TV Party #1

First things first: I’m tired of using labels in my subject lines, stuff like “Recently Watched” or “Short Subject, Feature Film,” so I’m gonna stop doing that. On occasion, I’ll still use a label if I think the situation specifically calls for it, but for most posts I figure tags are enough. So there.

At the risk of being permanently disowned by my good friend Ivan, I must confess that I don’t really enjoy much television. I know, I know, I’m weird. Maybe I watched so much TV when I was a kid that I nearly filled my lifetime quota. Having said that, I shamefully confess that my television is on constantly, but tuned to reruns of animated shows I’ve seen 100 times before already…


…or the weather or to a movie channel. Usually TCM, of course, especially since IFC now interrupts their movies for commercials. It’s true! Jack Pendarvis confirms it! I’ll never tune in to IFC again. Do I look like someone who enjoys commercials? No. No, I do not.

But I digress. While I usually don’t care for TV, a few months ago I found myself buying a bunch of TV shows on DVD, partly because it was my birthday, partly because they were on sale at Amazon UK. Then Ivan, who by now is so scandalized that he has stopped reading this post and is removing all traces of my name from his inbox, sent me the most amazing thing ever: The Tony Hancock Collection. Mmm. So delicious.

That’s why I’ve been watching more TV shows than movies lately. So let’s shake SBBN up a little and talk about the idiot box. Television, won’t you?

***

After all that talk about no movies, I’m starting with a movie: “The X-Files: Fight the Future.” Is that what it’s called? Some sources say “Fight the Future” is just the tagline. Hell if I know. Anyway, my husband and I are watching the entire “X-Files” series in order, and we recently got to the movie. It was shot mostly during filming for season 4, but didn’t get into theaters until the hiatus between seasons 5 and 6.


Oh, by the way, if you dare utter any spoilers for season 6 or beyond of “The X-Files,” I am going to kick your ass. This is the law of Wayne, bitches, do not mess with me on this.

TXF is not one of the shows I recently bought, but rather one we’ve had for a few years after I bought the entire series for my husband’s birthday. Over the years, I’ve heard several people theorize that TXF shows the slow progression of mental deterioration in a man who, after experiencing severe abuse as a child, has invented an alternate reality to deal with his trauma. Poor, mentally unstable Fox Mulder. And while that’s a good theory, now that we’re getting into the really uneven season 6 of the series, it seems like they’re bringing up Fox’s mental instability 8-12 times per episode, and it’s a little repetitive and boring.

Also boring? Killing Mulder every other episode but then finding out he’s not really dead. It seems like my husband and I have this brief exchange each time we pop a DVD into the player:

HUSBAND: Mulder’s not dead again, is he?

ME: No, no, I’ll get the Bactine.

Larger, easier-to-read version here.

 

I really like the series, though. It acquired a lovely momentum and overall feel in the second season and had very few bad episodes up until season six. As far as seasons 1 through 5 go, it seems everyone hates “3” and “Space”. While I didn’t really care for either of them, “Tesos Dos Bichos” and “The Field Where I Died” were a lot more rotten. In fact, I would say “The Field Where I Died” is one of the most irritating television episodes of any kind I’ve ever watched, and I remind you all I watched “Welcome Back, Kotter” when I was a kid. All in all, the good episodes of TXF have outweighed the bad, at least thus far.

Then the movie happened.


It was… well, not good, but not bad either.  Despite having watched all the episodes in order up to the film, it still didn’t make much sense. The film played as a confused two-part TV episode except Mulder said “shit” a couple of times. Not only did the movie seem unfocused, but there is a serious change in the series at this point that seems to indicate it started to lose the plot. We shall see. I still believe “Jose Chung” to be one of the best things ever put on television, so I will be giving the later seasons of TXF a lot of chances to not suck.

 

***

The majority of TV shows I’ve been watching are from the UK. They are all unfortunately on Region 2 DVDs so I cannot give you screencaps, but I will try valiantly to make this interesting. Videos will be involved. Embedded videos. I know, right?

The set my BBFF [1] Ivan sent me in a fit of unparalleled kindness was “The Tony Hancock Collection,” which contains all existing episodes of the TV version of “Hancock’s Half Hour” and “Hancock” and quite a few extras. There are several episodes with commentary by the writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, but I found those to be a little lacklustre. Sometimes they had nothing to say; in other instances, they don’t remember what happened. I was particularly frustrated by “There’s an Airfield at the Bottom of My Garden” where multiple prop failures turn the show into near chaos, but Galton and Simpson were so confusing with their overuse of pronouns that you couldn’t tell what they were attempting to convey.

