UK (1961) Dir. Robert Day
Any Millennials reading will find it hard to believe that back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s a six-note tuba riff would signal the country coming to a standstill as the nation crowded around their radios and later their TV sets. Why? Because that meant it was time for Hancock’s Half Hour.
Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the weekly misadventures of the aspirational but delusional Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam were required listening/viewing and Tony Hancock became Britain’s biggest comedy star. Inevitably the leap to the big screen would beckon and in 1961, prior to the final BBC TV series airing, The Rebel appeared.
Departing completely from the TV show, Hancock is now an office clerk in London, tired of following the same dreary daily routine. Instead Hancock wants to be artist and after a run in with his boss (John Le Mesurier) and his landlady Mrs. Crevatte (Irene Handl), he decides to start anew in Paris. There he meets another artist from England, Paul (Paul Massie) and after exchanging ideas about art, Paul invites Hancock to move in with him.
Paul is a talented artist but feels inadequate next to Hancock’s abstract ideas and eventually returns to England while Hancock becomes a hit with the avant-garde crowd. His reputation reaches the attention of noted art critic Sir Charles Broward (George Sanders), who pays Hancock a visit and offers to buy what he thinks are Hancock’s paintings, but are actually Paul’s, an error Hancock doesn’t correct him on.
By taking Hancock in whole new direction and new setting The Rebel in some ways is a forewarning of what fans could expect from what would be the final upcoming BBC TV series. While it featured some of the most memorable episodes such as The Blood Donor it lacked the magic of the Hancock/Sid James dynamic from radio and previous TV runs, which Hancock himself called to end.
This film is also missing that dynamic, with Mrs. Crevatte being the closest to a proper sparring partner to fill Sid’s mighty shoes; Paul and Sir Charles are pretty much straight men in a world of straight men although The Lad Himself can still bounce off them with his usual bolshie panache and often drop himself in it from a great height.
It’s a noticeably more satirical affair than its predecessors, although they weren’t above poking fun at modern life either, usually targeting the upper classes through Hancock’s failed attempts to break into their circle. Here, Hancock is not trying to fit into a world, he is trying to break out of one, feeling stifled as one of the identical pin stripe suited, bowler hatted, umbrella carrying worker drones that pack the trains every day.
Mrs. Crevatte doesn’t help either, her ignorance towards Hancock’s art provides the film with its funniest exchange concerning a “self portrait”, before Hancock is served his eviction notice when his stone sculpture Aphrodite at the Waterhole falls through the floor! The other “pure Hancock” scene sees him at odds with the staff at a coffee shop (TV regulars Liz Fraser and Mario Fabrizi) by ordering a cappuccino “with no froth”.
In France our hero impresses Paul with his “Shapeist” approach, informing him that his colours are the wrong shape. Hancock feels Paul’s superior and skilled paintings are confused and lacking which depresses Paul while the beatniks lap it up. A weird bunch, including Nanette Newman as a proto-Goth and a pre-fame Oliver Reed, they all think they are individuals and cutting edge but are united in their pretentiousness.
Galton and Simpson are not done yet with pricking the egos of the art world as the third act sees Hancock now a star thanks to the exhibition of Paul’s paintings, while his own works are dismissed as “infantile rubbish”. A rich tycoon Carreras (Grégoire Aslan) hires Hancock to create a sculpture of his wife Margot (Margit Saad), unaware of what Hancock’s true style is like.
There is almost a level of cruelty in that Hancock finally achieves the fame and success he always dreamt of and aspired to in the original series, only to have snatched away through his own inadvertent duplicity and ego. Yet despite the swellhead and affectations he is still the same man, refusing to change for anyone, clinging onto the need to be an individual till the end.
For the writers this must have been a challenge to replicate the successful formula of the half hour shows for 100 minutes, so they boldly took a chance and tried something different. For all intents and purposes it worked with signs of lagging in the late second half. Instead of laugh a minute they eke the gags out but are fortunate that Hancock can elicit a giggle just from his facial expression or body language.
Even with art having come such a long way in the last 55 years since this film, there is still a trenchant bite to the satire of the art world that will remain relevant to modern audiences, while the plight of the individual has since shifted from the workplace to the fashions of the modern teen/twenty-somethings in society.
George Sanders may have been the big international name, and proves to be a pretty good foil for our leading man, as does Paul Massie and the inestimable Irene Handl (who is totally on form here), but they are mere asteroids occupying the gravitational pull of Planet Hancock. Sticking with a Galton and Simpson script allowed Hancock to stay true to his character whilst taking it a step further without alienating his fans.
Once you get over the fact this isn’t an extended episode of Hancock’s Half Hour and get onboard with the withering conflation of targets for sardonic treatment, The Rebel is a deceptively clever and very funny big screen excursion for one of Britain’s greatest but sadly tragic comedy legends.