Saturday, 27 January 2018

Art - Really? The Rebel from Tony Hancock.

Another piece from the Cockney Kung Fu mailer that albeit talks about a movie has tendrils into the art and comics world in a number of different ways.
I’ve been meaning to rewatch this movie for a while now. I saw it as a kid and have fond memories of watching it with my father who was a fan of Hancock from back in his radio days and the too short TV series. I have also rewatched The Punch and Judy Man that Hancock made later and in my opinion is a better movie in many ways.
My reasons for watching it other than the obvious nostalgia factor was to see if it addressed things and areas of this world that I had long thought it did in fact cover through my memories. Did it lampoon the art world to the extent that I remembered? Is it still a movie that you can quote when people:
A. Publish comics that are clearly so bad that they do not deserve the praise rained upon them.
B. Produce comics that say exactly the same thing but with that self censorship that comes with an unwillingness to hurt other creators’ feelings.
So..... I wrote some notes as I watched.

The Rebel.
Starring Tony Hancock and George Sanders.
Written by Ray Galton, Alan Simpson and Tony Hancock.
Directed by Robert Day.

I am always struck with the shortness of opening credits in movies made prior to say 1975. They seem to just say what they have to say and get on with showing a story. It’s common for me to look at my watch these days as we get ‘clever’ animations that seemingly last for minutes just to show us the name of the production company. As the opening credits roll I notice name after name that I recognise. It reminds me of a rainy Saturday afternoon of movie watching at home.
The movie opens on Hancock on his way to work. You’ll notice as the movie rolls on that he uses his own name as he did in the radio and TV series. He was after all probably too well known in the UK to do anything else at that point in his career.
It’s notable that the opening sequence has a stylistic flair that I neither remembered nor expected. It is wordless for minutes. A train arrives and Hancock races through no small amount of small minded cunning to get a seat. He is surrounded by bowler hatted and pinstripe suited city businessmen. They all open a paper at the same time on the same train that they get on every morning. Hancock surveys the carriage and in an echoing inner monologue catalogues their types down to what he presumes they drink down the pub. As the train rattles along Hancock finally utters some words in frustration;
Where are we going?’
Waterloo!’ Is the quick and impatient reply from a man next to him
As Hancock sits at his desk at work you can see how frustrated and bored he has become. He is prone to doodling the faces of his colleagues in the margins of the account books he keeps. John Le Mesurier arrives at exactly half past the hour and gives the line of desks a quick look up and down. Let’s face it, JLM is the fucking Dean of the Scowl! He works into that face of his both a familiar friendliness along with often irate infuriation! A man who often has his patience frayed and his interactions with Hancock are the fire that boils his water.
We then see a conversation between Hancock and his boss that does in fact boil over. Hancock takes the man that we fully recognise from his jaded yet open eyed sarcasm on the TV and radio to more of an active and almost slapstick role. He and JLM get at it (not like that) and Hancock chews the scenery as he describes his need to grow artistically.
I must break away and find myself!’
JLM - ‘I do hope that you’re not one of those angry young men.....why don’t you join the tennis club?’
We then quickly shift to Hancock’s flat where he is working on a sculpture that if you called it grotesquely inept would be doing it a favour. Hancock performs brilliantly in this scene and speaks to the sculpture like she is a lover. As he chips lumps off her nose he coaxes her into believing that he is doing it for her own good. I absolutely loved this scene. Hancock goes out of his comfort zone again but does so with perfect vigorous delivery.
Hang on. Irene Handl is playing Mrs Crevatte and Hancock’s landlady. She hears the banging and comes upstairs in her curlers to investigate. I began to notice at this point that Galton and Simpson recycle at least a couple of their earlier jokes in this movie. Hancock in reply to Mrs Crevatte makes reference to the house saying;
This place hasn’t been touched since 1850. What are you waiting for? A loan from the National Trust’
This is a recycle of a joke that formed the central conceit for the tv episode ‘Lord Byron Lived Here.’ An episode that aired two years earlier. But it still lands well with Hancock’s class delivery. In fact Handl is given some excellent lines as this scene continues. One is a line that is oft cited as a classic.
Hancock - ‘I’m an impressionist!’
Handl - ‘Well it don’t impress me!’
She also gets this excellent line.
‘I got not time for naked women with no clothes on. They’re lewd.’
Although the character Hancock plays in this movie is a little removed from what we have previously been used to there are still the obvious moments that are and can only be a Hancock moment. He believes himself to be the only sane person in the world as he does so often in the tv series. His own skewed and selfish logic is applied to so many of the situations from episodes like The Blood Donor or The Impersonator to his interactions with critics of his work in this movie. A prime example of this is when at about twenty minutes into the movie he goes to a trendy cafe and encounters problems ordering a white coffee. His hang dog jowls tell a story that I encounter on a weekly basis even now. (Sound familiar?)
Maybe he is the only credible voice in cinema? The world is now as it was then an incredulous place?

