The Comedy Nerd Pub Quiz (it surely must exist) can have this question: how does Willie Rushton connect Peter Cook and Tony Hancock?
Hancock and Cook are also linked by a film which they both appeared in: take a bonus point if you got ‘The Wrong Box’ (Bryan Forbes, 1966).
Cook and Hancock were born thirteen years apart, but in the 1966 public’s mind, their comedy was of different generations; Cook was in the ascendancy, the entire movie project intended as no less than a vehicle for him and Dudley Moore, suddenly Britain’s hottest double act, building on the phenomenon of Beyond The Fringe and Not Only But Also. Hancock, meanwhile, was like a mountaineer with summit fever, pushing on in a doomed effort to reach the peak he’d already achieved once, but this time without the oxygen (or, for that matter, Gurkhas) necessary to survive the journey. Hancock’s life story makes the best of us look for a metaphor, because the bald facts – that once successful he squandered every opportunity and betrayed every friendship that got him there – are so astonishingly brutal.
It’s tempting to think of them as Cook the satirist and Hancock the vaudeville turn, but it isn’t that easy. Hancock, even if he could only play one character, was a better actor, and his finest moment onscreen is in the heavily satirical (though deftly executed) The Rebel. In the pre-video 1960s, Hancock’s reputation was surely cemented by the LP release of The Blood Donor, which gave Hancock the opportunity to rerecord (and audiences to relive) the episode, elevating the flat, concussed performance in front of the cameras into a masterpiece of acting that does the script justice.
Hancock’s success hinged on his portraying the outsider most of us feel we sometimes are in a changing world: as rationing transformed into prosperity and London started to swing like a Newton’s cradle, Hancock’s character was adrift, unprepared in a strange new world of opportunity, and failing to make much of it. In early scripts, Hancock is merely imaginatively, but repetitively, fleeced of money by the unscrupulous Sid James, the police being a regular threat. Quickly, the plots take on more subtlety, as Hancock contends with such matters as the sexual revolution (the women he encounters from Miss Pugh onwards are not the getting married type), ageing (The Reunion Party) and even mundane things like fast food (The Economy Drive) and the laundry (The Big Night).
The element of jeopardy is no longer the law, but Hancock’s own sense of self worth, or the approval of others (I’m thinking particularly of The Bowmans and The Blood Donor). Early Half Hours are cartoonish vehicle for a rising star. By the time you get to The Bedsitter, you have a perfect social commentary that would be a performance piece on the stage to this day if Hancock’s interpretation hadn’t been definitive. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch one of the weirdest yet bravest and most sophisticated thirty minutes of television ever made.
Hancock’s Half Hour became increasingly innovative; what of Peter Cook? The satire bubble burst, but its supposed vanguard still had a booming career: Cook was an absurdist masquerading as a satirist, conveniently coming of age just as Britain realised the absurdity of the people in power, neatly fudging the distinction. For all Beyond The Fringe’s satirical credentials, it was also Pete and Dud’s opportunity to perform One Leg Too Few, the absurdity being, presumably, that Dudley Moore could entertain the hope to be a Tarzan-like sex symbol in a Hollywood movie, unidexter or not (imagine!). One Leg Too Few is predictably slagged off thoroughly in the diary of Kenneth Williams, in whose entirely non-innovative and traditional West End revue ‘One Over the Eight’ it appeared.
The Wrong Box doesn’t, unfortunately, transcend the era in which it was made. The music is intrusive, the editing is flabby, the jokes forced. Dudley Moore’s talent is that he looks comfortable on screen despite the wonky script. Peter Cook’s mind always seems to be elsewhere, however, and so we neither empathise with nor believe in the character; you feel you are always watching a performance. There are shots of Hancock in which he looks frankly drunk*, though there is the occasional flash of inspired comedy: on his entrance in the final scene, Hancock extinguishes a cigarette in such a way as to casually undercut the solemnity of the graveyard. It’s funny – and works much better than the over-played falling into graves, or over-length and embarrassing moment when Cook and Moore dance.
You wonder what they talked about between takes. Did Hancock feel himself the elder statesman, the star, dispensing knowledge to the young acolyte? Was Cook too fashionable, too aloof, too busy looking at a glittering future? Did Cook’s veneer of confidence grate on the paranoid Hancock? With the presence of Peter Sellers, did Hancock get much of a look-in? Did they share stories of working with Kenneth Williams? There is a photo of Hancock, talking to Dudley Moore, in Roger Wilmut’s ‘Hancock – a celebration.’ Dudley looks perky and cheerful, Hancock looks exhausted. It’s impossible to know mid-shoot whether your film is going to be a hit, but it seems pretty obvious looking at the two men that one has a dazzling career behind him, while the other still has that to look forward to.
The Wrong Box, then, is a near-anonymous British film of the mid-sixties, a product of a system that churned out competent product for a golden age of cinema-going. The two major Hancock biographies, neither of which give the film more than a couple of pages, are divided on whether it was ‘not an effective performance. He plods around with a forced expression,’ (John Fisher, ‘Tony Hancock’ 2008) or he ‘remained a genius… At last earning him the international attention and overseas royalties he deserved.’ (Cliff Goodwin, ‘When the Wind Changed’ 1999.) The film is discussed towards the beginning of Cook’s biographies – and towards the end of Hancock’s. It was Hancock’s last film; the rest of the cast, including Michael Caine, Nanette Newman and Ralph Richardson, with momentum in their careers, all took the flop in their stride. But it is an interesting watch today as we speculate what went on behind the scenes. Peter Cook, good or bad, can claim a starring role in a film and feels a solid rung on the ladder. Tony Hancock takes a cameo, and surrounded by younger, less anxious talent, feels a nail in the coffin.
* In an interesting article on the film, the Railway Cuttings website refers to Wilfred Lawson as a ‘celebrated inebriate… Uninsurable, a condition which forced Forbes to put up the actor’s bond himself.’ Unfortunately, neither they, nor either of the Hancock biographies mentioned above indicate what the situation was for Hancock, especially since earlier in the same year he’d been fired from Disney’s ‘Bullwhip Griffin’.