Obituary: Stephen Hancock, actor

Stephen Hancock (seated) with the cast of Northern Stage's And A Nightingale Sang. Picture: Contributed
Stephen Hancock (seated) with the cast of Northern Stage's And A Nightingale Sang. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 24 November, 1925 in Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Died: 1 November, 2015 in Southwold, Suffolk, aged 89.

Stephen Hancock may have played one of the dullest men on television, but the shooting of his character on Coronation Street in 1978 had such an impact that ITV temporarily brought him back to life to host a documentary which gave the British public a chance to talk about their loss and achieve some some sort of closure.

Hancock first appeared as Ernest Bishop on Corrie in 1967, though the character initially called himself Gordon (and just to complicate things even more Hancock had actually made a few brief appearances as other characters in the early 1960s).

Hancock became a regular on the show in 1969 when the writers changed his character’s name to Ernest to avoid confusion with another regular character, explaining that Gordon had been the name he used in his professional capacity as a wedding photographer.

Ernie married Emily Nugent (Eileen Derbyshire) in 1972 and wound up working as wages clerk at Mike Baldwin’s factory. He was also a lay preacher.

Ernie was counting out the cash when a couple of young thugs burst into his office and ordered him to hand them over. He was in the process of doing so when Baldwin (Johnny Briggs) burst through the door, unaware of what was happening, and one of the robbers instinctively shot Ernie with his sawn-off shotgun.

His death was not the first death on Corrie. There had been heart attacks, brain tumours and suicide. It was not even the first murder. But it was made all the more shocking by the fact that Ernie was such a mild-mannered character and had been a regular for so long, almost part of the furniture. Ironically Ernie’s death was seemingly the result of a dispute over wages off screen as well. Like his character, Hancock was a quiet man, with a strong sense of right and wrong. He complained to the producers that the wages structure on the show was unfair. Their response was to keep the wages structure and get rid of Hancock.

He was born Philip Stephen Hancock in Bishop Auckland, County Durham, in 1925. His father was a civil engineer. Hancock showed an early aptitude for music and was head chorister at Durham Cathedral.

During the Second World War he served as a radio engineer in the Royal Air Force. At the end of the war he followed his younger brother Christopher into acting. Christopher would later play Charlie Cotton on EastEnders. Hancock attended the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, pursued a career in theatre and met his wife Jocelyne Page in 1960 when they appeared together in a production of Galilleo in London.

Ernest Bishop was not Hancock’s first regular role in a soap opera. He had previously been Dr John Faulkner in the popular medical soap Emergency Ward – 10. He played the role for two years from 1959 to 1961.

Taking a break from acting, he returned to Durham to study for a music degree and in the 1960s he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company as actor, musician and composer. He also composed the music for the Edinburgh Festival production of John Arden and Margaretta D’Arcy’s The Hero Rises Up in 1969

He made his Coronation Street debut as a sales assistant in a baby shop in 1961 and played Mr Spinks, Arthur Lowe’s election agent, the following year before becoming a regular at the end of the decade.

With his dark suit, heavy spectacles and hair in need of a trim, Hancock looked every inch the part of the provincial bookkeeper. And although Ernie was rather gloomy at times, Hancock did get to bring out the lighter side in the character and indulge his own passion for music by occasionally playing the piano in the Rovers Return.

He also played piano for Rita Littlewood (Barbara Knox) when she decided to become a nightclub singer. And, unlike some of the other Corrie deaths up until that point, his was completely unexpected.

An official ITN site noted: “On Monday 9 January 1978 one of Coronation Street’s best-loved characters – Ernie Bishop – was tragically (albeit fictitiously) murdered after being part of the Street for more than eight years. Millions of viewers mourned his death as they would that of a close friend or relative.”

ITV commissioned the documentary Death on the Street which was broadcast the following year as part of the This England series. The ITN site said: “In Death on the Street Ernie Bishop, ‘resurrected’ by Granada (which makes Corrie), talks to various members of the public to find the effect his ‘death’ had on them.”

Hancock presented the documentary, interviewed other Corrie actors who had been “killed off”, confronted his character’s own murderer and even composed the music. Ernie’s death featured in the golden anniversary programme Coronation Street: 50 Years 50 Moments in 2010 and Hancock said: “I remember going as myself to the funeral and watching myself being buried.”

After Corrie, Hancock starred in the short-lived sitcom Sounding Brass, with Brian Glover, and had another recurring role on another long-running soap opera, this time on radio. He played the amateur theatre producer Larry Lovell on The Archers. He continued to act regularly with the Southwold Summer Theatre in Suffolk and he was involved in various music projects, including arranging and conducting for brass bands. His wife died three years ago. He is survived by their two daughters.