(At this point I would like to add that Liz Fraser plays the waitress in the aforementioned cafe. I had a bit of a crush on that lady!)
I am also taken with what Hancock’s legacy exists today? Would we really so thoroughly embrace Partridge, Brittas, Brent and even Larry David without this sarcastic wanker laying the comedic ground rules?
But. This is the big ‘But’ for the movie. The credibility of this man falls when you realise two things.
  1. He is a deluded idiot. And..
  2. His art is fucking awful by anyone’s standards other than his own.
So Hancock whilst bathing in an ocean of delusion takes himself off to Paris. A place where surely he will be recognised as one of the greats and rewarded with riches and applause. Let’s see shall we...
The journey to France on the ferry is not without ridiculous events. Hancock has a terrific little soliloquy about how his life is about to change and he is throwing off the shackles of his previous employment. He throws away his bowler hat that (obviously) has his travel tickets stuck in the brim and then throws away his umbrella only to find it pouring down cats and dogs when he arrives in Calais.
Hancock is always the comedian that you take a pleasure in laughing at rather than along with. He is the supreme example of a small-minded berk. He fights through what he sees to be the unfairness of the world to at least attempt to get something for himself. In this case he blags rides to Paris and then walks the street, bank sides and alleyways of the city drinking in the atmosphere. He then finds himself in a small cafe and orders a glass of wine. At the next table are a group of struggling Parisian artists who are discussing the medium. One short-lived appearance is by a very young looking Oliver Reed who sort of Shouts and Leaves!
Hancock befriends one of the artists and moves into a studio with him. This other artist is also an Englishman called Paul and played by Paul Massie. He is actually (and especially in comparison to Hancock) a great artist but lacks the voice and confidence to promote himself on the scene.
Hancock has, as always, has a fuck-load to say and pretty much zero talent to back up his boasts. (This ringing true at all folks?)
Paul manages to express himself to Hancock. as they talk Hancock reveals himself again to the audience as what a fraud he truly is....
Paul - (on the subject of painting a representation of a chair) ‘The feeling of being a chair.’
Hancock - ‘Yes, that wooden feeling.’
The pair trade lines about their respective creative drives and you feel that again Hancock is out of his depth. At one moment Hancock, in an effort to impress his new found friend, mentions that he once attempted suicide. This is a chilling moment when you remember that only some seven years later Hancock was to take his own life whilst living in Australia. In a suicide note he wrote at the time of his death he said;
Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.’
This is a moment that had me pause in my watching of The Rebel.
I carry on and sense that this strange French world is again taking Hancock out of his comfort zone and stretching the familiarity that the audience had with this already fully realised fictitious persona. As they walk to the studio Hancock sees artists literally exchanging blows over creative differences and a beautiful woman who briefly flirts with him. In a couple of these moments we see the child behind the facade. Nobody can be that cocksure of themselves. The bravado of this ‘talented’ artist slips on the odd occasion and that is why we warm to Hancock in this movie for the most part. You almost want him to fit into this beatnik society and then every few minutes he lets himself down with comments like;
Your colours are the wrong shape.’
That infamous line rings out like a bell whenever I hear it! And right at that moment I like to imagine that every pretentious, hipster, tattooed knobend at every fart smelling, trendy gallery gets a little pang of guilt! The battle of total confidence and tasteless delusion.
So, in spite of himself Hancock becomes a popular character in the Paris art scene. He projects his diatribes on roomfuls of freakish empty minded trendies that includes an almost unrecognisable Nanette Newman as Josie.
Paul - ‘Josie is an existentialist.’
Hancock - ‘Why kill time when you can kill yourself.’
If ‘Josie’ was an actress today she would be a good bet to play Gaiman’s Death in a movie! We also get the second reference to suicide. A strange and sad coincidence.
Hancock makes use of a lot more physical comedy in this movie that he was previously known for. A particular scene where he splashes paint onto a huge canvas and then dances and gurns his way over it in his dirty boots could be out of a Marx Brothers movie. It showed what he could do and it in my opinion really works. We see some more of this later in a dance scene that had me laughing. You could easily see this happening in an episode of Partridge nowadays.
When Paul decides that his life an an artist has failed and leaves for England Hancock is left with all of his friends art left piled up in the studio. George Sanders arrives playing Sir George Broward, an art collector and millionaire. He spots Pauls paintings and events occur that are in no way objected to by Hancock where he accepts payment and false ownership. The deception is now afoot and Hancock is swept up in the applause of the situation.
You can’t fight fate.’ Hancock exclaims.
It’s not my fault, he talked me into it’
It is at this point that Hancock lost me. This is by no means just his fault as the script then portrays him as a pompous and selfish fool. He is revealed wearing cloaks and fedoras and smoking from cigarette holders as he taunts and rebuffs the press and poses for their photos looking ghoulish. I suspect that this may be why this movie was somewhat of a critical and commercial failure at the time. We always understood in what Hancock did, we felt in some small way that he spoke for us, for the everyman. Here he just propels himself into a shoddy caricature. He can easily be despised by the viewer.

