Comic genius Tony Hancock had been dead for almost a decade by the time
Heathcote Williams' solo play, Hancock's Last Half Hour, first appeared
in 1977. Since that first production at The Almost Free Theatre, in
which stalwart of Harold Pinter plays Henry Woolf played The Lad
Himself, as he prepared to commit suicide in a Sydney hotel room with
only a scrap-book of newspaper cuttings, a telephone and a bottle of
vodka for company. Like the legend of Hancock himself, however,
Williams' play has lived on.
The late Richard Briers played Hancock in a radio version ofd Hancock's
Last Half Hour in 1988. At that time, Pip Utton, who revives Williams'
play for this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was still working as a
jeweller, and it would be several years before he picked up a copy of
the play in a secondhand book shop and go on to launch his acting
career with a portrayal of a man friends told him he resembled.
Twenty-one years on, Utton has performed in solo plays as real life
characters from Adolf Hitler to Charlie Chaplin, with Charles Dickens
and Winston Churchill en route. It was Hancock, however, who started it
“I was amazed at the level of affection there was for him,” reflects
Utton. “It was amazing as well how big he was. He was a mega-star in
the UK, and was as big as the Beatles. Even today, people who are maybe
too young to remember Hancock will still recognise some of his lines.
That's how big he was, and the play's powerful, both because Hancock is
so familiar, and because he breaks down and disintegrates in front of
For Williams, a key figure in the British counter-culture of the 1960s
as a poet, playwright, performer and polemicist, Hancock's Half Hour
was an early look at the curse of fame, one of his work's perennial
themes. Hancock's Half was also written out of a very personal set of
“There was an old rock and roller who was in a play of mine, Remember
the Truth Dentist, in the Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court,”
Williams remembers of a play directed by the late Ken Campbell, who
Williams acted alongside as Prospero in Derek Jarman's film of
Shakespeare's The Tempest. “He was called Roy Martin. He dragged me
into Foyles in Charing Cross Road and said you have to buy anything and
everything on Hancock and write a play about him.
“I do remember that Hancock was the one piece of common ground I shared
with my father. Fractious and curmudgeonly, he'd had his pelvis crashed
in the war, he used to roar with laughter at Hancock, and I could see
it was therapeutic. Though my father was hard to warm to, Hancock
provided moments when I could warm to him, so I had a personal reason
for valuing him.”
On the surface, at least, Hancock's Half Hour has less of a
revolutionary intent than some of Williams' other works. In the late
1980s and early 1990s, his trilogy of ecologically inclined epic poems,
Whale Nation, Sacred Elephant and Autogedden, all made waves, either in
lavishly published editions, on film or in performance in Edinburgh.
More recently, Roy Hutchins performed Williams' radically inclined
Zanzibar Cats on the Fringe in 2011, when Williams was awared a Herald
This was followed by a volume of science-based poems, Forbidden Fruit,
a biography of Shelley and a new epic, Royal Babylon: The Criminal
Record of the British Monarchy. Then there is Williams' ongoing
alliance with The Poetry Army, a touring collective that performs
Williams' work in a way that has become a kind of conscience of the
“The Poetry Army shows how many revolutions have begun with a poem,”
Williams says of the initiative.
Now aged seventy-two, Williams' output shows no sign of drying up. His
latest play, Killing Kit, about playwright Christopher Marlowe,
received a performed reading at the Cockpit Theatre in February.
Film-maker and former member of radical theatre troupe, The People
Show, Mike Figgis, has expressed a desire to direct it.
In the meantime, Hancock lives again in a way that personifies the
figure of the tragic clown.
“Why are comedians so vulnerable?” Williams muses. “Vivien Leigh said
it was much easier to make people cry than to make them laugh. It's not
a skill that you can learn. It's a gift, and a gift can be taken back.
Look at the tragic people who are no longer funny, usually because
they've taken the devil's shilling and done TV commercials. Somehow, as
if by some diabolic magic, they then become unfunny. Comedy has to be
subversive, and can't embrace commerce's creeping meatball. Hancock was
reactionary in many ways, but he was also anarchic.”
Hancock's Last Half Hour, Assembly Rooms, July 30-Aug 9, 12 noon-1pm
The Herald, August 14th 2014