As I bounded into my parents’ south Canterbury home on Monday evening, my dad called out to me: “They’re playing Tony Hancock on the radio!”
As a kid I’d grown up in this house watching and listening to the various episodes of Hancock and Hancock’s Half Hour.
My dad, who taught literature at the University of Kent for nigh on four decades, had introduced me to Hancock in the late 80s through an LP he had which consisted of the Radio Ham episode on one side and the Blood Donor on the other.
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Monday’s night rerun on Radio 4 Extra was from the radio shows which ran from 1954 to 1961 when Hancock’s entourage included Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and Hattie Jacques.
The plot centres on the male players becoming active in a political organisation determined to abolish women’s rights – especially the right to vote.
Inevitably, it consists of a series of mishaps and ends with Hancock’s mother showing up and dragging her son away as she asserts her primacy over him.
The closing music was followed the Radio 4 Extra continuity announcer making this statement: “Hancock’s Half Hour, there. Very much a comedy of its time.”
Of course it is, I thought. It’s not comedy from the 1890s nor the 1990s.
But then it struck me what the announcer actually meant: “Just in case you’re in any doubt: people were different in the 195os, had different mindsets and made comedy in a different way. The modern BBC recognises this.”
His words were a reference to the plot outlined above. No one in their right modern mind would conceive of such a plot today.
The BBC would not commission such a work. Indeed, any writer who produced one would find himself ostracized from the creative bubble and facing accusations about his motives.
A politically correct zealot from the local constabulary would no doubt begin the task of investigating this as a hate crime.
The scriptwriter would be accused of misogyny and sexism. His work would be regarded as essentially propagandistic rather than comedic, that he was appropriating humour to camouflage his malevolent message that we should wind the clock back to a time when women did not enjoy equal rights.
And yet if you listen to this episode of Hancock you’ll understand that the doleful wally Hancock and his brotherhood are the real losers. They are depicted as relics left behind in a world they cannot comprehend much less want to live in.
Throughout the episode, their belief in the superiority of men is undermined by their own insecurities. The final ignominy comes when Hancock’s mother arrives to assert her unequivocal mastery over him.
Hancock’s writers were quite clearly sticking it to the postwar British society which contained these lugubrious throwbacks which still insisted upon the superiority of men.
Today’s BBC is unable to grasp this plain truth.
That prompted the qualification we heard at the end of the show. More to point, it demonstrates the metropolitan upper-middle class neuroses that infects so much of the BBC’s output.
Worse still, it shows how the state broadcaster can no longer understand that the merit of comedy is how much it entertains and makes us laugh. Instead, it regards it as a vehicle of social engineering, or of raising cultural or political awareness or as a weapon with which it can beat into us its prejudices and pieties.
And there’s nothing funny about that.