My Favourite Londoner: Tony Hancock

In 2005, I interviewed the author Tim Lott for Time Out‘s My Favourite Londoner feature, in which we invited writers, actors, musicians and other personalities to tell us about their favourite London character. Lott chose Hancock, who is also one of my heroes, and I’ve reproduced the piece below.

(Incidentally, my other interview in this series was with one of my favourite writers, George MacDonald Fraser, who told me of his fondness for John Bunyan – although I’m not sure how much he actually knew about him, as I recall him slowly reading chunks from the encyclopedia over the phone to me. Sadly, the piece was never published, I’ve lost the transcript and MacDonald Fraser died soon after, never having written the Flashman book about the American Civil War – something he told me kept putting off, as the war was so horrible.)

‘I identify extraordinarily strongly with Hancock. I remember loving him enormously as a kid and living for ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’. I was about eight or nine and thought it was just the funniest thing on television. He spoke directly to my world – I lived in a London suburb like East Cheam and I too was a kind of – I hadn’t reached the level of being pretentious but I was somebody who desperately wanted to transcend what I saw as being my suburban limitations. And yet I was hugely intimidated and bewildered by the larger world beyond. Hancock’s concept of noble failure was very appealing to me. He never gave up trying to raise above his station but he was always doomed, and that was the key behind his comedy.

It goes deeper than that though. Deeper than him being simply funny.

I should incidentally remark that Tony Hancock was born in Birmingham not London, but I’m talking of course about Antony Aloysius St John Hancock, the character created by the London-born Galton and Simpson, who were died in the wool Londoners and that’s why the London voice is so strong. I think that idea of petty pretention underpinned by a real desire to better yourself – a motif shared by another of my great London characters, Steptoe the younger.

Trapped by circumstances but longs to escape the limitations not only of his own external situation, but more crucially the limitations of his own personality. He dreams of a wider world, one that isn’t defined by the quintessentially dullness of a 1950s suburban world.

I remember on the day he died this very famous photograph of him in Sydney looking so haunted, if you wanted to draw a picture of a man about to commit suicide it was almost a perfect representation of depression. I’ve written a memoir about my own depression (‘The Scent Of Dry Roses’) and somehow even at that age – I was 11 – it made an enormous impression me. I wondered how anybody could reach a level of such deep misery that they should want to kill themselves, and I found that utter bewildering. I was too young to recognise the deep melancholy and frustration that lay behind the character of Hancock.

Image result for hancock tony

You can look upon Hancock as a ludicrous figure but people loved him and felt a tenderness towards him because of his vulnerability. Underneath his absurdity was a genuine wish to transcend his world. In ‘The Rebel’ he escapes to Paris to become an artist even though he has no talent and that was always my dream, to escape the dead streets of Southall and mix with all the eccentrics, bohemians and artists. But on the one hand you want this, but you also want to be reassured that these people are slightly absurd.

Hancock is greatly loved for that sadness that the real Tony Hancock brought to the role. It was the same with ‘The Likely Lads’, Steptoe, the essential tragedy of the situation.

He was a very beautiful man, he had a lovely face. There was something very evocative about his looks. Those great moony soulful eyes always acted as a counterpoint for the laughter and always said, yes it’s funny but it’s terribly sad as well.

Image result for hancock tony

He was the soul of male suburbia in the 1950s. I always felt that aspiration, I always felt doomed, I always felt too stupid, I always feared I would end up back in Southall, my equivalent of Railway Cuttings, Cheam. And like Hancock I always felt a paradoxical affection with that place. It’s not a cruel, angry comedy. It’s very whistful, tender, reflective comedy.

I’m very rarely that shocked or sad when somebody dies, but I was when Hancock died. I remember seeing the story on the cover of the Daily Express and staring at it for a very long time. It’s strange how 20 years later I became terribly depressed, almost as if I had an intimation that it would happen. It’s almost creepy how fascinated I was by him, but he was a social climber with aspirational pretentions.

My favourite moment: when I went to university this sketch always came to mind. Hancock decides he’s going to increase his education so he gets out the biggest book he can find, this massive intellectual tome, and he sets it down on the table and prepares himself to do battle with the contents of this heavyweight textbook. He opens the first page and focuses and there’s this wonderful brave shot when nothing happens for about a minute, it’s just him looking at a page and then he looks up at the camera and just says ‘Stone me’. That basically summed up my entire attitude to learning.