 

Sid James, Tony Hancock, and Bill Kerr, stars of the radio version of “Hancock’s Half Hour.”

 

If you’ve never heard of Tony Hancock or “Hancock’s Half Hour,” try Railway Cuttings, especially the video toward the bottom of the page which has a trailer for HHH made for the Australian market. It’s not embedded and must be downloaded, it hasn’t done my computer any harm so far, but I thought I should warn you.

Tony Hancock was a popular British comedian in the 1950s and 60s, most famous for his radio and television comedies. In 1956, he hosted two series of “The Tony Hancock Show,” a live program; I’m not sure if any of those episodes survive. His next show was “Hancock’s Half Hour” which ran for six series (seasons) on the radio and seven on television. The show was somewhat revolutionary at the time, using a sitcom format instead of a group of sketches as had been popular. Many of the modern sitcom conventions are found in this show and, despite its age and distinct post-war sensibility, it’s surprisingly modern.

It’s also surprisingly influential. Many of the cast members were also big players in the “Carry On” movie series, and you can hardly go 15 minutes in HHH without running into references that will be very familiar to you if you’re a Monty Python fan, things like silly walks and “Robin Hood” parodies and vikings. The actress that plays Tony’s maid is Patricia Hayes, most familiar to those of us in the US as the little old lady with the dogs in “A Fish Called Wanda.”

HHH got me through a couple of bad viruses this season, so it’s only fitting that I direct you to “The Cold,” the first episode of series 6:

 


Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
By all accounts, Tony Hancock was not an easy man to know. Alcoholic, physically abusive, and ridiculously insecure, he slowly drove everyone who had ever been close to him away. This was partly due to his desire to keep his comedy unique and timely; for instance, he seemed to chafe at being linked indirectly to the “Carry On” movies and didn’t want to be thought of as part of a comedy team with Sid James.

 

Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock, and Ray Galton, circa 1955.

 

In retrospect, it seems as though he was on the right track until the early 1960s when he had a falling out with his writing team, Simpson and Galton. After the experience of making a feature film, “The Rebel” (1961, written with Simpson and Galton), Hancock decided he wanted to be known internationally and did not feel the next Simpson and Galton film project was the right one for this end. They broke off their professional association. Hancock’s career stalled terribly, and he had a couple of small roles in films, most notably “The Wrong Box” (1966), plus a very short-lived and unsuccessful comeback on UK television in 1967. Meanwhile, the Galton and Simpson movie idea he turned down was adapted into a television show which became the enormous UK television hit “Steptoe and Son” (1962).

Simpson, Hancock, and Galton, circa 1960.

 

Tony Hancock didn’t live to see the show’s US version, “Sanford and Son” (1972). He killed himself in Australia in 1968 after years of alcoholism, a declining career, and a completely screwed-up love affair… an affair that certain people are still milking for publicity and money 43 years after the man died, might I add.

Tony had just turned 44 years old a month prior, but he looked decades older. It’s surprising to watch some of the early episodes of HHH and see a man who, to me, appears to be 45 years old but who is only 33. Publicity photos of him in the mid to late 1960s show a man who appears to be approaching retirement.

Various theories about Tony Hancock’s downfall abound. The aforementioned certain people seem to think it was the dissolution of an illicit love affair; others believe he couldn’t stand seeing Sid James or Galton and Simpson having success without him; those closer to him say it was depression over sub par comedy material and years of alcohol abuse; many speculated that both a probing 1960 “Face to Face” interview and a head injury suffered in a car crash that same year were at fault; a 10-minute snippet of a show contains interviews that highlight just how alone Tony Hancock, a man who feared loneliness, really was.

A testament to Hancock’s talent, though, is that you so rarely see this troubled desperation in his shows. We all know of plenty of actors whose problems show blatantly through their performances, but for the most part, Hancock’s do not. There are occasional flickers, like the fear in his eyes when he wants to jump out a window (first floor, about 16 inches off the ground) after losing money in a bad investment during a season 5 episode of HHH, yet he usually seems composed and articulate. Perhaps it was my 2011 imagination believing something that wasn’t honestly there in 1959.


