‘Tony Hancock ended his life in such tragic circumstances that it seems to be forgotten he was once a young man filled with a young man’s hopes and dreams and aspirations and with his whole life before him,’ says Lyn Phillips who, writing as LM Evans, has published Tony Hancock: The Bournemouth Connection. ‘I wanted to try to capture something of that by focussing on his youth and to do that story it had to be about Bournemouth, where he grew up.’
His lasting fame rests on Hancock’s Half Hour and the mordant observations of life’s little absurdities that with his hangdog expression helped make him the highest paid comic of his generation. After transferring from radio, the show defined television situation comedy and the influence of ‘The Lad Himself’ is seen in generations of sitcom stars from Harold Steptoe, Reginald Perrin and Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew, Hyacinth Bucket and David Brent. Awkward and stroppy, somehow lovably supercilious, Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock – the character created by writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – was also deeply insecure, somewhat insolent and, loath to admit defeat, admirably resilient in the face of frequent failure.
In private, the real Hancock was equally wracked by self-doubt that was only exacerbated by falling popularity and alcohol dependence. In an attempt to revive his flagging career, he went to Australia to star in a new series, but completed only three episodes and on 24 June 1968 took his own life with a cocktail of vodka and pills. He was 44.
It was a sad and lonely death, a far cry from the summer of 1940 when the 16-year-old Tony made his stage debut at the Avon Road Labour Hall (now Avon Social Club) in Bournemouth. It was 18 July, a Thursday, and the young man in the checked jacket, brown and white shoes and top hat was introduced as ‘Anthony Hancock – the man who put the blue in blue pencil’, a reference to the tool wielded by censors. His set of slightly risqué gags was received well enough for him to ignore the advice of his mentor, George Fairweather, to change the material for his second gig, at the Sacred Heart Church Hall on Richmond Hill. As the audience of church officials and old ladies gradually walked out, in the interval Tony was told not to return. He never used ‘blue’ material in his act again.
With his older brother, Colin, and parents, Jack and Lily, Tony arrived in Bournemouth in April 1927, shortly before his third birthday. His father, a talented amateur comedian who suffered from bronchial trouble, had been advised to leave his native Birmingham and so moved the family south to take over the Mayo Hygienic Laundry in Winton. Little Tony didn’t settle well and contracted rickets before starting school at Summerbee Infants. Jack meanwhile had taken over as licensee of the Railway Hotel on Holdenhurst Road, where the Asda car park stands today. Once known as the Cock and Hen, the pub was popular with visiting entertainers and Jack set about perking up his own stage career, holding court in the bar and organising or performing shows in local clubs and halls. In 1930 Tony moved to Saugeen Preparatory School in Derby Road and joined the choir at St Swithun’s Church before his younger brother, Roger, was born the following year.
Notwithstanding its favour with the showbiz set, Jack gave up the Railway Hotel and in August 1933 bought the run-down Swanmore Villa in Gervis Road to convert into a modern hotel. He chose the name Durlston Court after the prep school in Swanage where Colin was a boarder and opened to the public on 7 August 1935. Four days later, though, he died of lung cancer aged 47 and was buried in Wimborne Road Cemetery.
In January 1936 Tony followed Colin to Durlston Court School where he excelled at sport and was remembered as mischievous and good-natured. Lily married Robert Walker, the electrician who had worked on the conversion of the hotel, which had already established itself with visiting performers. During school holidays it was Tony’s job to write the menus – a task he enlivened by renaming the hotel’s stock soup of Brown Windsor variously ‘Potage Strasbourg’, ‘Potage Cherbourg’, ‘Potage Budleigh Salterton’ or ‘Potage Shepton Mallet’.
