Hancock’s lost Half Hours to go live at the Fringe

MISSING episodes of classic BBC comedy Hancock’s Half Hour are to brought back to life at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, more than half a century after their original broadcast.

From left, Sid James, Bill Kerr, Moira Lister and Tony Hancock record an early episode of Hancocks Half Hour for the BBC in 1954. Photograph: Getty
From left, Sid James, Bill Kerr, Moira Lister and Tony Hancock record an early episode of Hancocks Half Hour for the BBC in 1954. Photograph: Getty

Actor Neil Pearson, who discovered the scripts of recordings lost from the BBC’s archives, will direct the Assembly Rooms show The Missing ­Hancocks.

It will see Pirates of the Caribbean star Kevin McNally take on the title role, which turned the late Tony Hancock into a huge star.

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The Fringe run is being staged less than a year after the BBC re-recorded and broadcast a number of the missing shows to mark the 60th anniversary of the launch of the radio comedy, which ­later transferred to TV.

Pearson has masterminded the re-enactment of the radio shows. Picture: Contributed

However, the four scripts to feature in the Edinburgh show – which will run for the entire Fringe – have not previously been performed anywhere.

Hancock’s Half Hour is revered in comedy circles for being the first hit for the writing partnership of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who went on to create Steptoe And Son.

More than 100 episodes of the original radio show were recorded by Hancock and the likes of Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques. However, around 20 of them were destroyed by the BBC, along with half the TV shows.

The re-recordings and the live show have both been instigated by Pearson, a collector of rare books, who came across some of the original Hancock’s Half Hour scripts and realised he had acquired many of the “missing” ones. Pearson, who made his name in hit comedy Drop The Dead Donkey, told Scotland on Sunday: “As well as being quite hilarious reads, these scripts are quite valuable artefacts, which link us not just to the period but the very time when they were recorded.

“It was only when I started to catalogue them properly that I found that 20 episodes of the 103 radio shows that were originally made were missing. Galton and Simpson are still very much with us. I went along to them and asked them to choose five episodes to hear again if I could persuade the BBC to re-record them.

“The BBC thought it was a great idea as long as I could get an absolutely nailed-on piece of casting for Hancock himself, as they felt it just wouldn’t work without that.

“Kevin McNally is a great comic actor, a comedy anorak and an absolute Hancock aficionado. He’s been carrying around Hancock material on his iPod as long as he’s been able to. I sent him a long email and got a one-word response back, which just said yes.”

Pearson revealed that the initial reaction to The Missing Hancocks has persuaded the BBC to air another series, to be broadcast after the live Fringe show at the Assembly Rooms.

He added: “When people come to the live show it will be as if you are attending the original radio recording in the 1950s. The characters will have the scripts in their hands around a 1950s microphone, just as it would have been ­recorded at the BBC.

“We will have four absolutely unheard episodes that will be performed in two different shows, so people can come twice if they want.

“I can also guarantee they are as fresh and funny as if they were written yesterday.”

The show is one of several highlights revealed by Fringe impresario Tommy Sheppard, who will programme shows in the Assembly Rooms for the fourth year in a row, as well as seven venues under the banner of his comedy club, The Stand.

Other highlights in his line-up include separate cabaret shows hosted by Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and fellow Glaswegian Liz Lochhead, the Scottish makar.

Veteran English actor Rodney Bewes will relive his time in another classic BBC comedy, The Likely Lads, one of the biggest TV hits of the 1960s.

Royle Family star Ricky Tomlinson makes his Fringe debut at 75 with a one-man show looking back on his career. He said: “I’ve never done Edinburgh before, but I have been thinking about it. I’ve been meaning to go up there for years and I’m really flattered to have been asked.”

Musical highlights include soul diva Martha Reeves, who will reunite with her Motown girl group The Vandellas.

Fringe veteran Pip Utton, who has played Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens in previous years, will tackle “probably my greatest ­challenge yet” – a drag version of Margaret Thatcher.