Lot, Stephens’ series focused on life in the dull faded fictional seaside town of Churdley Bay where the blundering, slightly pompous and barely tolerated Hancock – a local auctioneer and wannabe councillor – aspires to better his lot.
Despite featuring a supporting cast of colourful characters (and with Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Carry On’s Kenneth Connor all mooted for roles), Vacant Lot was never recorded, and the scripts lay buried in the BBC archives for over 60 years.
“As very little of his early work has survived, so much of what people know about Hancock is based almost solely on the later Hancock’s Half Hour radio and TV series,” explains show producer Dave Freak, whose Birmingham Comedy Festival company is staging the production. “But here we get an all too rare glimpse of a pre-superstar Hancock, in what would have been his first major leading role.”
An unsung comedy hero of 1950s, Larry Stephens wrote much of Hancock’s stage material as well as sketches for his ATV series, The Tony Hancock Show. Writing on his own, and with such future legends as Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes, he also penned material for Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Bernard Braden, Dickie
Valentine, Jon Pertwee, Graham Stark and Arthur Askey. A key figure in the development and success of The Goon Show, he went on to work for TV hit The Army Game before dying suddenly in 1959, aged just 35.
A giant of post-war British comedy, Tony Hancock was born in Hall Green, Birmingham, in 1924, and raised in Bournemouth. Moving from stage to radio, he appeared regularly in such popular BBC series as Workers’ Playtime, Variety Bandbox, Educating Archie and Calling All Forces, which featured material by young writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The duo would go on to pen the seminal Hancock’s Half-Hour, which crossed over to TV in 1956 and firmly established the self-important self-righteous ‘Hancock’ character. But attempts to work with other writers and change direction during the sixties largely failed, and Hancock committed suicide in Australia in 1968.
With a full cast, The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot debuts at The Light House Media Centre, Wolverhampton, on Saturday 4 November 2017. Performances are at 2pm and 7pm. A Q&A with the cast and project team, including Julie Warren, biographer (and cousin) of Larry Stephens, is at 3.30pm followed by a rare screening of Hancock’s final film, the seaside-set The Punch And Judy Man, at 4.40pm.
The Light House Media Centre, The Chubb Buildings, Fryer Street, Wolverhampton WV1 1HT. Tel: 01902 716 055, Saturday 4th November 2pm and 7pm, Tickets: £12.
A Birmingham Comedy Festival production for Funny Things.
3.30pm: Q&A: The Lost Hancocks
Find out more about The Lost Hancocks, the story behind their original creation and eventual rediscovery, as well as their belated staging, 65 years after they were conceived. With members of the cast and project team, along with Larry Stephens’ biographer (and cousin) Julie Warren, whose new book, Glarnies, Green Berets and Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens, tells the full story of the Black Country boy who helped reshape post-war British comedy.
4.40pm: The Punch and Judy Man
Cert: U, 1962, approx. 90mins
Starring Tony Hancock, Sylvia Syms, Ronald Fraser, John Le Mesurier, Hugh Lloyd. Directed by Jeremy Summers. Written by Philip Oakes and Tony Hancock.
In a snobbish seaside resort, Delia (Syms), the wife of Punch and Judy man Wally (Hancock), dreams of social acceptance. So when he’s invited perform at a celebration gala attended by Lady Jane Caterham (Barbara Murray), it looks like Delia may get her wish. But the sullen Wally refuses …
Based on an idea by Hancock, his second (and final) big-screen starring role is filled with echoes of his own life – from the south coast location (a background shared with The Lost Hancocks: Vacant Lot), to marriage difficulties. An understated and introspective comedy, ripe for reappraisal.