Tony Hancock: Snobbery and decay...

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Tony Hancock: cafe scene from 'The Girl' (ATV 24 Jan 1963)

The Punch & Judy Man (Dir: Jeremy Summers 1962)

In this tragi-comedy of snobbery and decay filmed in the gloriously languishing confines of Bognor Regis, Tony Hancock plays seaside Punch and Judy Man Wally Pinner who lives over a souvenir shop with his social-climber wife Delia (Sylvia Syms).

For the first time in his career Hancock appears as a husband; but at the end of the summer season, his marriage - like the town - is stagnating under a welter of changeable weather, plastic macs, ice-cream parlours and whimsical 'folk' entertainers.

His friends, the Sandman (who sculpts figures in the sand), and Nevil (the street photographer) are snubbed socially by the locally worthies, further straining relations between Wally and his wife.

When the Council plans an official reception for Lady Jane Caterham (Barbara Murray), who is to switch on the illuminations, Wally is invited to present his Punch and Judy Show at a gala dinner. He is reluctant to appear, but Delia is anxious to increase her social standing, and she and the Sandman pressurise Wally into giving a performance... with the customary 'hilarious results'.

Filmed in black-and-white, The Punch and Judy Man is a gently melancholic study of life in a moribund British coastal resort; by turns darkly depressing and breezily comic.

Despite its flaws - largely caused by difficulties on the set with Hancock and the director's imperfect grasp of comic tempo - the result is a strangely affecting domestic comedy that contains several effective sequences.

In the opener, played with very little dialogue, Hancock and Syms - a childless couple kept together only by force of habit and circumstance - give a penetrating demonstration of a marriage breaking up over breakfast routines.

In another scene, Wally finds himself trapped by a lashing rainstorm in a seaside ice cream parlour cafe in the company of a small boy who has been hanging round the Punch and Judy show. Wally treats the boy to an expensive ice cream. Watching him carefully eat the desert, Hancock imitates his every move. The scene rolls on for approximately eight minutes of screen time.

In another dourly inconsequential sequence Hancock, alone and at a loose end, mills around town and ends up in a hosiery shop. He later buys a china pig and rams a bunch of flowers angrily up its rump. Collapse of stout parties...

Throughout, Hancock slides between adult and childlike personae, anarchically challenging authority via the pretend violence of the Punch & Judy show, and the mild, violence of the gala.

The bun fight finale at the reception ruins Delia's chances of being accepted socially, but after the ruckus she and Wally come to a slightly better understanding - and possibly acceptance - of each other.

The film was a joint venture between Tony Hancock's own company in collaboration with Associated British. When producer, Gordon Scott, asked for local volunteers to appear in the film nearly 2,000 people arrived at the Royal Norfolk Hotel to sign up. (Hancock resided at the Royal Norfolk Hotel during filming.)

Many areas of Bognor Regis were immortalised: the Pier, Town Hall, Spencer Street, Belmont St., and York Road, beside the Esplanade and Royal Hotel, where the film crew stayed. Early advertising brochures for the film informed the viewing public of the history of Punch and Judy and invited cinema managers to purchase, at a cost of 30/- per week, (£1.50) a three fold advertising display.

Whilst making the film, Hancock was engaged in various town activities and events, including the crowning of the Bognor Carnival Queen at the Rex Ballroom. (Sidney James, also in the film, was captured by local press playing with local children at the boating lake, off Crescent Road.)

At one point during an already fraught production, Hancock was incensed by the constant downpours that plagued filming. His co-star John Le Mesurier recalled that Hancock turned to the skies and yelled: "Go on, make it worse!"

Only a few years later, Hancock died by his own hand, aged 44. His suicide note read 'Things seemed to go too wrong too many times.'

Tony Hancock: 1924 - 1968, Saint Dunstan's Church, Cranford Park, Greater London


Tony Hancock Biography: BBC Online News (May 11 1999)

"... 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.

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.

Hancock plays alongside Sid James in Hancock's Half Hour. "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.

Hancock craved international stardom and a film career. But the next few years proved disappointing for him, 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.

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'

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



The Punch and Judy Man: Interview with Tony Hancock ('Films and Filming' 1962)

With a comedy that takes a cold, close look at the situation of marriage, Tony Hancock is starring for the first time in a film conceived by himself...

"A lot of people talk about pathos in comedy: but remember Charlie Chaplin got out of the Rolls-Royce, kicked the tramp in the stomach, picked up his cigar butt, got back in the car and drove away. Chaplin was a pretty violent and great comic.

I am amazed that he had the courage to do that scene at all. I certainly would because I like malicious, belligerent comedy.

Comedy can be more compelling in its effect on people than drama. Comedy is destructive of bad values and I think it should be. The way is to show, not to point.

If you do something that people recognise, it is a much better thing than pointing your finger out from your rather shaky greenhouse and saying 'That's wrong, that's wrong and that's wrong'.

In The Punch and Judy Man we try to show the relationship between a woman and the showman to whom she is married. Her values are a waste of time, they have nothing, she's supporting the wrong things and in the end she sees this.

He is also vulnerable: if you are going to make him perfect and her imperfect, it doesn't work, it's not life. Sometimes she attacks him, and she's right. Sometimes he's lazy and this is right: but in the end, I think he knows more about the true values of life than she does.

The Punch and Judy show itself is perhaps the most violent form of comedy, as well as one of the oldest. Put the baby in the mincer and comes out a string of sausages... I don't like the present trend in 'sick' comedy. Punch and Judy is not sick. It has a strong sort of purity.

The Punch and Judy Man is a cold, close look at the situation of marriage, which is pretty ghastly anyway, and there is no happy ending, only a faint hope. When marriage gets scratchy and when after some years you know the other's weaknesses, you also know how to go for them.

This works from both sides. The experienced destroyer of an individual because two happen to live together, that's really the theme.

One sees so many times that marriage as a relationship doesn't work. People keep up the illusion and know how hard to hit each other (in the subtlest possible way) and become expert in tearing each other apart. That's really the feel of the thing.

Being brought up in a seaside town, you find these poor, underground entertainers who are absolutely honest... Every time I go to a seaside town I find these underground people, maybe a Punch and Judy man, a dedicated man to his own trade, for what else can he do?

This is a film about people who are acceptable and real, as against The Rebel which was a fake thing, badly done in some ways from my point of view. I am not getting away from the Hancock's Half Hour kind of humour, you can't do that; instead you try to move on a bit.

In The Punch and Judy Man there are some tough scenes between Sylvia and me, which even I watched in the rushes with a certain amount of jolt. We did all of these in the first week, which was rather embarrassing because people immediately expect a comic to be funny and I wasn't.

The new film is not in colour. Colour slows down comedy. It is too peaceful... Some films have to be made in black and white; look at the wonderful quality they got out of Sweet Smell of Success... "

(Full Punch & Judy Man Interview at


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