The recent television series ‘Don’t forget the Driver,’ was a comedy about a coach driver operating from Bognor Regis.
One national newspaper said they thought the series could be good for the town in the way that Poldark has been good for Cornwall. Time will tell if that prophecy comes true.
How many people have special memories listening to Tony Hancock, the hapless funny man?
He made us laugh with his ‘Hancock’s Half-hour’ and other programmes on the radio, as well as his films.
It is for a particular film that we should in fact remember him here in Bognor Regis.
It was in 1962 that he joined us and played his part in helping to make the town famous.The film, of course, was ‘The Punch and Judy Man’.
Tony Hancock was hugely famous in the 1950s and 60s. He was, and still is, quite a cult figure.
While carrying out research for this article, I have been amazed at the number of websites that are dedicated to, or have links to, him. I also discovered a number of Tony Hancock clubs.
His radio appearances in shows such as Variety Bandbox and Educating Archie were the start of his broadcasting career.
Before this, in 1947, he visited Bognor Regis when he appeared at the Esplanade Theatre as a member of the Flotsam’s Follies.
This was while he was the resident comedian at the famous ‘Windmill’ theatre club in London.
In 1961, Tony Hancock made the programme for which he is always remembered, ‘The Blood Donor.’
But what of the film that was to make Bognor Regis well known, even if not for the right reason?
Following the success of his television programmes, Tony Hancock wanted to extend his work further.
He was never really satisfied with his art and was always seeking new avenues in which to work. With the help of Philip Oakes, he wrote the script for a film.
It was a fictitious story about a small southern coastal town named Piltdown.
The main character was Wally Pinner – the Punch & Judy Man.
His friend, the Sandman, who was a sand sculptor, and the local photographer, were deemed not to be socially acceptable in this quite snobbish seaside resort.
As usual, Tony Hancock appeared almost as himself in a very melancholy portrait, while trying to establish himself as an important citizen.
The film was collaboration between Tony Hancock’s own company and Associated British.
The producer, Gordon Scott, asked for local volunteers to appear in the film.
Nearly 2,000 people arrived at the Royal Norfolk Hotel, where they left their names and addresses so they could be contacted at a later time.
A number of residents were selected to play their own part in the production.
Many areas of the town became immortalised in the film, such as the Pier and Town Hall, alongside other areas including Spencer Street, Belmont St. and York Road, beside the Esplanade and Royal Hotel. Both the film crew and Tony Hancock stayed at the Royal Norfolk Hotel during filming.
While making the film in 1962, Tony Hancock was engaged in various town activities and events, including the crowning of the Bognor Carnival Queen at the Rex Ballroom.
Sidney James, also in the film, was captured by the local press playing with local children at the boating lake, off Crescent Road.
The advance reviews for the film described how the new comedy film was to take Tony Hancock away from his familiar backdrop of the London suburbs and his perceived position in life as a bachelor.
For the first time in his career, he was to appear as a married man.
He played the proprietor of a run-down Punch and Judy show on the “Sands of Piltdown Bay” at the end of the season.
Many of the early advertising brochures for this film told members of the viewing public the history of Punch and Judy and invited the cinema managers to purchase, at a cost of 30/- per week, (£1.50) a threefold advertising display.
Cinema managers were also advised to invite the local Punch and Judy man to attend the cinema during the previous week’s films, to act as an advertising feature for the ‘forthcoming attraction.’
Other advertising for the film, remarked that “Hancock of The Punch and Judy Man is a disenchanted rebel who wages an irreverent and uproariously funny battle against authority.”
Tony Hancock was to operate a dilapidated Punch and Judy Show on the sands, while “cocking a snook at the town’s socialite set, including the mayor and council”.
Sylvia Sims played the part of Hancock’s wife, a woman who was trying to aspire to become part of the town’s social elite.
The film also included such stars as Ronald Fraser, Barbara Murray, Hugh Lloyd and John Le Mesurier.
Members of the new Bognor Regis Film Club showed the film as part of the celebrations during its opening in January, 1981.
There were also limited showings of this film at the ‘Sands of Time’ event in 2001.
The film is now available on video for anyone wishing to recapture the style of the 1960’s.
It shows many interesting scenes of Bognor Regis at that time – ideal for local historians!
Tony Hancock, who was born on May 12, 1924, sadly died on June 25, 1968.
He entertained thousands and left a legacy that he could only have dreamed of.
He is now remembered as ‘the greatest genius of British comedy’, an accolade that he sought all his life.