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Friday, 14 May, 1999, 08:18 GMT 09:18 UK
H-H-H-Happy Birthday Hancock
Tony Hancock's appeal lay in his talent as a comic everyman
On the 75th anniversary of Tony Hancock's birthday BBC News Online looks back at the life of the gifted comedian.

Tony Hancock was arguably the first comic everyman. The millions who tuned into his shows saw in his comedy alter-ego a man who lived in a world they knew and shared their highs and lows.

But the shades of melancholy that made Hancock a master of his trade was eventually the undoing of this comic genius.

British comedy is littered with figures who boast the common touch but Hancock shied away from slapstick or farce to find humour in the inane and the ordinary.

Despite his comic genius Hancock was deeply insecure
Even 40 years after their first transmission, his visit to the blood bank, trips on the train and even dreary Sunday afternoons still delight.

Hancock rose from the ranks of the Ralph Reader gang show, entertaining troops during the 1940s. After the war he made his name on the variety circuit, including London's Windmill theatre, before breaking into the BBC radio show Educating Archie, written by Eric Sykes.

This show gave Hancock national recognition and brought him into contact with two young scriptwriters, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were to be key figures in his career.

The three worked together on various BBC radio shows which proved so popular that Hancock finally got his own show, and on 2 November 1954, Hancock's Half Hour was first broadcast.

The phenomenal success of the radio show led to a TV version, again with Galton and Simpson, which proved so popular that the BBC received complaints from shopkeepers and publicans protesting that their shops and pubs were empty when Hancock was on.

Although Hancock's enduring popularity is partly thanks to the exemplary comedy writing of Galton and Simpson, Hancock's interpretation of these classic scripts should not be underestimated.

"Tony had the absolutely instinctive perfect timing for radio, on stage and on television, he was absolutely split-second perfect, I've never known anyone like it," said Sid James, Hancock's partner in his classic radio and TV show.

Denis Norden also recognised the genius of Hancock and his script-writing partnership. "Hancock with Galton and Simpson is a giant, one of the great comic characters in English literature," said Norden.

But Hancock hungered for wider recognition and in 1960 he decided to strike out alone, leaving the BBC and Galton and Simpson.

Hancock craved international stardom and a film career
But the next few years proved disappointing for Hancock, both professionally and in his personal life. The limited success of his film career and his new ITV series, combined with his failed marriage and increasing dependence on alcohol, all added to the woes of this deeply insecure man.

"He really was a satirist," said producer John Freeman.

"It wasn't applause he sought, he wanted the public to share the joke with him. He wasn't successful at that and thus became sadder and sadder."

Hancock's suicide in Australia in 1968 shocked his legions of devoted fans but the star had often been candid about his despondency.

"I wouldn't expect happiness, I don't," said Hancock.

"I don't think it is possible. The only happiness I could achieve is to perfect the talent I have, however small it may be ... if the time came when I found out that I had come to the end of what I could develop out of my own ability, I wouldn't want to do it anymore."

His premature death, at the age of 44, may have robbed post-war Britain of one of its favourite sons, but Hancock's self-deprecating, peculiarly British comedy is still very much alive. In a recent Radio Times poll, Hancock's Half Hour was voted the most popular radio comedy series.

As author JB Priestley once said: "He was a comedian with a touch of genius who had no enemy but himself."

BBC Worldwide celebrates 75 years of his comic genius with the BBC video release, Hancock's Half Hour - The Train Journey, and, from the BBC Radio Collection, Tony Hancock: A Celebration.

Hancock's Half Hour
Tony Hancock in his famous blood donor routine
Hancock's Half Hour
Hancock tries to boost his luck with the ladies at the Mayfair Charm School
Hancock's Half Hour
Hancock plays alongside Sid James in Hancock's Half Hour
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