Anthony John Hancock was born on 12 May 1924 in Hall Green, Birmingham. When he was three years old, the family moved down to Bournemouth, where his parents ended up running a hotel. Tony was the middle of three sons, having an elder brother, Colin, who was sadly to die in the Second World War; and a younger brother, Roger.
Tony never excelled academically at school, but he was a good sportsman, in particular doing well at cricket and boxing. He left school at fifteen, and went on to learn typing and shorthand at technical college. From here, he drifted in and out of a variety of jobs, but it became apparent that he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps and move into the field of entertainment. Tony's father Jack had died when Tony was just eleven years old, but he had been a semi-professional entertainer, and Tony's mother Lily keenly encouraged her son's ambitions - even though, as Tony was later to admit, he did not show any particular talent at this time.
Lily introduced Tony to George Fairweather, a friend of the family who
was in show business. It was George who gave Tony his first advice and endeavoured
to get him started in the business. One of Hancock's earliest performances
was to audience primarily consisting of Sunday school teachers. Hancock
was a great admirer of a rather risque comedian of the day, Max Miller,
and at seventeen, calling himself "The Confidential Comic", Tony
tried to perform a Max Miller type routine to this audience. The reception
he received was decidedly frosty! George Fairweather had advised Tony against
doing the routine; and following this experience, Tony vowed never to tell
a dirty joke again on stage.
After the War, Hancock initially found it difficult to establish himself in show business. His first real break came in 1948, when he was given a six-week spell as a comedian at the infamous 'Windmill theatre' in London, where comedians were hired every six weeks to entertain the audience between the nude revues. It was invaluable experience for him. Eventually his stage work came to the notice of the BBC, and on 9 January 1949, he was given a spot on the show 'Variety Bandbox'.
Tony came to national prominence in 1951 when he took over the role of Archie Andrews' tutor in the popular radio show, 'Educating Archie'. Archie was a ventriloquist dummy, operated by Peter Brough, and the popular show helped launch a number of careers, including Dick Emery, Max Bygraves, Harry Secombe and Julie Andrews. Hattie Jacques also appeared on the show.
Around this time, Tony was also involved in another comedy series, 'Happy Go Lucky'. This was rather a misnomer, as the show was neither especially 'happy' nor 'lucky', nor indeed successful. Because of this, two new young scriptwriters were brought in to help with the show. They were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and this is when the three met for the first time.
Also around 1951, in light of his popularity in 'Educating Archie', the BBC decided to give Tony a quite prominent part in a show called 'Forces All Star Bill'. When the scriptwriters for this show had to be replaced, Tony was happy for Galton and Simpson to take over. The show became so popular that the BBC finally gave their approval for Tony to have his own show, 'Hancock's Half Hour', the first episode of which was broadcast on 2 November 1954.
A very strong supporting cast consisting of Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques became established, and the radio shows became so popular that the BBC decided to transfer it to the relatively new medium of television. The first TV episode was shown on 6 July 1956, and for a period of five years, the programme ran concurrently on TV and radio.
Tony ended up doing six series of 'Hancock's Half Hour' for the BBC, and at its peak, one-third of the population were tuning in. Indeed the popularity of the shows was so great, that complaints began to pour in to the BBC from publicans and shopkeepers, who protested that when Hancock was on, their pubs and shops were empty and the streets were deserted!
The strain on Hancock of maintaining fresh performances each week, coupled with the difficulties of learning a large volume of script, began to take its toll on Tony, and round about 1960, things started to change. One event was an interview Tony gave on John Freeman's 'Face to Face' series (January 1960). Although fairly mild by today's standards, when it was broadcast, the public complained that it should not have been shown. The show included close-ups of the subject - Tony appeared nervous, and chain-smoked throughout. He was asked quite probing questions about his income, his health, his work, even how happy he was. Hancock himself was quite content for the interview to be broadcast - indeed he became close friends with the interviewer. But it has been suggested that after this, Hancock - who had always tried to analyse his success - became even more self-analytical. He seemed unable to accept his popularity without question, and despite his success and that of the shows, he was always looking to improve on his performance and develop further.
Hancock's desire to move on resulted in his gradually dispersing with all his long time colleagues, including Sid James. Sid had transferred to TV with Tony as the main supporting actor in 'Hancock's Half Hour', but Tony became increasingly concerned that they were being seen too much as a double act. He thus insisted that Sid be dropped from the last series he ended up making for the BBC, in 1961, which was known simply as 'Hancock'. This last series however, is perhaps his most successful and memorable, including as it did the episodes 'The Lift', 'The Bowmans', 'The Bedsitter', and 'The Radio Ham'. It also included what is probably his most famous show, 'The Blood Donor'. Not long before this show was made, Tony was involved in a car accident, which left him concussed and with even less time to learn the many lines he had for the show. Instead of postponing the recording though, the decision was made to use teleprompters. Although the episode was to become one of the most famous and well known, use of the prompts had an effect on Hancock's timing and performance. Use of such aides became something he nonetheless came increasingly to rely on.
Part of Tony's desire to move on and progress included a hungering he had for international film stardom. In 1960, Galton and Simpson wrote the film 'The Rebel' for him. It was well received in the UK and the Commonwealth, but had little impact on the US market, which had been a key aim. Galton and Simpson produced further film scripts for him to consider, but he was dissatisfied with what they came up with, and ended up parting company with them. He also ended up co-writing his next film. This was 'The Punch and Judy Man' (1962). The film was largely unsuccessful in the UK and ill-suited to worldwide audiences.
Parting with Galton and Simpson is seen by many as the real turning point in Hancock's career. In 1963 he recorded a series of 13 comedy shows for ATV. These were reasonably well received. He also returned to his stage career, making several tours of the UK, but, seemingly afraid to try anything new, he was heavily reliant on his old, somewhat dated material.
As Tony's worries about his performances increased, and as his career began to falter, his drinking dramatically increased. It became somewhat of a vicious circle. His private life was also in disarray. He left his first wife Cicely in 1965 after 15 years of marriage, and married his agent Freddie Ross that same year, only to then embark on an affair with Joan le Mesurier, wife of his best friend, John. Career-wise, he had two more ITV series, 'The Blackpool Show' (1966) and 'Hancock's' (1967). Both of these received poor reviews.
Tony then went on to accept a three week engagement in Melbourne, Australia. This was successful enough for him to be invited back in 1968 to make a series of six TV shows. Unfortunately, Tony's alcoholism had reached an advanced stage, and although he tried to dry out, much of his old magic had gone. His timing was poor, the scripts were not great, and the supporting cast relatively weak. Only three shows ended up being made. On 25 June 1968 Tony was found dead, having taken barbiturates with vodka. A line in one of his suicide notes read 'Things seemed to go too wrong too many times.'
Tony's legacy continues to live on however, and he remains to this day one of the most popular and well-loved comedy actors this country has ever produced.