Tony Hancock

By: Greg Rowland
May 12, 2011

We don’t do Manifest Destiny here in England. Our linear narrative died with Queen Victoria. Instead we have characters, and the greatest of these is the Petit Bourgeois Monster: a narcissistic Nowhere Man, his key trait is inappropriate over-extension, a desperate act of compensation to fill the grey inner void. France had Existentialism; we had TONY HANCOCK (1924-68). This legendary comic actor perfectly encapsulated pre-Beatles Britain’s banality, bemusement, boredom and bitterness. On his 1956-61 TV show, Hancock — a comedy performer riddled with anxieties, cursed to failure in every attempt to invent himself or find agency — played a version of himself. He endlessly vacillated between ridiculous pretension and bathetic ignorance, often within the space of a single sentence. Hancock’s perfect timing and endless reserves of lugubrious outrage created a pinnacle of postwar culture. (Half of the country tuned in every Thursday. Forget Facebook: this was real Social Media.) Sadly, Hancock was a more intense and tragic narcissist than the character he performed on TV. Thus a brilliant supporting cast gradually disappeared, as did his writers, the unsurpassable Galton and Simpson; Hancock was a genius, but never in isolation. In 1968, he made a final gesture that was undoubtedly authentic and self-authored, but the opposite of funny.


HUMORISTS at HILOBROW: Michael O’Donoghue | Jemaine Clement | Andy Kaufman | Danny Kaye | George Ade | Jimmy Durante | Jack Benny | Aziz Ansari | Don Rickles | Godfrey Cambridge | Eric Idle | David Cross | Stewart Lee | Samuel Beckett | Jerry Lewis | Joanna Lumley | Jerome K. Jerome | Phil Silvers | Edward Lear | Tony Hancock | George Carlin | Stephen Colbert | Tina Fey | Keith Allen | Russell Brand | Michael Cera | Stan Laurel | Ricky Gervais | Gilda Radner | Larry David | Chris Pontius | Dave Chappelle | Jimmy Finlayson | Paul Reubens | Peter Sellers | Buster Keaton | Flann O’Brien | Lenny Bruce | Sacha Baron Cohen | Steve Coogan | PG Wodehouse | A.J. Liebling | Curly Howard | Fran Lebowitz | Charlie Kaufman | Stephen Merchant | Richard Pryor | James Thurber | Bill Hicks | ALSO: Comedy and the Death of God

On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Joseph Beuys, Ian Dury, Edward Lear, Katharine Hepburn, and George Carlin.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New Gods (1914-23) and the Postmodernist (1924-33) generations.