I’ve spent most of this post talking about Tony Hancock and not “Hancock’s Half Hour,” and for that I hope you will forgive me. I have doubts that this is a show most of the SBBN readership would like, as it is decidedly tame and old fashioned and, well, British. I grew up on British television shows on PBS and British crime novels from the library, so I love this sort of thing, and seeing Hancock in more than his small role in “The Wrong Box” has been a real treat — again, thank you Ivan, and I owe you one. Remind me to mail you some nachos.

Meanwhile, if any of you want to see HHH for yourself, most episodes are on YouTube. I recently watched “The Missing Page” and highly recommend it. It includes a small part played by George Coulouris! Tony in later years of HHH ditched his comedy show friends and replaced them with other actors.  Firing those who had worked with him so long seems like a relatively crappy thing to do, but he undeniably worked better with experienced actors as opposed to experienced comedians who never worked outside that genre.

If you tried “The Cold” or “The Missing Page” and are looking for more, I also recommend “The Alpine Holiday” for the brief and mild dick joke, “Twelve Angry Men,” “Ericson the Viking” for those of you who are Monty Python fans, and “There’s an Airfield at the Bottom of My Garden” if you want to see props in a live-taped show go horribly, terribly wrong.

More television is coming up soon! I am resisting an almost impossible urge to say something about Bat time and Bat channels.

[1] Best blog friend evar.

 

6 Comments

  1. KING OF JAZZ

    I only knew Hancock–sort of–from his appearance in THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES (1965); he was given special billing despite the other stellar names in the cast. Plus, he never was even part of the air race! Just some cameo bits. I mean, gee whiz, Benny Hill was in it too with hardly any notice. Every time I’d see TMMFM I’d had forgotten Hancock was even in it.

    Still, terrific column as always. There isn’t a topic you write about I wouldn’t want to read.

  2. I cannot disown you because as written, your statement reads “I must confess that I don’t really enjoy much television”–“enjoy” being the optimal word here. Nobody really enjoys television (well, maybe I do) but we watch because it is our civic responsibility, like jury duty.

    Secondly, while I’m always positively gobsnacked to read about how awesome I am, I feel it is only fair and just to point out to loyal SBBN followers that my “unparalleled kindness” was preceded by the following:

    1. Who was the individual who was concerned about my well-being during last year’s health-related perils to the point where they took the initiative to inform everyone that I was A-OK?

    2. Who generously bestowed upon me a copy of the Criterion DVD of Stagecoach knowing full well it would require a few extra hours of cat exploitation and “licking people for money”?

    3. Who assured me everything would be fine after I saw that evil monkey in my closet?

    If you answered any or all of these questions “Stacia”–congratulations! You may very well be qualified for a successful career in classic film blogging…once you get past the horrifying reality that it requires long hours and no pay.

    Seriously, I’ve never been prouder of the fact that I am your BBFF–I laughed out loud at this because it reminded me of the old BBF/Borden Burger fast food chain, which will provide fodder for a blog post once I receive further motivation.

  3. That’s interesting about TMMITFM; I want to say I read somewhere that Tony’s part was cut down in final editing, but I don’t remember WHERE I saw it. So many actors and cameos, though, it’s a wonder they even wedged him into the movie at all.

    Ivan, you ARE awesome. Besides, lots of us were worried about you when you disappeared, and if I can’t share my insider info about evil closet monkeys, then what good is knowing their secrets anyway? Also, it sounds like a couple of those burgers might supply the necessary motivation you need.

  4. I know you were happy to discover I once met Rip Taylor… but what if I told you I once met Charles Nelson “Jose Chung” Reilly TOO? I did! My favorite X-File is the one with Peter Boyle. Has that one come up yet? I don’t recall the season. I put one of Tony Hancock’s egg commercials on my “blog.” Just hilarious… he did these egg commercials for the British Egg Council or something. It was part of a “blog” feature called McNeil’s Gold Medal International Emergency Exit Theatre, and was unlabeled, so now I can’t find it. I will look for it and try to send it to you. Thanks for the shout-out!

  5. but what if I told you I once met Charles Nelson “Jose Chung” Reilly TOO? I did!

    Excuse me, but I am DEAD FROM JEALOUSY. Of all the celebrities I would have loved to meet, he is way at the top of the list. Somewhere on YouTube is a video of him at a Thanksgiving get together at his house, and he’s bare-legged in socks and a muumuu. Adorable.

  6. MJ

    I watch more British television shows than Canadian or American.

    Thanks in part to BBC Canada but there’s also some good British programming on some of our other stations.

    I’m more of a British comedy gal than drama though.

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