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Hancock’s Ashes

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    As is acknowledged several times in this drama, the transportation of ashes, particularly when they belong to the tragic and necessarily late figure of Tony Hancock, is a subject ripe for comedy. Particularly so when it is satirist Willie Rushton – Hancock’s nemesis, who he lampooned mercilessly in a Private Eye cartoon strip – who is in charge of repatriating the lugubrious TV and radio star’s remains from Australia.

    Yet playwrights Caroline and David Stafford do not succumb to the stereotypical slapstick potential of this set-up. Rather than the inappropriate disgorgement of bits of cremated Hancock, the Staffords produce a spirited debate on the art of humour couched in a droll comedy of manners.

    It is 1968 and in the aftermath of Hancock’s suicide in Sydney, Rushton, a stage actor as well as a purveyor of a new kind of parodic wit, is pleading to have the ashes travel in the aircraft cabin with him. Rushton, played with startling veracity by Ewan Bailey – taking little gulps of air as if trying to diminish his establishment accent – explains how Hancock dissected the human condition but was felled by the toxicity of fame.

    Opposite him, Richard Dillane, as Australian airline official Foster, nimbly counters that humour is an avoidance of reality, a spiritual vacuum, while trying to control a drunken army deserter foisted on him. Stuffed with great lines – “Passion requires both bars of the electric fire”, says a deadpan Rushton – profundities and enjoyable trivia, this may well by the Staffords’ finest radio play.

    • BBC Radio 4
    • October 30, 2.15pm
    • Authors: Caroline Stafford, David Stafford
    • Director: Marc Beeby
    • Cast: Ewan Bailey, Richard Dillane, Paul Heath, Roslyn Hill
    • Producer: BBC
    • Running time: 45mins
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