The Punch and Judy Man - Hancock’s Finest Hour (and a half)

Written by Simon Wells
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By 1962, Tony Hancock had been absorbed into the role of the nation’s favourite comedian. The comedian’s morose dejection was in its own way, as contemporary to his day as Johnny Rotten or Liam Gallagher was to theirs. ‘Ridiculous!’ I hear you say, but rather true in fact. Take a look if you don’t believe me. Remember though, during this era of cold, post-war austerity no one previously had dared to display such affront.

Despite major success in the classic paean to non-conformity, The Rebel, in 1961, it was evident that Hancock was desperate to escape any possible typecasting. While his characterisation of the single man battling against the world had won him plaudits and considerable riches, deep down lurked a hugely frustrated individual, desperate to escape from the nation’s perception of ‘the lad himself’’ or ‘our Tone’. Less definable, was a troubled psyche possessed with a monstrous ego, its demons pecking away at anyone who dared to come close enough to penetrate his brittle shell.

By early 1962, events had reached boiling point for the comedian. In his first act of sweeping away the foundations of his career, Hancock dispensed with the services of his scriptwriters Alan Galton and Ray Simpson; a brave if potentially suicidal act met with incredulity by the writers and his agent. Not that it mattered to Hancock, he then sacked the agent. Out too went his association with the BBC, and the roster of artists that had supported him through his radio and television years. Not that the Beeb felt wounded, remarking that Hancock was nothing more than a ‘moody perfectionist obsessed with money.'  The break with the BBC also ensured a bitter split with Sid James, Kenneth Williams, Bill Kerr and much of the personal that had played loyal foils to his genius.

With these self- inflicted savage cuts inflicted, Hancock had found himself left with a blank canvas. With this clear landscape, he set about revolutionising his film career in an attempt to secure the international stardom he desperately wanted. While The Rebel had scored admirably in numerous territories, it still harked back to the bedsit land that hosted his previous alter-ego. In attempting to re-brand himself, Hancock teamed up with writer Philip Oakes to mine other areas, erasing any trace of the moody East Cheam bachelor.

During what amounted to a series of conversations with Oakes, Hancock revisited his formative years spent in Bournemouth on the south coast of England. Casting his mind back some thirty years, he’d recall the rich atmosphere that occupied the busy seaside town, and the colourful and unconventional characters that made their living from the district.

‘Being brought up in a seaside town,’ recalled Hancock for 'Films and Filming’ in 1962, ‘you’d 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?’

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Resonating with his own outsider status, Hancock and Oakes would construct the character of a Punch and Judy Man; a beach puppeteer, beset with numerous prejudices, and evidently only happy when consorting with his small band of similarly wayward artists. Compounding the character’s otherwise itinerant lifestyle was an ongoing drama with his upwardly aspiring wife. While it is clear from the theme of the picture that martial conformity was something the character was totally at odds with, Tony Hancock’s own relationship with women was equally pitted with emotional landmines. With his13-year marriage to Cicely Romanis breaking down, word of this upset came up in the discussions with Phillip Oakes in preparation of the script. Much to Hancock’s delight, this emotional reportage would make its way into the film, further separating him from the bachelor persona he’d been largely associated with. Cast as Wally Pinner, Hancock would play a sullen and largely morose puppet man. His long suffering wife (Sylvia Sims) would sit very much at poles with her husband’s whimsy, her upwardly mobile ambitions doing little to arrest her husband’s mood swings.

Hancock’s alter ego would only find true happiness when surrounded by his band of quirky compatriots. To properly realise these characters, Hancock’s role as executive producer would allow him to hand-pick his associate cast, and most would be allied in some way to Hancock’s life; both professional and otherwise.  Mario Fabrizi, a veteran from Hancock’s first film The Rebel, would play a pushy beach photographer. Hugh Lloyd, a rare survivor from Hancock’s BBC days, was perfectly cast as the puppeteer’s long suffering assistant. Even the voluminous Hattie Jacques would fill the screen for a few seconds as Dolly Zarathusa, a fortune-teller. Much as these associate players all were supremely able, none were ever going to challenge Hancock in any way for screen dominance. John Le Mesurier, however, would manage to upstage his lead man on occasions with his genial humour, and enigmatic presence. Cast a sculpture who worked only in sand, Le Mesurier would be known only as ‘The Sandman’. Le Mesurier’s languid presence would elicit an emotive side to Hancock not previous witnessed in any of his past offerings.

With the script completed, cast collected, a crew was assembled for shooting in the spring 1962. Despite coming under the umbrella of the Associated British Picture Corporation (the company that had contracted Hancock for a two picture deal) the hands on production was undertaken by MacConkey Productions, named after Hancock’s property in Lingfield. While young director Jeremy Summers was making his directorial debut, the film scored a sizable coup in having Gilbert Taylor as director of photography. Taylor’s keen eye intimately understood the brittle ephemera of the seaside, and even with only monochrome film stock to play with, he’d beautifully capture the ambiance of both setting and its dramatic moments. Taylor would go on to score massively with the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night  in 1964.

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Shooting locations were going to be pivotal to the success of the picture. With Hancock desperate to relive the ambiance of his youth in Bournemouth, Bognor Regis in West Sussex - a fairly atypical seaside town - was chosen to act as backdrop for the picture. With a pier, arcade and a smattering of antiquated ice cream and gift shops in operation, the action would be as believable as required. Equally, the mostly sandy beach would be able to host many of the adventures called for in the script. In reality, a host of Bognor’s landmarks would be worked directly into the film. In addition to the beach and pier, the promenade, several cafes and the town’s amusement arcade would be utilised. For a key sequence, the Royal Hotel on the Bognor seafront would host the film’s finale. While the crew themselves would be housed in the same hotel, Hancock and his wife would stay at the swankier Royal Norfolk a few hundred yards along the promenade. For the purposes of the film, Bognor would be renamed Piltdown.

