Of the 100 or so episodes of Hancock that BBC radio broadcast in the 1950s, 20 are missing. It used to be more but a few recordings showed up and there have been discoveries in distant lands that the BBC sent re-broadcast material to. And, via a modern rebirth, 20 has become 15 (in a way) as Kevin McNally stands in for the late Lad Himself in these five reperformed versions.
The episodes have been chosen by writers Galton and Simpson themselves. They’re now in their 80s and have given their blessing to this 60th anniversary venture. None of the original cast remain following the death of Bill Kerr earlier this year. Their voices are filled by people who aren’t quite impersonating but who are recreating the rhythms and tones of those bygone jokes. And the jokes really are old: the scripts being used today are unchanged from those used in the 50s.
The effect is interesting. At first thing don’t sound right at all: Kevin Eldon is too loud as Kerr, Robin Sebastian not arch enough for Kenneth Williams, Simon Greenall barks as Sid James. And McNally too close and not natural enough as Hancock. But then the humour starts and these imperfections vanish. They actually cease to be a problem to the point where you realise it was probably just you (me) being a bit too precious. This isn’t a recreation in wax, it’s a living performance.
We’re three episodes in and the humour still feels surprisingly modern. (Compare it to, say, ITMA which was broadcast only six years earlier but which comes straight out of the music hall.) This really is the first modern sit-com, or the first one to stick anyway. Hancock with his dreams, with his odd relatives, with his attempts at culture. The mundane reality of life always threatening to squash him.
The flights into absurdity that seem jarring at times work well – this being radio you can forgive most things. It’s notable that when it transferred to TV the surrealism was dulled and the focus was far more on character and observation. Here, the boys really can suddenly find themselves running a dusty newspaper with 14 readers.
Overall, then, it is a pleasure. The risk that things might come crashing down has been avoided and everyone involved deserves credit. It is a fitting tribute to those voices who are no longer around to make us laugh in person but who can, through these beautifully done recreations, join us as we go back to that strange, engaging world of post-war suburbia.