Having it confirmed that a comedy hero was a chronic alcoholic, self-doubting depressive prone to beating his partners in drunken rages and stealing his best friend’s wife meant that this wasn’t the bundle of laughs that the casual observer might have been expecting. However, some powerhouse performances from Ken Stott as Tony Hancock, Maxine Peake as Joan le Mesurier and Alex Jennings as John le Mesurier meant it was never less than watchable. Bloody depressing, though.
What was good about it?
• Maxine Peake is a fine actress – though her role was made easier by the audience having no pre-conceived idea of Joan’s personality or mannerisms. Alex Jennings was also good value as John le Mesurier. However, the whole programme stood or fell on Ken Stott’s portrayal of Hancock – and this was less convincing.
• Seeing Hancock jettison a much-loved co-star, the writers that had given him his best work, and his slide into self-pity and alcoholism brought it crashing home that a huge talent is no protection from being chewed up and spat out by the celebrity and television culture.
• As with most BBC productions, the period detail was excellent – this was the 1960’s before the Summer of Love. And the evocation of Britain teetering on the cusp of post-war austerity and the huge cultural changes to come was superb.
• Stott’s portrayal of Hancock’s volcanic rages and alcoholic frenzies was superbly done, with Peake’s Joan unable to reign him in.
What was bad about it?
• Much like the previous week’s dramatisation of Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambells’ relationship outside Steptoe, we were left feeling depressed by the hatred and self-loathing behind some of Britain’s finest comedy. The ‘Tears of a Clown’ story is a well-trodden path, but being such fans of both Hancock and Steptoe, we couldn’t shake the feeling of depressing voyeurism after the programme. It was like witnessing some old friends having a very public bust-up.
• John le Mesurier’s apparent willingness to let Joan run away with his best friend, and his unwillingness to be unduly troubled by it was a frustration. Maybe it really happened that way, but you just wanted to give him a bloody good shake.
• Stott’s portrayal of Hancock was very hit and miss. Whilst the scenes where he was losing his cool nailed Hancock’s mannerisms, the calmer scenes really jarred, and you could sense a very gifted actor not quite hitting the mark.
Aired Wednesday 26 March 2008