For the residents of this unremarkable town, the influx of a major film company would enliven the early part of the season. With a need for crowd scenes in several sequences, several requests for auditions were advertised around the town. Astonishingly, over 2,000 members of the public applied for the few hundred positions available, and were formally auditioned at the Royal Norfolk hotel by the film’s producer Gordon Scott.

By the spring of 1962, filming was under way in Bognor, with interiors being shot back at Elstree studios. The storyline was, even by 1962 standards, adventuress. Devoid of any overt comedy, it was clearly a gamble to expect the British public to warm to Hancock’s re-branding of a character so embedded in the national psyche. Nonetheless, with the previous success of The Rebel and with the film’s associate cast boasting several household names, there was always the chance that it could accrue some sympathetic interest.

The film was radical on many levels, and this was no more apparent than from the opening few minutes. With Hancock and Syms enduring a painful morning ritual, the ritualised behaviour and cold looks made over the breakfast table was a clear reference to Hancock’s own moribund relationship. With the scene devoid of any dialogue, it was painfully clear that the relationship on screen had evidently run its course. It’s only when the action moved outside that the palate of the film assumed a brighter texture.

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With the understated theme of the protagonist’s wife desperately wanting to attend the town’s society gathering running through the picture, there were still a few genuine moments leading up to the finale.  With Hancock’s own seaside youth a major reference point, a young boy (played by Sylvia Syms nephew Nicholas Webb) was chosen to act as a reflection to Hancock’s own youth. Young, gangling and without any provenance, Hancock’s character adopted the lad for a haunting sequence when he witnessed the youngster sheltering from the rain in the shelter. Clearly in need of some reparation, Hancock would buy the youngster an ice cream at a beach-side cafe. Intrigued by the young boy’s relishing of the desert, Hancock would order the same dish; each movement strangely mirroring the boy’s own. The sequence, complete with close ups of Hancock’s exaggerated features, ran for around nine minutes. For those desperate for the verbal slapstick of Hancock of old, this vignette would have probably left many disappointed. Nonetheless, its indisputable charm - especially when set against Hancock’s own childhood sense of alienation - marks it out as an emotional highpoint of the film.

Hancock’s best friend off-screen, John Le Mesurier, would feature in a couple of poignant sequences where words turned towards marriage and relationships. The depth of feeling embedded in the dialogue between Wally and the ‘Sandman’ would chime with the dilemma facing Hancock and his faltering relationship with wife Cicely. Accompanied by knowing glances, the brief exchange was telling, especially given later events in Hancock and Le Mesurier’s lives.

Wally Pinner: ‘I tell you this, I’d change places with you any day of the week.’

The Sandman: ‘Really?’

Wally Pinner: ‘You’ve got your freedom.’

The Sandman: ‘Oh yes.’

Wally Pinner: ‘Got nobody nagging you to make something of yourself.’

The Sandman: ‘Oh no, certainly not.’

Wally Pinner: ‘You made a very wise decision to stay single.’

The Sandman: ‘Yes well, actually it wasn’t my decision. The lady said “no”.’

Wally Pinner: ‘Oh I see.’

The Sandman:  ‘Well, it’s probably for the best. As I see it, marriage is a matter of give and take. Not all of us are equipped for that sort of thing.’

The picture’s finale forges a brief, reluctant détente as Hancock relents to his wife’s demands for him to attend a civic reception in honour of the town’s anniversary. Regardless of the brief moment of chaos, the final moments of the picture point towards a way out of the couple’s stagnancy.

Despite considerably publicity, critics expecting a re-run of The Rebel weren’t overly impressed, with many finding it impossible to take Hancock’s new direction seriously.  The Daily Mirror, always a champion of Hancock’s charms was mixed. ‘The story is too slight and patchy,’ ran its review. ‘The film wobbles between merit and mediocrity.’ The Daily Express was altogether less impressed. ‘I won’t bother you with the story,’ read the dismal reviewers, ‘which on paper will look even flimsier than the film. All I will say is that he (Hancock) is a Punch and Judy man who hates snobs with a wife who loves them.  It takes him 96 minutes to tell her that ‘ordinary folk’ are best – and I am afraid that is 96 minutes too long.’ Only the Monthly Film Bulletin (now Sight and Sound) had the foresight to see the film for its true worth. ‘Botched though the film often is, its faults (and its virtues) are never wearily conventional. The whole tone of the comedy is quiet, under stressed, a little melancholy…. At some time, in someone's mind, ‘The Punch and Judy Man’ existed as a distinctive and very engaging comedy. It hasn't come through on the screen quite like this, but one warms all the same to its performance and to its little, lugubrious jokes.’

With over forty years since Hancock passed away, it is probably understandable that given the wealth of the man’s prolific television and radio oeuvre, this imaginative interlude in the comic’s career has been largely passed over. With the film fast approaching its 50th anniversary, all I can implore you to do is to watch it (it’s on YouTube) and bear witness to another side of the genius that is Tony Hancock. It’s really about time someone did.

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© Words - Simon Wells / ZANI Media

Read 8890 times Last modified on Sunday, 28 March 2021 16:17
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Simon Wells

Simon Wells

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