Stone me! There’s going to be a new episode of Hancock’s Half Hour on TV! Or rather, a very, very old one given a new lease of life. You see, 2016 marks sixty years since the first episode of the Hancock’s Half Hour TV series was broadcast, and the BBC has elected to mark the occasion by remaking an episode of HHH long since lost to Auntie’s incinerator called The New Neighbour.
I know what you’re thinking. I’ll bet you half a crown you’re sitting there saying to yourself ‘Oh God, why? Remakes aren’t ever any good. Lightning never strikes twice; they should let sleeping dogs lie,’ and other such worthy cliches. I had much the same apprehension when the people at RT Towers rang up and asked me to review the thing. But I’m happy to reassure all readers, viewers and members of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society that you have nothing to fear. This is emphatically not to be confused with that execrable UKTV remake of Yes, Prime Minister.
Indeed, it couldn’t be more obvious that this is a programme that has been crafted with true care, affection and – dare I say it – love from the ground up. It pains me to say this, because we all know that a bad review is far more entertaining than a rave, but this adaptation of The New Neighbour is an utter delight that will please even the most sceptical Hancock aficionado. I speak as a man who owns no fewer than six biographies of Tony H and who fancies he knows what he’s talking about.
So, where to start? The opening shots of the broadcast reveal a stylised and minimalist set. The main features of the living room of 23 Railway Cuttings are all present and correct; Polly’s on her perch. But the walls aren’t there, replaced instead by bare scaffolding and tracking shots of a studio audience. This, it turns out, is a very wise and thoughtful move on the part of the production team; it allows the viewer to share in the experience of being part of that audience and watching what is quite stagey, non-naturalistic acting, with accompanying laughter, performed exactly as it would have been when Tony, Sid James, Hattie Jacques and the gang recorded this programme’s source material.
And what performances! To try to put this as concisely as possible, every member of this remake’s cast appears to be quite literally channelling the actor they’re portraying. I cannot praise their mastery of the original East Cheam Repertory Company’s’ traits and foibles highly enough.
To hear Kenneth Williams’s Snide character’s oleaginous delivery and diction mastered so adroitly by Robin Sebastian, to experience Sid James’s filthy chuckle delivered in digital audio by Jon Culshaw, and to clap with astonishment at Kevin McNally delivering the line “But I never said they were!” and rendering the last word to rhyme with ‘chair’ – just as the real Tony Hancock used to do – is to witness a truly loving tribute to a brilliant and unique set of actors and personalities. Indeed, even the chap at the end who plays bit-parter Mario Fabrizzi is spot-on.
Ah, but is The New Neighbour funny? You bet it is! The classic Galton and Simpson dialogue crackles and sparkles, rendered perfectly by this expertly-drilled troupe of players. And it is intriguing to note how true to life, how universal the humour of Hancock’s Half Hour still is, even, as in this episode, during a joke that makes references to such now-arcane public figures as Harold Macmillan.
One final thing for Hancock completists: The New Neighbour was a remake of a radio script when it was originally filmed for TV back in the ‘fifties. The fact that the production crew of this adaptation saw fit to continue the tradition of remaking that one particular episode renews my faith in humanity.
So should you watch it? Yes. Yes, you should, and then you should write letters to the BBC demanding that they reassemble this cast and crew post-haste and get them working on the rest of the many, many episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour missing from the BBC vaults! This is a triumph. I might even watch it again before I give the keys to the BBC Previews website back.