Image result for hancock tony

You love the freedom and art and culture of the middle classes, but you despise their pretention and their snobbery and their wealth and their privilege – and the two are very mixed up in your own mind, you want to become what you hate. He was very much of that era of working-class writers – Sillitoe and Storey and Waterhouse and Potter – but all of them were from the north. There were no southern working-class playwrights and in a way it was all transposed into the comedy of Galton and Simpson and Clement and LeFrenais. That novel about the lower-middle classes and working classes in London never came out – there was a whole tradition of northern writing but I didn’t recognise that, it meant nothing to me. But I did recognise Hancock and Steptoe. You didn’t find that world much in novels or drama, but most frequently in comedy and Hancock was the greatest of them.”


Estuary by Rachel Lichtenstein

I’ve written a review of Rachel Lichtenstein’s very good new book about the Thames Estuary, called Estuary. You can read it here, at Caught By The River.


Miss World and the ruin of London

I have two events coming up where I will be discussing Battersea Power Station in collaboration with other writers. At the excellent Bookseller Crow shop in Crystal Palace I will be teaming up with Rob Baker of Another Nickel In The Machine for a London Night, where we will talk about low culture and high jinx in London. My talk will focus on some of the finer pop culture moments associated with Battersea Power Station, while Rob will talk about his blog, his book (Beautiful Idiots And Brilliant Lunatics) and the Miss World protest of 1970.

This will take place on Thursday September 15th at 7.30pm, £3.


This will be followed by a London Society event with Owen Hatherley, where we will discuss the redevelopment of Nine Elms and Battersea, and debate the limits of preservation and conservation in a talk titled The Ruin of London. This takes place at the Gallery on Cowcross Street on Sept 20th from 6.30pm.

Francoise Hardy dans le Londre pub

I wrote a piece for the August issue of Eurostar’s Metropolitan magazine about the appeal of Françoise Hardy.


Hardy was pretty much the only one of France’s 60s pop singers to have any sort of impact in the UK, scoring a couple of hits – even one in French – and some camera time with Mick Jagger. Johnny Hallyday may have recorded with the Small Faces and Jimmy Page, but he achieved little by comparison. Ditto Hardy’s super-cool husband, Jacques Dutronc (watch this clip for a brilliant piece of agitpop), let alone yé-yé singers like France Gall or Sylvie Vartan.

Hardy benefited from being the first French singer to have a hit here, and the UK market could probably only take one foreigner at a time. She had excellent songs of course, but also an appealing vulnerability – it’s in her music as well as the body language in the image above. Unlike most of her French, English and American compatriots, Hardy never seems to smile on her single and album covers. She also had an androgynous Moddish look that was very mid-60s, a little like a French answer to Julie Christie. You can see the attraction to a generation of Euro-sympathising spotty English art school students with intellectual pretensions.

Hardy’s popularity in London was such that in 1965 she made a French TV special in the capital, visiting several sights – palaces, the docks, the parks – and recording songs in unlikely locations such as outside a mew house, in the back of a black cab or while wearing her pjs in bed on the back of a flatbed truck driving round Piccadilly Circus. She also visits a street market and, delightfully, a pub. Some of the visuals are brilliant, such as the scene in which she performs against a backdrop of advertising hoardings.

A selection of stills are below, followed by the entire film.

fag beer egg kid sausage

FH Hardy4



The before and after of Hardy trying a pint are a personal highlight.

watneys watneys2

The whole film is here. It’s marvellous. Tres chic.


Never mind the Balearics: London and the hippies of Ibiza, Formentera and Deia

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about the 1960s hippie scene in the Balearic islands of Ibiza, Formentera and Mallorca. It explores three individual but inter-related scenes – the community of artists and writers centred around Robert Graves in Deià, which attracted musicians such Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Daevid Allen; the hedonistic hippies of Ibiza; and the more hardcore scene on Formentera, that was filled with escapees from London and which had connections to Pink Floyd.

This is a circular tale. Following the arrival of expat Londoners in the 1960s, Ibiza continued to attract a wide range of European travellers throughout the 1970s, and the resulting spirit of chemical hedonism, opportunism and musical adventure eventually spawned Acid House. This came back to London in 1988 at clubs like Shoom, which were directly modelled on the mutant neo-hippie attitude that London DJs had experienced in Ibizan nightclubs. Although the piece concentrates mainly on the Soft Machine/Pink Floyd angle, the circular nature of this journey really interested me – the way a generation of elite London hipster helped transport a certain spirit to the Mediterranean, where it gestated into something quite different that a later generation brought home again.


