BBC4 - 26th March 2008 - 9.00pm

The second of BBC4's 'Curse Of Comedy' dramas. You could argue that these dramas are pretty much cashing in on that well worn cliche about 'the tears of a clown' but I would argue, especially here with 'Hancock And Joan', it's important to remember that all our heroes are flawed and do the pretty awful things that humans do, often bringing others into their dark orbit as a result.

Hancock was a genius, for sure, but his attempt to be a genius 24/7 and to be himself led to divorces and severe alcoholism. This drama shows him to be both captivating and monstrous and often both at the same time. His affair with Joan Le Mesurier is presented in this rather elegantly directed piece as both heart wrenchingly sad and frighteningly raw. Ken Stott plays Hancock, post Galton & Simpson and just about to undertake his Royal Festival Hall gig. Stott is not my first idea of an actor who could play this role and I admit that I found the performance difficult to get into and as is sometimes the case with biographical drama you want the actors to look like and sound like the person they are portraying. I couldn't quite equate Stott with Hancock but that eventually didn't matter as he thoroughly persuaded me with a very complex performance. And he did get some very uncanny facial mannerisms and expressions into the role that captured the Hancock physicality. Stott convinced me and provided a Hancock of contradictions; one minute suffering from stage-fright, the next a very nasty drunk, an emotionally needy, fragile ego and then a self-centred and often pretentious clod.

Granted we didn't see the Hancock of the 'Half Hours', unlike the sequences in 'The Curse Of Steptoe', to remind us why we love Tony Hancock, why we find him funny. Rather we saw him try and take control of his career, thinking he could do it all himself, and fall flat on his arse. But rather than pick himself up, he just opened another bottle. The affair with Joan, played superbly by Maxine Peake, opens the depressing narrative out and the centre of the drama is a much happier affair and shows a relaxed Hancock at the seaside, a very funny encounter with a land-lady and some tender scenes with Joan' son. This is light relief compared to the most harrowing bit of drama I've seen in a while. As Hancock gets drunker, Joan feels the only way to cope with him is to try and match him drink for drink. Peake and Stott challenge each other and wring the utter sadness and desperation out of the scene that begins with her downing a full bottle of brandy in competition with him and ends with Joan crawling off in despair to commit suicide and Hancock passing out, uncaringly, on the floor.

Alex Jennings provides gentle support as John Le Mesurier who gets the man's physicality to a tee. Mesurier is described as a patient, compassionate soul who tries to understand the affair and is prepared to take Joan back once Hancock spirals out of control. He shows Mesurier as a loving friend who accepts the affair stoically but knows that it can only end in tragedy. In the end, forget this is about Hancock and simply watch this as a play about human frailty and about a woman who briefly brings a little happiness and stability into a sad, middle-aged man's life. He's deeply frustrated, very fragile and Stott pulls this off with great skill and success and yet makes him sympathetic despite his hideousness. Peake also manages to convey Joan's determination to help Hancock as any fellow human being would possibly want to do through a simple act of kindness and love.

He's so fragile that in the end he believes Joan has returned to John when in fact the drama tells us that a journalist has cornered her and she's been forced to say something, family members are interfering and letters get stuck in postal strikes. Like a surreal version of Romeo And Juliet where fate contrives against the lead characters, Hancock, thinking the affair and his life is over, is shown in a bizarre embrace with his alter-ego as he goes through his death throes in a hotel in Australia. Director Richard Laxton and writer Richard Cottan weave a fascinating tale of a comedy genius struggling to find his muse and, more importantly, himself and a woman who is prepared to go through hell to try and help him in his task. They cleverly evoke the period and offer recreations of the Festival Hall gig, the dreadful shows he did for ABC and the hope of a new career in Australia.

Devastating, raw, harrowing and compelling.

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