Arriving at Pacific Quay in Glasgow early for a show and having to stand in a queue isn’t exactly out of the norm for me. However, last night was a little different. I was on the opposite side of the Clyde to normal for a start and the queue was indoors! How civilised, but then, I was visiting the BBC.
A friend and neighbour had kindly invited me to accompany her to the BBC to be part of the studio audience for the recording of a sitcom. I jumped at the chance!
Despite the fact I’ve walked/driven past the huge BBC building in Glasgow many times, I’d never actually been inside or been in a TV studio of any kind. It was all very exciting!
Like every live entertainment event, the evening involved a degree of queuing. Eventually though, we entered the studio itself. It was smaller than I’d imagined. The tiered seating faced three small sets. To be honest, they looked very basic but I’m sure by the time the show in question hits the small screen, the magic of TV will have transformed them.
Once the audience was seated, Glasgow stand-up comedian Des Clarke introduced himself and proceeded to teach us how to clap three different ways and then how to laugh three different ways Have you any idea how hard it is to sustain a full bellied laugh when there is nothing funny to laugh at!
So, what were we there to see being filmed?
Well, we were there to see them record an episode of Hancock’s Half Hour as part of the BBC’s Lost Sitcoms series which is due to be broadcast later this summer. The series is set to include Steptoe and Son, Till Death Do Us Part and several other classic shows from days gone by.
“But the original cast are long since dead!” I hear you cry.
Sad but true and, until we were actually seated in the studio, it hadn’t crossed my mind to ask who we were about to see perform these classic roles.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Tony Hancock’s work, he was a famous comedy genius from the 1950’s and 1960’s, both on radio and in television. Probably his most famous sketch is The Blood Donor. Absolutely classic British comedy of its day.
Good, well-written comedy is truly timeless!
Tony Hancock performed over hundred episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour on radio over a seven- year period. The show was first broadcast on TV in 1956 and ran concurrently with the radio show for four short years.
The episode we were scheduled to see re-enacted was called The New Neighbour and had first been broadcast on 13 May 1957.
At that time, Tony Hancock worked closely with another British comedy legend, Sid James, most famous for his roles in the Carry On films. This episode had also included the late, great Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques, both also famous for their roles in the Carry On films among other things.
Four big sets of shoes to be filled by present day stars!
So, who did the honours? Well, we were introduced to Katie Wix in the role of Hattie Jacques, Robin Sebastian as Kenneth Williams (I loved Kenneth Williams!), John Culshaw as Sid James and the wonderful Kevin McNally as Tony Hancock himself. (Kevin McNally is probably most famous for his role as Mr Gibbs on the Pirates of the Caribbean films but is an actor I’ve admired since I first saw him in a TV adaptation of RF Delderfield’s Diana in 1984. He was cute back then.)
The New Neighbour had two other cast members- Kevin Eldon, who filled the role previously performed by John Vere and Robbie Jack as the “new neighbour”.
So having learned how to laugh and clap, we sat back to enjoy the recording of the show.
The script writing, by Ray Galton and Alex Simpson, really was British sitcom at its finest and, as I mentioned earlier, even though this show is almost sixty years old, it was timeless. Still as funny today as back then.
Watching the actors “fluff” the occasional line or lean too far through the “glass-less” window frame provided some additional comedy moments that will never see the light of day.
Des Clarke acted as compere/continuity man throughout the whole evening and its sufficient to say “his patter’s like watter”. He did a tremendous job keeping the audience entertained between takes.
The sound engineer added to the hilarity by adding in a breaking glass sound effect if any of the actors leaned too far forward through the window frames. We were also treated to a few moments of mime against the imaginary glass.
All in all, I was surprised just how relaxed the whole affair was. As to be expected, there was a degree of repetition as scenes were repeated due to a forgotten line or at the director’s request.
Watching the cameras (or daleks as Des Clarke referred to them as) glide about was impressive.
There was a fair bit of faffing as the make-up lady touched up hair and make-up repeatedly. More so on the guys than on Katie Wix, I may add!
Start to finish, it took approximately two and a half hours to film the half hour show (They had pre-recorded the final scene as it required a different set entirely).
Like all theatrical performances, it ended with the six actors taking their bows, all of which was done with equal good humour. Robin Sebastian came across as stone mad. A really funny guy and brilliant as Kenneth Williams but there was also a glint of mischief in Kevin McNally’s eyes too as he departed.
The lights went up and we all slowly headed home, still smiling at some of the jokes and marvelling at the simplicity of the sets.
So what happened to the real life Tony Hancock? His is a sad tale. He continued to record Hancock’s Half Hour until 1961 when, as a result of concussion received in a serious car crash, he struggled to learn his lines and was forced to rely on teleprompters. He continued to appear regularly on British TV up until 1967 when ,sadly, alcoholism began to take its toll on his performance. In 1968, Australian TV network, Seven Network, contracted him to do thirteen shows as Hancock Down Under. In the end only three were recorded. Tragically, Tony Hancock committed suicide on 25 June 1968. He was only 44 years old.
Like many comedy geniuses, he was taken from his audience way too soon.
Tony Hancock on the left and Kevin McNally in character on the right.
credits to the owners of all images used – sourced via Google