Hancock’s Half Hour – The Lost Episodes
Adapted by John Hewer; Directed by Jonathan Rigby
White Bear Theatre 28/12/12 – 5/1/13
As I settled down on the Southbound Tube towards Kennington in South East London I wondered what to expect of the forthcoming evening. I knew that I was going to see a live production of both a radio and a television Hancock’s Half Hour episode but how well would they come over in front of a live modern audience nearly 60 years since they had last been heard?I arrived at the White Bear pub in Kennington High Road to receive a warm friendly welcome. The pub was a fairly traditional London pub other than a sign over the door in back right hand corner which read ‘Theatre’!
The Theatre is called ‘The White Bear Theatre’. It was established in 1988 and its web site advises that it ‘focuses on new writing and Lost Classics. It exists to nurture talent, extend possibilities and offer a space where risks can be taken.’The production is being staged by Hambledon Productions, established in 2007 as a brother and sister team (Rachael and John Hewer). Hambledon Productions is based in Lincolnshire and produces new writing while striving to take theatre into communities that may not have the opportunity to experience new theatre productions.
The cast comprised John Hewer (Tony Hancock), Luke Adamson (Sid James), Christian Darwood (Kenneth Williams and various), Amy Holmes (Andree Melly and Marla Landi), Simon Weeds (Bill Kerr and John Le Mesurier / Manager) and Jane Cranshaw (sound effects technician during the radio episode).
After exchanging my email ‘confirmation of booking’ for a ticket, I entered the theatre which holds approximately 40 people on 2 rows of cushioned bench seating around 2 sides of the room. The entire room was at the same level with no raised stage and so the production takes place within inches of the front row. The very close proximity to the action certainly adds significantly to the atmosphere.
The stage was set first for the radio episode, which was billed as ‘A Winter’s Tale’, the fifth episode of the 3rd radio series first broadcast 16th November 1955 and only repeated once on the 20th November the same year. The show started with an announcement with instructions for the audience and a request to ‘turn off mobile phones, whatever they are as this is 1955’!
The episode proper began with the BBC opening announcement and music and, in fact, the original incidental music was faithfully reproduced throughout the programme. The next half hour was over almost as soon as it started. The cast were excellent in the characters of Tony Hancock, Sid James, Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams and Andree Melly and, whilst more of an homage to the original rather than an impersonation, throughout the whole reading you could often imagine that it was Hancock and cast standing in front of you. The intonation from all the cast was excellent and the script once again sparkled as it would have done 60 years ago, losing nothing in the intervening years. The audience reaction was good, especially considering a very wide age range and the fact that visual entertainment (rather than audio) is the new norm these days.
We all left the theatre after the first half to allow the crew (the actors themselves!) to put in place the set for the second half. The set was excellent and picked out many of the fine details of the Hancock original not least the stuffed bird (OK, it was an owl but it was close enough!).
The television episode chosen was ‘The Italian Maid, the seventh episode of the 4th series originally broadcast on the 6th February 1959 and only repeated once on 3rd May 1959. An interesting choice of episode as it featured, in addition to the usual selection of actors from the East Cheam Repertory Company, the Italian born British actress Marlo Landi in the major supporting role.
This television episode once again started with the BBC opening announcement and music with the cast reprising the role of Tony Hancock and Sid James whilst John Le Mesurier and Silvana were played by the actors who played Bill Kerr and Andree Melly in the first half.
Once again the script sparkled and the audience was treated to a real feel for the interplay between Hancock and James which came over with warmth and sincerity. This interplay was essential to the comedy of the episode and was excellently worked in this production with the costumes of both Hancock (astrakhan coat and homburg hat) and James (shirt and tie, cloth cap and pipe) really adding to the atmosphere. The audience reaction was, deservedly, excellent with a feeling of real involvement with the main characters and a sense of willing Hancock on to win against Sid in his race for the attentions of The Italian Maid.
Altogether a very worthwhile evening and an excellent homage to the great Lad Himself, Tony Hancock. The show is on in London until 5th January and follows a successful tour in the North of England earlier in 2012. Highly recommended.