Tony Hancock on the Big Screen – The Rebel and The Punch and Judy Man

September 30, 2019

There are two early scenes in The Rebel that make the viewer realise they are viewing one of the finest comedies of its generation. The first is of Tony Hancock confronted by the Mrs. Crevatte of Irene Handl, a landlady who manifestly fails to appreciate his statue of Aphrodite at the Waterhole. ‘That is women as I see them!’ – ‘Oh – you poor man’. The second is an attempt to obtain coffee sans froth, despite the wrath of Liz Fraser and Mario Fabrizi – ‘I want to drink it, not wash me clothes in it!’.

In 1963 Tony Hancock informed Time and Tide magazine that he had ‘always wanted to be in films’ and his cinematic debut occurred nine years earlier with Orders Are Orders, a military comedy which he would later describe as ‘confused and muddled’. Amid the sort of farce populated by characters permanently on the verge of saying ‘gosh!’, the only redeeming moments were from Peter Sellers and Hancock’s bandmaster Lieutenant Cartroad – ‘a delightful droll’, according to the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Hancock would not make another cinema feature for six years, turning down a support role in The Big Money (1956) and the lead in Jumping for Joy (1956), which was eventually played by Frankie Howerd. But on the 4th February 1960, The Daily Mirror excitedly reported that Hancock was to sign a contract with the Associated British Picture Corporation ‘to make a film a year for the next three years’. ABPC commissioned several vehicles for comics and comedians in the early 1960s, including the very agreeable Dave King caper Go to Blazes (1962), as well as Sands of the Desert (1960) starring the frankly terrifying Charlie Drake; he always looked on the verge of biting the ankles of his supporting cast.

The Rebel, helmed by Robert Day, was to be the most ambitious of these productions, with location work in Paris, a guest-starring role for George Sanders and a truly masterful screenplay from Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. As John Fisher noted in his indispensable Tony Hancock: The Definitive Biography, the script-writers understood the comic’s character ‘as well as – if not better than – their own’.  Their story had the visionary behind the sub-Henry Moore effort (with a head carved from ‘foundation stone from the Dog and Duck’) finding London over-populated by unsympathetic office managers and other philistines. Only a change of location will allow his true genius to flourish, and with the acquisition of a few pseudo-profound phrases and a fresh wardrobe, he might even forge a new artistic movement. Hancock’s self-assurance is certainly enough to amaze the Left Bank beatnik community (including a very young Oliver Reed) who marvel at his pearls of wisdom, including the immortal ‘your colour’s in the wrong shape’.

The Rebel went on release on the 2nd March 1961, and Alan Dent of The Illustrated London News thought it likely to be ‘only the first of a long series of new British comedies with our happy hero in harness’. Elspeth Grant from The Tatler lauded how the picture captured the familiar ‘mulishness, the misanthropy, the bland assurance in moments of social success’. One of the most perceptive critiques was from Penelope Gilliatt in The Observer. This was not a comedy about a ‘shy genius being trod under’, but one where the protagonist is an appalling painter with a wonderful ‘lugubrious terseness’. A Sellers “little man” film character of this period so often gazed apprehensively at the wider world, but anyone who disagreed with the founder of the “Shapeist School” of art was clearly ‘raving mad!’.

‘Clearly one thing Hancock does not want is to be tied down, particularly to any restrictive conception of his own comic character’. 

At the beginning of 1962, APBC proclaimed that they were establishing a four-film contract with Hancock’s own “MacConkey Productions”, the first of which was to be The Punch and Judy Man. The comic’s Bournemouth childhood inspired the storyline, and he wrote in the August 1962 edition of Films and Filming how ‘being brought up in a seaside town you’ll find these underground entertainers who are absolutely honest’. The screenplay was by Hancock in collaboration with Philip Oakes, for he had now parted company with Galton and Simpson and the BBC. Penelope Houston observed in Sight and Sound how ‘clearly one thing Hancock does not want is to be tied down, particularly to any restrictive conception of his own comic character’.