To get an idea of what life was like in Ibiza and Formentera in the 60s, you should watch More, the film by Barbet Shroeder which had a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. “The film More, that’s what made Ibiza famous forever,” said Jose Padilla, the DJ who founded Cade Del Mar. “That was it for me, the Ibizan white house with no water or electricity, hanging around knackered, guys from Vietnam, girls, there was a lot of heroin too. You can tell [Floyd] were doing a lot of acid… but the landscape must effect the music.” You should also listen to “Formentera Lady” by King Crimson, with evocative lyrics by Peter Sinfield, who often visited the island. As a result, there is now a street named after King Crimson on the tiny island.


Another Balearic-influenced 60s psychedelic classic is Cream’s “Tale Of Brave Ulysses”, with lyrics by the great Australian artist Martin Sharp that were inspired by his time in Ibiza and Formentera.


The Floyd crew spent time on Formentera in the 1960s, with Syd Barrett being sent there to recuperate following acid meltdowns, accompanied by the ever fascinating Sam Hutt, the hippie doctor who later became the country singer Hank Wangford. I’ve written about Sam’s West London hash clinic before. Aubrey Powell, co-founder of Denmark Street-based designers Hipgnosis, also spent much time on Formentera and told me how the island’s landscape influenced the artwork he later produced for Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd – particularly the weathered sandstone that Syd Barrett would stare at while off his head on LSD.

Meanwhile, over in Deià, the scene that coalesced around poet Robert Graves helped influence Soft Machine and Gong. Graves was an extraordinary character, who straddles so many areas it’s difficult to know where to start, but was connected in several ways with music, drugs and a general spirit of inquisitive mysticism. I spoke to Graves’ Spanish son-in-law and son – both of whom are musicians.  I also talked to Gong’s Didier Malherbe, who lived for a while in a cave in Robert Graves’ garden, where he would practise his flute and talk to Graves about Greek mythology, while neighbour Daevid Allen took acid and dreamed up his Gong universe.


Among Graves’ many interests was a fascination with magic mushrooms – he corresponded with Gordon Wasson, the American banker who helped bring mushroom knowledge to the west – and both Soft Machine and Gong were hugely influenced by the psychedelic experience. Artists, writers, musicians and actors from London would often visit Graves, including Ronnie Scott – Graves was a regular at Ronnie Scott’s club whenever he was in London. Graves also spent time with Alan Lomax, the great musical folklorist.

Deià is now a mecca for rich Europeans, partly due to a huge luxury hotel owned by Richard Branson. The story behind this goes back to London in the 1970s, when Branson and his wife were having dinner at Branson’s Little Venice houseboat with Kevin Ayers and his wife. Branson had his eye on Ayers’ wife and in the spirit of the era, this canalside soiree soon turned into a swinging scene, with everybody swapping partners. However, Ayers and Branson’s wife Kristen then fell in love and ran off to Deià. Kristen later ran off again, this time with a German architect, who Branson promptly teamed up with to build the hotel that would destroy the town’s bohemian spirit forever, sending Ayers into further exile, this time to Paris.

While Ibiza/Formentera and Deià were largely separate scenes, there was the occasional crossover. One such was this album, Licors by Pau Riba. Riba, a Formentera-based musician and grandson of Catalan poet Carles Riba, recorded this excellent psych-prog album with Daevid Allen in Deià. Riba also recorded the strange, beautiful Catalan folk album Jo, La Dona I El Gripau, in a stone house on Formentera in 1971.




Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jeater for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jeater told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.


The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

Talking about Battersea Power Station

A lovely review of Up In Smoke has appeared on the London Society website this week, and I will be talking about Battersea Power Station at a London Society event alongside Owen Hatherley in September. More information on that soon. Owen and I discussed architecture and music on Resonance FM a few weeks ago, and you can listen to that here.


Before that, I’ll be one of three speakers at a Londonist event on July 20th at The Pipeline on Middlesex Street, E1. I will tell some strange tales about Battersea Power Station, Amy Dickens will discuss her blog about commuters and Matt Brown will tell us that everything you know about London is wrong, which also happens to be the title of his latest book. All that for a fiver and chance to say hello. Doors open at 7pm.