It was here that Tony was able to observe the foibles of the hotel’s clientele – as well as artistes, it was popular with a certain class of well-heeled widow and his familiarity with their ways served him well later in his career. ‘Tony saw this parade of middle class and upper middle class dowagers and their companions tottering before him, so it was bound to rub off on him, as were the actions of the showbiz types that Jack had set out to attract,’ says Lyn. ‘I’m sure Galton and Simpson saw elements of Tony that they accentuated for the show and Tony himself made the point that the character was not a coat he could put on and take off as it contained many elements of who he really was.’
Appropriately, the Hancock connection is writ large in the Durlston Court’s persuasively idiosyncratic contemporary incarnation as Hotel Celebrity, where Tony’s typewriter and other family memorabilia are displayed on the second floor.
‘Bournemouth is very much a part of the Tony Hancock story and I’ve tried to put it in some context by going into the social history and geography,’ says Lyn. ‘It was important to me that the book should also work as a guide.’
As war broke out, the 15-year-old Tony tried to join his father’s friend, George Fairweather, in Willie Cave’s Revels, a variety show that played three shows a day on Bournemouth beach. Rejected, he enrolled in an office skills course at Bournemouth Municipal College before finding work at Hector Powe’s, a tailor’s shop at the bottom of Richmond Hill, now part of the Nat West bank. He lasted four hours.
His next job was at the Board of Trade, based in the Carlton Hotel, stamping clothes rationing forms as a Temporary (unestablished) Assistant Clerk Grade Three. He left after a fortnight to become a pot-man, or as he had it, a domestic manager, at the Pembroke Hotel on Poole Hill. It was here in the basement that he honed his comedy act, performing to the crates and barrels.
Aware of Tony’s ambition, his mother sought out George Fairweather at Beales department store, where he was singing with the resident Blue Orpheans band. Invoking his friendship with Jack, she asked him to help Tony, which is how young Hancock found himself on stage at the Avon Road Labour Hall and, following the fiasco at the Sacred Heart, taking bookings to perform at army camps across the region as the Confidential Comedian.
In April 1941 Tony made his debut at the Pavilion in the cast of Garrison Theatre, a stage version of the radio show with future Dixon of Dock Green actor Jack Warner, whose mother had also been approached by Lily while at the Durlston Court. Warner duly arranged an audition for Tony with a BBC producer at Bobby’s department store in Bournemouth Square. That summer Tony joined the Black Dominoes concert party and took over George Fairweather’s role as head of the Bournemouth War Services Organisation based at the Theatre Royal in Albert Road when the older man was called up. His reign was less than glorious, though, and after the Black Dominoes found themselves stranded in the rain following a show in Dorchester because Tony had neglected to book the transport home, he was asked to resign.
Tony turned 18 in 1942 and was called up just six days after Colin, a Pilot Officer, was reported missing presumed dead. Tony volunteered for the RAF, but conjunctivitis meant that he was only passed fit for ground crew. He was posted to Bournemouth, attached to a Canadian unit billeted at the Metropole Hotel, which gave him plenty of time to spend at the Pavilion with George Fairweather, who had been invalided out of the army, before a transfer to Blackpool. He was there on 23 May 1943 when the Metropole was bombed and more than 200 people killed in what would be Bournemouth’s bloodiest air raid.
After successfully auditioning for the Entertainment National Services Association, Tony spent the rest of the war touring in RAF Gang Shows with the likes of Peter Sellers. It gave him the confidence to pursue his dream and he relocated to London soon after being de-mobbed in 1946.
Success rarely prevented Hancock from returning to his childhood hometown many times as a performer and to see friends, including George, who opened a hairdressing salon on Westover Road. Tony spent what would be his final Christmas with Lily at Redroofs (later the Belvedere Hotel) on Bath Hill, where six months later she was told of his suicide. Heartbroken, just fourteen months later she also passed away.
As Tony had often concluded: ‘Stone me, what a life!’
- Tony Hancock: The Bournemouth Connection is published by Natula, price £15.
- The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society holds its annual Bournemouth reunion dinner at the Carlton Hotel at the beginning of May.
• First published by Dorset Life – The Dorset Magazine.