The break-up, when it came, was unexpected and hurtful. And ironically timed from Sid’s point of view. He recorded his appearance on Desert Island Discs on 24 March 1960. For his eighth and final selection for the pile of gramophone records Sid selected an extract from a classic Hancock’s Half Hour: ‘Well, you need a bit of a giggle don’t you and something to remind you of the old times and the old laughs and the old team. Let’s have a bit of Hancock. We did one about a lazy Sunday, with nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s have a bit of that.’
Less than a fortnight later the cracks had started to appear. Having been approached by ITV with regards to a project, Sid explained: ‘Tony’s show comes first. We finish telerecording the present BBC Hancock series this month. Tony hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll do a new series. But whatever happens I’m going to do two films this summer. Too much TV can be a killer. Even the greatest people – and I’m a long way from being that – wear out their welcome on the screen.’
As far as Hancock himself was concerned the partnership with Sid was not die-cast: ‘We work together when possible because we get on so well,’ he said. ‘But the situation has always been we work as we want.’
Both Sid and Hancock already knew the score. When the story finally broke at the start of May 1960, Sid revealed that Hancock had ‘kept throwing out little hints. But I wasn’t taking them. Not me. Then one night when we’d four more programmes to do, he dropped his bombshell on the way to the pub after a rehearsal. He said: “Look Sid. What say we pack it in at the end of the series?” I said, “Don’t talk like a maniac, boy! How can you think of chucking up a cast-iron success like ours?” I argued and argued. I told him we could have made films, formed our own production company. Everything. But could I budge him? I still say it’s a crying shame Tony and I had to break it up.’
Too much TV can be a killer. Even the greatest people – and I’m a long way from being that – wear out their welcome on the screen.’
Mutual friend Liz Fraser remembers: ‘Sid was, understandably, very upset when Tony made that decision. Sid really couldn’t believe that Tony could have done that to him. They had become great friends over the years. But Tony had simply made up his mind that he had to continue without Sid. Tony had told me that he was extremely concerned about the audience seeing Hancock and James as a double act. They weren’t a double act in the strictest sense of the word but if you were out in public with Tony people would often shout out: “Hey Hancock.Where’s Sid then?” That must have got to him quite badly. The problem for Tony was that Sid was an actor. Tony was very much a comedian. He had done his variety act around the country without Sid and he was eager to hold a television series together on his own as well. Up to that point Sid had been a constant fixture of the radio and television shows that had made Tony a star. Sid could go off and make a film before breakfast but all Tony had was Hancock’s Half Hour.’
It was a bombshell for Sid. His wife remembers him saying, “Tony doesn’t want me in the show anymore, he wants to go it alone.” He was absolutely shattered.’ But, typically, Sid was not bitter about his friend and cohort in the press. On 2 May 1960 he finally admitted, ‘If Hancock goes back for another series after Christmas I won’t be with him. The partnership is definitely off. There’s been no row with Hancock. I’ve never been fed up. You can’t get fed up with a set-up like that. A comic as clever as Hancock and a script you always know will be a cracker. It doesn’t make sense to want any more. But you can’t go on and on doing the same thing, cocker. That diabolical little box has had enough of us for a while. I don’t care who you are or how good you are, the public gets sick of the sight of you. But I don’t blame Tony. He’ll be a great success. He’s still the funniest man I know.’
There’s a real sense of Sid putting on a brave face here. Like a love affair that has gone wrong he seems to be clutching at straws about the possibility of giving the relationship another chance. That phrase ‘for a while’ speaks volumes. It suggests that if Hancock had made the call Sid would have gone back to him in a heartbeat. But when really pressed about whether the old team would ever get back together again Sid wasn’t sugarcoating the pill: ‘I don’t think so, mate,’ he said.
However, the team never really disappeared. The BBC reacted to popular demand throughout the 1960s and repeated both the radio and television exploits of Hancock and Sid. Pye Records licensed extracts from the shows to release commercially. And, finally, in 1965, the two were reunited in a recording studio to record new versions of two television scripts, ‘The Missing Page’ and ‘The Reunion Party’, for Decca Records.
Graham Stark, a mutual friend and valued member of the Galton and Simpson repertory company, worked with Hancock during this period and was shocked to see him. ‘I hadn’t seen Hancock for years. There he was. Honestly. He looked like my father. He was grey. And fat. He just couldn’t do it anymore. The timing was all gone.’
‘I tried to pull up and get over to him. I got the car parked, but by then he had disappeared.He was so full of liquor he didn’t see me. I wish to God I had been able to catch him, because little things like that can change people’s lives.’
The reunion was certainly an ordeal for Sid. Less than a year later, while on set with KennethWilliams filming Don’t Lose Your Head, Sid allegedly warned Williams away from resurrecting the celebrated ‘Test Pilot’ sketch from the radio show, The Diary, with Hancock. The Royal Festival Hall show proved to be a disaster.
The last time Sid saw Hancock was in 1967. It was just before Sid’s major heart attack and he was driving down Piccadilly when he spied the dishevelled figure of his old cohort. ‘He looked dreadful,’ remembered Sid. ‘I tried to pull up and get over to him. I got the car parked, but by then he had disappeared.He was so full of liquor he didn’t see me. I wish to God I had been able to catch him, because little things like that can change people’s lives.’
Because of the bitter treatment he had borne, often away from the press, the break-up with Hancock was an emotional wound that Sid nursed for many years. No time more so than following Hancock’s suicide in Australia in June 1968. Less than a year later, while Sid was starring in the Thames television series Two in Clover, he had a rare moment of reflection with his co-star Victor Spinetti.
‘As you know, Sid was never one for looking back on his career. What was done was done and on with the next thing. But he was extremely cut up about Tony Hancock’s death and kept on wondering why he had dropped him from the series all those years ago. He was very upset about that and he still couldn’t understand it. That broke his heart because, he said that, at the time, he thought the two of them had had it made and that the show was going to run for years and years. Indeed, if Hancock had lived, I can’t see why that partnership couldn’t have continued well in to the 1970s, like Eric Sykes and Hattie Jacques did. As far as Sid was concerned they had a good thing going on and there was no need to change it. As far as I could tell Sid looked upon the Hancock years as his best years. They gave his career a real touch of class and quality. Something all those knockabout comedies and Carry On films didn’t.Don’t get me wrong. I love the Carry Ons. They never employed me but I still love them! But I certainly think once you had performed those marvellous Galton and Simpson scripts – something akin to mini Harold Pinter plays disguised as situation comedy – then you were spoilt for life.’
Sid James: A Biography, is available in paperback from May 25. Click here for more details
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