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James Hurn: The Impressionist Introducing a New Generation to Tony Hancock

11 October 19 interview: Ashley Carter

At the height of its popularity, Hancock’s Half Hour attracted audiences of more than 20 million people. For context, that’s almost 40% of the entire population of Britain at that time, and four times as many UK viewers of the Game of Thrones series finale. Described by Mark Lewisohn as “the yardstick against which all subsequent British sitcoms have been measured”, its influence can still be seen in anything from Alan Partridge and The Office to Seinfeld. This month sees actor, impressionist and lifelong Hancock fan James Hurn return to Nottingham with his one man-many voices Hancock and Co. show, featuring brand new material and lost sketches…

What can people expect from Hancock & Co.?
It’s three half-hour episodes presented as a one-man show to a live audience in the style of a radio show. It’s me, in costume, with an old 1950s microphone, a little bit of scenery and lots of sound effects. It’s based on Hancock’s Half Hour, so I’ll be doing the five regular characters, as well as two or three additional parts. It’s comedy that’s still popular and funny sixty years on. 

What’s the demographic of your audience?
When I first started, I thought the majority of the audience would be my age — mid-forties and upwards. But I discovered that the people coming were bringing their teenage children and introducing them to comedy from that era, because it’s timeless. There’s nothing in the material that ties it to the time it was made, so it doesn’t date. It’s also harmless and family-friendly, so anyone from children to the elderly can enjoy it. I’ve had kids quoting lines from the show that you really wouldn’t expect twelve or thirteen year olds to know. 

Was introducing a younger audience to the material an ambition of yours?
It was definitely part of the idea. I guess I was afraid that generations were gradually forgetting it and not passing it on. Everyone still remembers Laurel and Hardy — they’re still going strong more than a century on —  and I think the characters in Hancock & Co. were great comedy figures, and it would be an absolute tragedy to lose them to time. 

As well as Tony Hancock, the show includes some of the most iconic voices from British comedy history, including Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques. How did you go about learning their voices?
That was definitely one of my concerns before I started the show. Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams have always been in my repertoire, but all I had ever really done of Sid James was that laugh. Getting his voice right was key in being able to do the whole show. I actually managed to get it quite quickly, which surprised me. His voice had always had a gravelly, deep quality to it, but that’s because I was remembering him from when he became really famous, which was much later in his career. I first tried the show out in a little theatre in London, and the feedback I got was fabulous. 

People say that you can never replace the original, but I’m not trying to — I’m just trying to keep the memory alive

Do you know if Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the original writers of Hancock, knew about your work?
I actually got permission from Galton and Simpson before they sadly passed away. I sent them a little sample of my work and they were both really happy. I was gobsmacked, because I thought they’d be against me writing new material in their style. I did invite them to come and see some of the early shows I was performing, but at that time their health wasn’t great. It was a shame, but age had just caught up with them. But I’m just honoured that the two people who were responsible for this great material, as well as things like Steptoe and Son, were happy with me mimicking their style. 

It’s staggering to look at the viewing and listening numbers Hancock got. Does that legacy create an additional pressure for you? 
A little bit, yes. You wonder whether you’re going to be able to give people what they remember and what they want. We’ve had some people on social media making comments, but they’re judging it before they’ve even seen it. Other people say that you can never replace the original, but I’m not trying to — I’m just trying to keep the memory alive. I’m fairly confident in myself as a performer, so I try to encourage people to give it a chance. 

The influence of Tony Hancock can be seen in more recent British comedy, especially in characters like Alan Partridge and David Brent. Do you think his influence is fairly acknowledged?
I think so. If you asked any of the actors in these very successful sitcoms, or even some stand-up comics, and asked them to be completely honest, I think they would say Hancock was a big influence. He had such a specific way of delivering his lines and jokes, and the timing of when he landed the punchline. People like Ricky Gervais and Lee Mack in Not Going Out are very much the same. It goes further back, too, with people like David Jason and Ronnie Barker. You can see the influence of Tony Hancock on all of them. 

As funny as he was in the public eye, Tony Hancock was notoriously unhappy in private, and wrote, “Nobody will ever know I existed. Nothing to leave behind me. Nothing to pass on. Nobody to mourn me. That's the bitterest blow of all” in the suicide note he left before taking his own life in 1968. What do you think led to this unhappiness?
I think with a lot of comedic actors, they discover that they’re particularly good at something at an early age. They get accepted by their peers and society, but when they’re alone, probably feel that people ignore them. I think it’s the way comedians perceive life, not the way people actually treat them — they just feel that they’re not accepted unless they’re being funny. You see it with people like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams; as time goes by, unfortunately, they reach a level of super-stardom in which they’re surrounded by people, are brilliant at what they do, but think they have no friends. But it’s just a construct they’ve built in their own minds — most people would love to be their friend. For people like Tony Hancock, being so great at what they did was as much of a curse as it was a blessing. 

It’s great that you’re proving his final words to be untrue, and keeping his legacy alive.
I still listen to him all the time in the car, and have done since I was seventeen. I must have listened to them all hundreds of times, and it’s all still funny. It shows how much of an impact he made. 

James Hurn will be performing Hancock & Co. at Nottingham Theatre Royal on Monday 14 October, and touring his new show, The Navy Lark, in 2020

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