Britain’s First Sitcom (almost)

The writers of Hancock’s Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, are often referred to as the creators of the British sitcom but few people realise Tony Hancock had previously explored the genre with his friend, Larry Stephens.

Speaking to members of the Goon Show Preservation Society in 1976, BBC Producer Peter Eton remembered that, “before anyone had heard of Hancock, he (Larry) came down to my office one day with this man and he said: ‘This is Tony Hancock who has an act on the stage. You should put him in one of your plays because I think he’s got great potential.’ Larry had found this man – he was writing material for him.”

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Tony Hancock and Larry Stephens in 1950

In July 1952, Larry approached Eton with another suggestion. By that time Hancock was a much more familiar figure and Larry’s name as a writer was being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Frank Muir and Denis Norden so Eton took it much more seriously. Larry had come up with an idea for a comedy series, entitled Vacant Lot, to star Hancock as a blundering and pompous auctioneer and estate agent. The half-hour programmes were planned to consist of a complete story and would have no musical breaks, as was then the norm.

Eton approached the BBC’s Head of Variety and ‘The Light Programme’ expressed an interest in the proposal. Larry put together a brief synopsis:

Churdley Bay, a small town on the South Coast of England, is neither modern nor ‘olde-worlde’. It is different from other sea-side towns only in that, whereas they are crowded during the summer and dull and deserted for the rest of the year, Churdley Bay is dull and deserted all the year round. We are told that the elections for the Town Council are taking place the following day, and learn that the local auctioneer and estate agent – a gentleman who is regarded with amused tolerance by the local bigwigs – is standing for one of the smaller wards. We meet the Mayor, Ambrose Tripfield, and his wife, discussing Hancock’s chances of becoming a Councillor; Dr Quince, the local GP – a quiet, sardonic observer of the everyday scene – making a dry remark about Hancock’s future in politics, local and otherwise; the regulars in the Saloon Bar of the Churdley Arms – a seven-bedroomed hotel-cum-pub owned by George Madkin, a Yorkshireman, and Fred Clodley the local garage owner – a loud-mouthed oaf who always laughs at his own feeble jokes and whose greatest delight is pulling Tony’s leg, a habit which Tony resents and detests. We first meet Tony holding a sale of furniture and effects in the Churdley Arms sale room, assisted by Mr Pemble – his old-fashioned, precise and aged clerk and cashier, and Alfie Lemon, his office boy…

The script for a trial programme was commissioned and auditions took place at the end of October 1952 with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan both considered for parts. Eton forwarded the script to the Variety Department on 3 November 1952, describing it as a gentle situation comedy – the first known use of the term in British broadcasting.

 

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Detail from the cover page of the script for the Vacant Lot trial recording

Vacant Lot had been conceived and written as a non-audience show but the Variety Heads were umming and ahing over whether to invite a studio audience after all and even suggested recording the programme twice on the same day to try out both scenarios. Larry and Hancock felt this would necessitate different scripts and casts and so the Variety Department reconsidered and consented to the non-audience format. A few days later they changed their minds again. The Planners wouldn’t agree to an amended date for the recording until they had seen a new script and an exasperated Hancock declared that rather than delay the project once again he would prefer that it was dropped. It was subsequently shelved in November 1952 and has remained in the archives ever since.

Further information

The Tony Hancock Appreciation Society is dedicated to preserving and promoting the works of Tony Hancock

Official website of Galton and Simpson

British Comedy Guide news item: Forgotten Hancock Script Rediscovered

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4 thoughts on “Britain’s First Sitcom (almost)

  1. Indeed! This is fascinating stuff. My mother (English ex-pat)had an LP of Tony (Blood Donor/Radio Ham) lying around that I devoured. My best friend had an LP of Python, and I became obsessed with the Goons later on in my life. The writing for HHH was nothing short of top-notch.

    Liked by 2 people

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