Until his untimely death in Sydney in 1968, Tony Hancock was one of Britain’s best-known and best-loved comics. Already successful as a radio comic in the early 1950s, stardom came with his own slot, Hancock’s Half-Hour, and the partnership with scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
Between them they crafted the radio, and later screen, version of Hancock, a seedy failed theatrical with pretensions to intellectualism, riddled with snobbery and always ready to be become the victim of someone else’s scam. The fictional Hancock went by the name of Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock. The real Hancock was straightforward Anthony John.
The radio Hancock lived in Cheam, a dull suburb south of London, supported by a cast of characters who repeatedly skewered Hancock’s ludicrous and overblown pomposity. The cast included some famous names – or names that later became famous; Sid James playing the local rogue, Hattie Jacques as Hancock’s acid-tongued secretary and Bill Kerr as an errant Australian who had somehow landed in Cheam, while Kenneth Williams played a variety of parts.
Part of the success of Hancock’s Half-Hour was undoubtedly its breaking new ground. These days we’re used to situation comedy that features tragic failed people as their main characters, but at that time this was very new. Comedy had relied on larger-than-life caricatures, plus a couple of musical breaks. The half-hour of storyline was a real departure and the observational skill of Galton & Simpson was very fresh; and they did away with the song in the middle.
The show moved to TV in the 1960s, first with much of the original cast, and then in a re-invention as Hancock was moved from suburban Cheam to a bedsit in Earl’s Court, leaving behind the rest of the cast. At his height, Hancock was a veritable star, but it didn’t last. Having moved on from the cast that had supported him, he made the mistake of parting company with scriptwriters Galton & Simpson. Combined with a drinking problem, his career faltered, in spite of two movies that did well, but not well enough, to become box office hits. He was attempting to rejuvenate his flagging career in Australia when he overdosed on pills and vodka. Was it suicide or a mistake?
The reason for bringing the magnificent fictional Hancock to the attention of the criminal fraternity here is Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. One of the early TV episodes opened Tony and Sid reading, Sid dismissive of The Stranglers of Bolton by Grant Peabody, while Tony is engrossed in Lady Don’t Fall Backwards by Darcy Sarto. It’s clearly hot stuff – a pastiche of the kind of hard-boiled pulp that was popular at the time. Tony can’t put it down, and then he turns the last page just as suave, sophisticated New York private eye Johnny Oxford is about to unmask the killer… to find there is no last page.
See for yourself, here’s the critical five minutes.
This leads to a search for the missing page and the solution to the mystery…
Lady Don’t Fall Backwards is probably one of the finest titles for a book that never was (along with Dead Men Don’t Need Haircuts and The Case of the Poisoned Doughnut), until now.
A Hancock aficionado by the name of Alex Skerratt has come up with a complete novel, recreating Lady Don’t Fall Backwards, complete with the missing final page, with a cover that’s faithful to the one mocked up in the TV episode, and with the blessing of both Galton & Simpson and the BBC. But I’m not dropping any spoilers here other than to say that there are no one-legged dwarfs in the book.
Intrigued, I read the book, and contacted Alex Skerratt to ask… why and how?
‘I wrote Lady Don’t Fall Backwards because, basically, it was the book I always wanted to read,’ he replied.
‘Ever since I saw the Hancock’s Half Hour episode, I was captivated… I wanted to know who left the footprints in the snow, and who poured water over the secretary’s electric typewriter? I actually hoped that a dedicated fan would have already written the book, and that all I would have to do was hit the Buy Now button on Amazon. But alas, nobody else had been crazy enough, so I figured it was down to me!’
Writing a period recreation, set in a city he had never visited, presented its own sets of problems. Alex bought an original copy of a book called Manhattan Terrors by Ben Sarto, made extensive notes about 1948 events, and made extensive use of Google streetview to be accurate in the book’s descriptions and in getting right the names of neighbourhoods.
‘The writing process was challenging, and it moved at a glacial pace,’ he added. ‘The main problem was that I was trying to emulate a very distinct writing style, and I also had to ‘become’ the Darcy Sarto character. I had to somehow shape my words into a manner befitting a middle-aged American scribe from 1948. Not an easy task!’
In fact, it works remarkably well. The result is a 1948 novel that is uncannily real. The mannerisms and the detail are right, not so much for the period itself, but in being faithful to the style of pulp fiction Darcy Sarto would have written at that time.
It’s a challenge and a labour of love that few of us would probably want to take on. However, Alex Skerratt has done a respectable job of bringing to life a piece of fiction that was supposed to never have existed to begin with.
Lady Don’t Fall Backwards is available from Amazon or from Alex’s own website.
However, to get the full flavour of Johnny Oxford, the trauma of the missing page and the body of work supposedly left behind by Darcy Sarto, here’s the full episode of the Missing Page. All right, it’s in black-and-white, the sets are wobbly and it’s shot on a shoestring, but it’s of its time and the production shortcomings don’t detract from the script or the characters.
So I’m wondering when we get to see a recreated version of The Stranglers of Bolton?