“I am aiming for a universal comedy that will transcend class and state barriers.”
“Cut out the slang.” That was the advice the by-then-retired Stan Laurel gave to Tony Hancock when the Birmingham-born comedian was prepping his first ever solo movie vehicle. By 1961, Tony Hancock was already a beloved and ratings-conquering star in his own country, yet global success was something the 37-year-old craved more than anything. “I am aiming for a universal comedy that will transcend class and state barriers,” he claimed, loftily.
Hancock had just one feature on his CV by this point, the crushingly forgettable Orders Are Orders (1954), where he’d been billed underneath Peter Sellers and Sid James, but The Rebel, penned by his regular scribes Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, would, he hoped, lay down a red carpet to Hollywood and establish him as a comedy star with international wings.
Sadly for Hancock, this movie about a daydreaming bank clerk who quits his job and moves to Paris to become an artist, failed to unlock any Hollywood doors. Despite taking a marker pen to Galton and Simpson’s script and striking through any culturally parochial or Brit-specific slang he could find, The Rebel, while a critical and commercial smash in Britain, stiffed overseas.
Hancock had done his utmost to extricate The Rebel from the shackles, so he saw it, of his BBC sitcom, Hancock’s Half Hour. Only months before filming, he’d split with his longtime co-star Sid James. Fearful of being seen as a double act, he’d instructed Galton and Simpson that, from hereon in, he’d be going it alone and that Sid was out. Still, Galton and Simpson fought hard for a cameo from Hancock’s erstwhile co-star in The Rebel. Various ideas were mooted – one of a winking Sid emerging from a swimming pool, another with Sid as a customs officer – only to be vetoed by Hancock.
For British audiences, The Rebel would be the first time they’d seen Tony Hancock in full, glorious technicolour. And though it was very much the same Anthony Aloysius Hancock character up there on the big screen, this was a Hancock finally freed from the poky confines of a three-walled BBC studio, with locations stretching from the streets and railways stations of Croydon to Calais and Paris. It wasn’t just Hancock the actor whose dreams were bigger than England.
So much of our impression of Tony Hancock now is through those fuzzy old BBC recordings, and those monochromic photos of him, hunched over in that Astrakhan coat. Now, however, for the first time, Network’s Blu-ray release is allowing us to feast our eyes on Tony Hancock in pristine, razor-sharp high-def. For years, every copy we saw of The Rebel on DVD and on television were scratchy, foggy, low-definition prints, but Network’s loving, meticulous restoration breathes fresh life into this now-58-year-old classic.
There’s much to devour in The Rebel, from the crisp satire on art criticism and the pseudo-intellectual posturing of the Left Bank wannabes, to some cherishable comic turns from such stellar names as Dennis Price, Irene Handl and John Le Mesurier (look out too for a brief appearance from a pre-fame Oliver Reed).
The Rebel may not have been the transatlantic calling card Tony Hancock had wished it to be, but maybe that’s the reason why Hancock fans hold it so dear. Like Derek Trotter, Alan Partridge and Harold Steptoe, Tony Hancock was possibly too quintessentially British to translate overseas. That’s the world’s loss, but it’s our gain.