The Daily Telegraph

Lost Hancock tape certifies his mercurial comic talent


One of few good news items in a very grim week was the rediscover­y, in Lowestoft, of a vast treasure trove of “lost gem” vintage radio recordings from the 1950s and 1960s. Chief among them was the long-missed episode The Marriage Bureau from the first season of Hancock’s Half Hour, unheard since it aired in 1955. There was real excitement surroundin­g this find, long regarded as a “Holy Grail” by the kind of modern-day knights errant who spend their leisure hours sifting through damp cardboard boxes of cassette tapes at car boot sales. Not only was this one of the venerated “Missing Hancocks” but it featured a lost guest appearance by another comedy great of the era, Peter Sellers.

Aired on Radio 4 last night, we got a chance to hear for ourselves whether it was worth the 67 years of yearning. Did it stand the test of time? Well, yes, in some ways. Hancock’s comedic talents were as mercurial as they come, and he was on certifiabl­y top form here. The script by comedy geniuses Ray Galton and Alan Simpson was an absolute cracker, bringing to the fore all the most outrageous elements of Hancock’s indolent, utterly selfish on-air persona. But we knew that already, because the episode was recreated by the BBC in 2015. What the lost recording provides (both are available for comparison on BBC Sounds) is an object lesson in performati­ve brilliance.

Hancock might as well be singing his lines, effortless­ly trilling from gormlessne­ss to selfishnes­s and charm with perfect timing. His brief exchanges with Sellers, largely ad-libbed Goon Show-style, crackle with a deeply un-1950s subversive­ness and challenge. He brings such louche brio to a seduction scene with the wonderful Moira Lister that his audience was reduced to paroxysms of screaming laughter.

That live audience also helps reveal just how much Hancock was a creature of his time – the now Neandertha­lseeming attitudes to women, foreigners and just about anything that wasn’t English, taken as read. Here was a comedy king in his prime playing to his adoring subjects. It’s really not so hard to see how it all went to his head.

The tape’s existence first came to light on Raiders of the Lost Archive (Radio 4, Thursday) in which lost-audio hunter Keith Wickham took us into the weird world of the vintage radio collecting society known as the Radio Circle – and how his fellow member Richard Harrison stumbled upon that fabulous cache of lost gems recently.

There was a lot packed into Wickham’s 30-minute show, which aptly fulfilled all three Reithian virtues with unabashed enthusiasm. One strand regarding how the entire archive of the BBC Radiophoni­c Workshop was saved from a skip thanks to the dogged persistenc­e of one enthusiast, was staggering. A rescued piece of Patrick Troughton “in 1984 from 1965 found in 2014” reeked with atmosphere and a weird contempora­ry relevance regarding “double think” in politics. But the chief focus was that stash containing the Hancock and some 90 missing-inaction editions of Roy Plomley-era Desert Island Discs, among them irreplacea­ble interviews with Dame Margot Fonteyn, Noël Coward, Dirk Bogarde, Sophie Tucker and Bing Crosby.

Radio 4 Extra has already started airing them – the typically fireside feeling Crosby edition aired on Sunday. And, for those impatient for the rest, they are all available on BBC Sounds. (A full list of the “rescued episodes” is on the BBC website.) Not all of them are complete – just shy of nine minutes of Coward’s 1963 appearance survive, but during them he discusses his favourite comedies (his own, of course) and, really, nobody can (or would want to) enunciate quite like that anymore. As an exercise in urbane elegance and cool, the Dirk Bogarde interview from 1964 is hard to beat.

Finally, not to revel entirely in the past, a brief mention for The Witch Farm (Radio 4), which frankly scared the pants off me on Monday. Danny Robins’s follow up to his hugely successful podcast series

The Battersea Poltergeis­t is another “true-life” tale of an unfortunat­e family (led with conviction by Joseph Fiennes and Alexandra Roach) who followed their dream to a remote farmhouse in the Brecon Beacons only to live out a petrifying seven years of heart-stopping rattles, bangs, stenches, apparition­s and, supposedly, possession­s.

“Could this be the one that tilts us all into believing in ghosts?” asked Robins at the outset. I don’t know about that, but it was one of the few things terrifying enough to exorcise all thoughts of the recurring nightmare that was the news this week.

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 ?? ?? Radio 4 broadcast a long-lost episode of Tony Hancock’s Half Hour from 1955
Radio 4 broadcast a long-lost episode of Tony Hancock’s Half Hour from 1955

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