He was born in Birmingham, England. He was educated at a boarding school in Swanage and Bradfield college, Berkshire. He left school aged 15. In 1942 he joined a RAF regiment and following a failed audition for ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association) ended up with The Ralph Reader Gang Show. Following the war he gained regular radio work leading to his own BBC radio show in 1954: Hancock's Half Hour.
Working with scripts from Alan Simpson and Ray Galton the show lasted for five years and over a hundred episodes, featuring Sid James in every episode as well as roles for Bill Kerr, Moira Lister, Hattie Jacques, Warren Mitchell and Kenneth Williams. Hancock also moved onto television in 1956 with a show also called Hancock's Half Hour for the first six series (the seventh in 1961 was only 25 minutes long and so the name was changed to Hancock). Examples of these programmes may be heard on the digital radio station BBC 7 each Tuesday, for instance on-line at 19:30 London time (=GMT during the winter months) at the official BBC7 site.
Hancock's character in these series is called "Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock" - as the name suggests, the character is a larger-than-life version of Hancock's real self.
Hancock also starred in the 1960 film The Rebel where he plays the role of an office worker turned artist who meets international acclaim after moving to Paris. In the US, the film was retitled Call Me Genius to avoid clashing with the title of a TV show. Unfortunately American critics saw the new title as egotistical and the film flopped. Even today it seldom appears in American movie guides under either title.
Hancock always dreamed of being a major international star, especially in the US, but failed to realise that his style of humour was uniquely British and would probably have confused American audiences. This was demonstrated by his second film, The Punch and Judy Man, in which he plays a struggling seaside entertainer in a boring little town who dreams of a better life. Sylvia Syms plays his nagging social-climber of a wife, and John Le Mesurier plays a sand sculptor. The film's humour is bitter-sweet and nicely understated and perfectly tailored to British audiences. American audiences might not understand it.
In early 1960 Hancock appeared on the BBC's Face to Face, a half-hour in-depth interview programme conducted by John Freeman. Freeman asked Hancock many searching questions about his life and work. Hancock often apeared uncomfortable with the questions, but answered them frankly and honestly. Some of Hancock's friends felt that the interview was more like an interrogation, but Hancock approved the interview for broadcast. Hancock had always been highly self-critical, and it is possible that the interview heightened this tendency, contributing to his later psychological problems.
One of the most famous episodes of Hancock's series is The Blood Donor, in which he goes to a clinic to give blood. This contains classic lines such as, "A pint? Why, that's very nearly an armful!" (The doctor's response: "You won't have an empty arm...or an empty anything!") Another classic episode is The Radio Ham, in which Hancock plays a ham radio enthusiast who receives a mayday call from a ship in distress but keeps getting distracted just before he can take down its position. Both of these episodes were later rewritten and re-recorded in the style of a radio programme for a 1961 LP, and these versions have been continuously available on LP, tape and CD ever since.
More recently the BBC has issued digitally-remastered CDs of the surviving radio episodes (sadly there are several still missing, presumed wiped) in six box sets, one per series. There have also been video releases of the BBC TV series, but only one Region 2 DVD to date, featuring episodes from the last TV series (without Sid James).
Shortly before recording the original version of "The Blood Donor" Hancock was involved in a minor car accident. He was not badly hurt, but his confidence was shaken and he was unable to learn his lines, and so the producer suggested using teleprompters (TV monitors displaying the relevant sections of script) so that he could read the lines instead. Unfortunately, Hancock liked the idea so much that he came to rely on teleprompters instead of learning scripts.
Hancock was so jealous of Sid James's popularity that he had him removed from the show. He also dispensed with Galton and Simpson (who went on to write Steptoe and Son), but his career (and his marriage) declined thereafter, leading him to alcoholism and depression.
There is a statue in his honour in Birmingham.
Tony Hancock: 'Artiste', A Tony Hancock Companion (1978) by Roger Wilmut
Contains full details of Hancock's stage, radio, TV and film appearances.