To give you a taste,here’s a blog post I wrote about the power station’s current predicament for the New Statesman. I’ve also recorded something for their City Metric podcast – more information on that as it comes.  



Tate Modern – a tale of two power stations

I went to see the new Tate Modern extension yesterday and very impressive it was too. The extension by Herzog & De Meuron manages that rare trick of looking new and exciting while also reflecting the character and style its neighbouring building. It reminded me a little of the way the British Library sits so comfortably yet confidently next to St Pancras.


The interior is also neatly done, despite some very peculiar shapes in corners. There appears to be more public space than in the original galleries – although that may be because it was filled with only 100 or so journalist rather than several thousand tourists – and it feels genuinely sociable, as well as realistically industrial. The viewing platform on the 10th floor is great, although the vista to the south is sadly blocked by the hideous tower to the left of the image directly above.

The art was fun too, featuring some great oversized installations on the second floor, plus a mix of disciplines – including incredible street photography taken in Newcastle – and loads of women and international artists.

Naturally, this sensitive, thoughtful and exciting treatment of what was once Bankside Power Station got me thinking about its older sibling along the river in Battersea. Both buildings were the work of the same architect, Giles Gilbert Scott, and so naturally share a similar style, most notably the use of decoration on the brick envelope to dress the mass, making it more palatable. Some critics believe that Bankside is the better building, describing it as Scott’s masterpiece.

It is certainly a fine building but I’m not even sure I was aware it existed until it was converted into Tate Modern in 2000. I would have walked past it, sailed past it, looked straight at it numerous times – but the fact of its existence escaped me. This is not uncommon I’ve found and Bankside, for many, only became noticeable when it was turned into an art gallery, finding in its second life a prominence that had eluded it for decades – and perhaps this invisibility is something Scott should be commended for, as the power station’s presence on the river opposite St Paul’s was immediately and understandably controversial.


This is all in stark contrast to Battersea, a building that once seen is impossible to forget and which has always had a prominence you rarely find in industrial buildings, let alone their ruins. Only now, as Battersea disappears behind a curtain of contemporary glass and steel is that threatened – so while Bankside eventually found visibility in its afterlife, Battersea faces obscurity, with the thoughtfulness of the Tate’s new extension highlighting the brash ugliness of the new developments around Battersea.

High Street


As ever, one ponders alternative presents to that in which we find ourselves. When it became known in the early 1990s that the Tate was looking for a second building, having acquired a collection too large to be contained within the original Pimlico gallery, campaigners at the Battersea Power Station Community Group wrote to the trustees, suggesting they make a bid for Battersea Power Station, then still in the hands of theme park magnate John Broome but already in a terrible state. This, they argued, would make the perfect location for a new art gallery: it was huge, impressive, historic and directly across the river from the Pimlico site. Romantic as this might have been, Tate’s trustees – possibly alerted to the idea of using a power station by the campaigners – instead plumped for Bankside, which had closed in 1981 and facing demolition, for entirely practical reasons.


Inside Bankside before the art arrived

For one, Bankside is much smaller than Battersea, only a third the size. Secondly, Bankside is much easier to get to, surrounded by tube and rail stations, and even a new bridge to the City, while Battersea is strangely isolated despite its prominent location. Thirdly, Bankside wasn’t listed, making it much easier to convert -and later, to stick gargantuan limpet-like extension alongside, when it turned out the original building was too small.

Bankside was saved and the arrival of Tate helped precipitate a huge cultural change along that part of the river. Further west, however, Battersea’s struggles had barely begun.

Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams Of Battersea Power Station published by Paradise Road.

Parks and pubs

I reviewed Travis Elborough‘s lovely history of the British public park for Caught By The River.


Travis has previously written excellent books about the Routemaster and London Bridge as well as worked with Saint Etienne/Paul Kelly on their London film (which I’ve still not seen) How We Used To Live.

This time, his scope is a little broader – his history of parks begins with the dawn of urbanisation – but is at its most fascinating when focussing on the 19th century, as cities grew exponentially and parks were needed as never before.

It made me think about my relationship with my nearest park, Brockwell Park, which crops up in the book several times – for instance, as the location of the country’s first One O’Clock Club in 1964, created after an LCC employee was horrified to discover “ten howling babies in their prams abandoned outside Brockwell Park’s playground”, left there by older children who were meant to by looking after their siblings and were instead using the facilities for their own fun.