The new film was to be directed by Jeremy Summers, and its look was far removed from the vibrant colour of The Rebel, with Gilbert Taylor’s black & white cinematography capturing a bleak and often rainswept vision of “Piltdown”. Much of the picture was shot on location in Bognor Regis, and Oakes wrote of ‘the night Hancock was pressurised into judging a beauty competition at the Rex ballroom and we were escorted by an assortment of the town’s top brass’. “I suppose”, said John Le Mesurier, studying a man wearing a chain around his neck, “that you’re some sort of mayor”.

The plot concerned Wally Pinner’s attempts to entertain the holidaymakers, much to the disapproval of the mayor (Ronald Fraser, an actor who never looked young), who regards such shows as tatty anachronisms. Meanwhile, his wife Delia keeps a gift shop that purveys souvenirs and other trinkets to glum-looking day-trippers. The Punch and Judy Man was the first time Tony Hancock had portrayed a married man and the casting of Sylvia Syms as his spouse was the key element in the Pinners being one of the most believable couples in any 1960s British comedy. Hancock wanted the picture to be one with ‘people who are acceptable and real’, and this was truly achieved in the scene of Wally and Delia enduring a frost-covered breakfast of rattled crockery and unaired grievances.

Yet, as the story progresses, it is evident that she feels trapped behind the counter of her “Gift Shoppe”, while her husband can at least find a form of escape, drifting with his friends from arcades to pubs. In one of the narrative’s most touching scenes, Wally’s confidant, the Sandman (a rarely better Le Mesurier), gently advises the puppeteer of his responsibilities as a husband. Delia’s almost desperate anticipation of a visit from socialite heroine Lady Caterham (Barbara Murray at her most acerbic) to turn on the town’s gala lights, is an honest and insightful glimpse into a lonely existence.

The filming process was a troubled one, and ABPC did not think the result worthy of a West End premiere when it went on release on the 8th April 1963. However, some critics did respect the aspirations of The Punch and Judy Man and Richard Roud of The Guardian believed that the film should have ‘been allowed to go on rambling gently in the way it starts’ to realise its potential as ‘a really unusual and distinguished little comedy’. Indeed, one of the most treasurable moments in the picture sees Wally drifting along the seafront in the company of the Sandman and Neville The Photographer (Fabrizi), while the another follows his visit to Piltdown’s finest ice cream parlour.

Hancock’s work for BBC television was often at its most sublime when he encountered Macmillan-era innovations, from coin-operated laundrettes to automat cafes that insisted on serving him mince and beans. With The Punch and Judy Man, Wally, accompanied by his most loyal audience member Peter (Syms’s nephew Nicholas Webb), is challenged by Eddie Byrne’s host of “The Igloo” to consume an entire “Piltdown Glory”. In an almost silent eight-minute sequence, we see Hancock react with mystification, horror, suspicion and resolution to every stage of the sundae’s construction from the ‘two scoops of luscious vanilla’ ‘to the topping of ‘super-smooth butter-fat cream’.

It is a cinematic moment to rank alongside the best of Jacques Tati, as Wally’s habitual sense of weariness gives way to an almost childlike joy in defying petty authority. Without detracting from Byrne’s wonderfully sardonic glee – just listen to the way he rasps out ‘Rainbow Treat or Hopscotch Dainty?’ – the scene could only have been improved had Sidney James portrayed the ice cream man. But while some of the BBC “repertory company” (Le Mesurier, Fabrizi, Hugh Lloyd) appeared in both Associated-British productions, there was no place in Hancock’s vision for the other half of Britain’s finest unofficial double act.

Alas, there were to be no further films as part of the ABPC agreement and, asides from guest roles in Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Wrong Box, Tony Hancock was to make no further cinematic appearances. If The Rebel captures the artist as suburban Don Quixote, The Punch and Judy Man is a reminder of the great character actor, whose talents might have one day encompassed Malvolio or George Smiley. And both works illustrate the figure described by a 1960 profile in The Observer:

‘The crown reflects the age; all Hancock has to do is turn the mirror on himself and translate the image into audience material. To do this and be an artist, involves the mechanical skills of speech, expression and timing; it embraces human absurdity and dogged human dignity; it takes a nice chap like Hancock.’

With no froth.

Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA

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