Galton and Simpson in an interview with Paul Merton about the movie spoke at length about how great it was to have a big star like Sanders in the movie. But as I watch it he feels to me like he would rather not be there. That in a way can be interpreted through the uncomfortably unconnecting interactions between the characters that he and Hancock are playing but somehow it seems to be a little more than that on screen projected lack of chemistry. Sanders huffs and puffs, albeit charmingly, through the last act of the movie and when he makes an excuse to miss the climactic party scene I actually though ‘oh, he didn’t fancy this movie anymore then?!’
And onto the party scene. It’s an interesting clash. Some of Hancock’s dance moves seem straight out of a Morecombe and Wise Christmas Special and the hippy dippy nature of the costumes would be more fitting in a Peter Sellers mid sixties sex comedy. But Hancock acts through the middle of this. The film ends on a moment that Hancock pulls you back on his side. He sees through all the bullshit on behalf of the viewer, turns his back on this shallow scene and walks off into the sunset.
You’re all raving mad!’
I like to think that he walked back into Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, hung up his fancy coat, placed his homberg back on his head, nodded at himself in the hallway mirror and rang up Sid James for a pint of Brown Ale in the Bat and Ball.
I enjoyed this movie. I think that it has been unfairly remembered as a huge failure. Give it a go.
So.... How does this experience that we have had with our pal Tony compare to the art and especially the comics of today? I have seen some comics art that would easily fall into the ‘Deluded and Pretentious’ Category. Art is of course objective but this must have it’s own limits surely.
We like what we like I suppose and who am I to tell you what is good.
But surely there are limits?
Many thanks for reading.

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