Brockwell Park is a classic London park in that it covers so much of the history and present of parks. It was formed from a rich man’s land, given to the people for their free use – and within the grounds still stands the austere old Brockwell Hall (now a cafe) and the former kitchen garden. It was landscaped in the Victorian style, with bathing ponds and the kitchen garden made into a formal walled garden, but also has an Art Deco lido as well as more modern facilities such as the BMX track and a superb children’s playground. Here you will also find a bowling green and tennis courts, the remnants of a model village, a lovely miniature railway and the marvellous community greenhouses. During the war, it was used for allotments, barrage balloons and artillery; in the 80s and 90s it became the location for concerts and protests – most memorably, the 1994 Anti-Nazi League concert.

The park still has multiple uses: dog walking, jogging, football, kite flying, BMXing, duck-feeding, picnicking, woods exploring, head-clearing, ice cream eating. It’s where my daughters both learnt to ride their bikes, where they play tennis and meet friends at the playground, in the trees or at the log circle, depending on weather and mood. The park is used for community events – Park Run, film screenings, the Lambeth County Fair – and sometimes also for fundraising, ticketed events and filming, as Lambeth try to balance the annual gap in their budget, a shortfall that means the historic One O’Clock Club is now rarely open.

In Brockwell Park you have the story of all parks, but also a very local and personal one – and it struck me as I read Travis’s book that the best British parks now offer cradle-to-grave facilities but suffer from a similar lack of resources as the rest of the welfare state even though we need them as much as ever before.

The park is at least used and valued, unlike that great modern casualty, the London pub. An excellent history of local pubs – The Pubs Of Herne Hill and Dulwich – has just been published, showing all the pubs in the area that still exist and the many we have lost (including three on Effra Parade alone). A similar history of local parks would be equally treasured.


A Monkee in London: Alf Garnett, John Lennon, Princess Margaret and Balham

I have a feature on the Monkees in the current issue of Uncut.

It’s the second time I’ve spoken to Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, having interviewed them both – plus the late Davy Jones – five years ago to discuss the recording of “Randy Scouse Git”. This time I also spoke to Mike Nesmith.

“Randy Scouse Git” was a song inspired by London. Dolenz wrote it in a London hotel, riffing on a line from Alf Garnett. He told me in 2011:

“We were in London doing press and the Beatles threw us a big party. We were staying at the Grosvenor. Mike and I had turned up on Top of the Pops to surprised everybody by saying hello and they’d smuggled us in in the boot of a car. That’s where I met my first wife Samantha who was a Top Of The Pops DJ, the record girl. It was an amazing experience. I am told I had a great time. I met Samantha and we had a massive love affair. Brian Jones hid in one of our rooms when he was hiding from police and then we got a letter from Princess Margaret asking if we could keep the fans quiet as it  was disturbing her sleep.

The next morning there were a few people hanging around, Mama Cass was in town, and I’d met this girl and I just started doodling with the guitar and singing about Samantha and my friend in the room and the waiter who came in with breakfast and the girls outside screaming. It was like a diary, word association. There’s no deep hidden meaning.

‘The being known as wondergirl’ was Samantha and the ‘wonderful lady’ at the start was Mama Cass. I must have been watching Till Death Us Do Part on TV. Alf Garnett called the kid (Tony Booth, Tony Blair’s future father-in-law) a ‘randy Scouse git’. I had no idea what it meant, but I thought it was funny so I wrote it down.”

Dolenz also talked about visiting The Beatles at Abbey Road.

“I’d gone to a Sgt Pepper session at Abbey Road in my paisley bell-bottoms and tie-dyed shirt and hair in beads and giant sunglasses. I looked like a cross between Ronald McDonald and Charlie Manson. I was expecting a wild, psychedelic funfest freak-out happening, but it was more like a high school gymnasium with four guys in jeans and t-shirts sitting on folding chairs and playing. I must have looked such an idiot. John Lennon said, ‘Hey monkey man, do you want to hear what we’re doing?’ and in the booth is George Martin in a three-piece suit and he presses the button and played “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

Dolenz is something of an Anglophile. His first two wives were British and he lived in London for many years, in Tooting Bec. While working as a TV producer in the UK, he directed this 1979 take on the classic 1950s Denis Norden/Frank Muir sketch, “Balham – Gateway To The South“.