From hitting the airwaves to treading the boards
To celebrate National Radio Day on Sun 20 August 2023, we spoke to producer and director Tim Astley about bringing radio comedy classic Hancock’s Half Hour to the City Varieties stage.
Written by Ellen Carnazza and Tim Astley
Hancock’s Half Hour
It’s National Radio Day, do you have any favourite radio shows?
Unsurprisingly, Hancock’s Half Hour is one of my all-time favourite radio shows, along with Round the Horne and The Navy Lark. I love these shows because they use their medium in the most creative hilarious way, creating the most absurd, preposterous situations with nothing but the power of words and sound.
Tell us about Hancock’s Half Hour?
Hancock’s Half Hour began on radio in 1954, in the early days of radio as we know it. It is credited as being one of the first programmes in the format now known as sitcom, with a cast of regular characters and the humour coming from the situations they find themselves in. Tony Hancock, the eponymous star, played a less-successful version of himself, a comedian who was just getting by, but who wasn’t too bright, and was always being taken advantage of by the wily Sid James. It also helped make household names of co-stars, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams who, along with Sid, went on to star in the Carry On films.
Why do you think the sitcom humour of Hancock’s Half Hour has stood the test of time?
The programme has a timeless quality about it because, at its heart, it is all about people. The character of Hancock is the archetypal comedy loser, just like Captain Mainwaring, Basil Fawlty, David Brent, and so many others who followed. He dreams big but is held back by his own pomposity and stupidity. Galton and Simpson’s scripts are so brilliantly crafted, and the supporting cast is one of the finest ever assembled.
The Lost Episodes on stage
Tell us about Apollo Theatre Company.
We have specialised in theatrical recreations of classic radio shows for the past eight years. It all started in 2015 when we produced the 50th-anniversary tour of Round the Horne. We have also produced productions of The Goon Show and Steptoe & Son. We first toured Hancock’s Half Hour in 2019 and it’s very exciting to be back with a brand-new production, with the added challenge of not being able to listen to the original episodes.
How do you go about translating a radio show to the stage?
The show recreates the original recordings at the Playhouse Theatre in the 1950s. I am a lifelong fan of radio comedy and my ethos with these shows is always to recreate them as faithfully as possible so that the audience experiences what it would have been like to sit in the studio and watch these brilliant programmes being recorded. The cast really brings the characters to life with incredible impersonations and we complete the experience with a live sound effects engineer.
What are the lost episodes?
In the 1950s, recording tape was expensive and decision-makers at the BBC, rather short-sightedly, didn’t imagine that people would want to listen to comedy shows years afterward, so they re-used the tape and recorded over the original recordings. This sadly means that the recordings of many of the early episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour are lost, never to be heard again. Happily, the scripts still exist and this show is our opportunity to recreate three of these lost episodes as we imagine they would have been performed.
On the road
Any tales from touring?
Over the years, we have met many people who attended the original recordings and the biggest compliment we ever receive is that our show is exactly what it was like.
What can audiences expect from Hancock’s Half Hour: The Lost Episodes?
The audience can expect to be transported back to the Playhouse Theatre in 1955, experiencing, as authentically as possible, the recording of the greatest radio sitcom of all time.
We can’t wait to have you in Leeds. How do you feel about bringing Hancock’s Half Hour to City Varieties?
We are so excited to bring the show to the City Varieties, a venue with its own rich history. Our show brings back to life some of the greatest British comedy talents of all time, and the theatre has seen more than its fair share of them…
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