He didn’t merely have bags under his eyes – these were rucksacks.
Rucksacks capacious enough to enable a pair of gap-year students to survive a six month hike in the Bolivian rain forest.
Then there were the juicy jowls; the defeated scowl; the world-weary sigh.
Tony Hancock – hangdog in a homburg.
That was the Birmingham-born comedian’s favourite performance; the act that took him to the very pinnacle of his profession, in the late fifties and early sixties.
But away from the radio mike and TV cameras, Hancock was no loser.
He was more champ than chump, according to a rigorously researched new book about the star.
In Tony Hancock – The Definitive Biography, John Fisher argues that Hancock scholars and fans shouldn’t be unduly influenced by the traumatic suicide which brought an end to such a promising career.
For most of his life, Tony was triumphant. Heck, he even loved sports.
“It would probably surprise a lot of people to learn that when he was a boy and a teenager, Tony Hancock was a brilliant sportsman,” says Fisher.
“Absolutely amazing at cricket and very flash with a football, as well.
“Sport was in the family blood. His grandfather, Harry Samuel Thomas, had been a successful printer, then moved on to become a director of Birmingham City Football Club.
“Working on my book, I talked to people who knew about Harry, and one prominent figure from City told me that he was respected as a very good judge of a footballer.
“That sporting instinct seeped into his grandson.”
So the clown with the frown excelled on the sporting pitch.
And when pitched into the showbiz shredder, he also proved that he could prevail.
Of course, working in Australia in 1968, he did succumb to despair.
By then the glittering career was careering out of control; the private life had kicked him in the privates too many times.
On the wrong side of the world, and at the end of his tether – Hancock ended his life.
“It was a very miserable demise, that’s undeniable,” says Fisher.
“But I was delighted to find, working on my book, that for the greater part of his life, he was a happy soul.
“Unfortunately that point tends to get obscured by people who want to revel in the doom and gloom.
“And that sort of business started almost immediately.
“Within a year of Hancock’s death, a biography had been published about him. It really emphasised the tragedy of the final years.
The booze and all of that.
“But life isn’t as simple as that. Right up until near the very end, Hancock was cheerful.
“He always retained the gift of laughing at himself. No matter how bleak things looked, he found a funny angle to it all.”
When Fisher claims that Hancock was happy, you better believe it.
His research into the comic actor was painstaking.
He was the first Hancockian to interview Tony’s brother, Roger, and also unearthed a previously undiscovered autobiographical 80-page essay.
“Tony had obviously been toying with the idea of having his autobiography written,” he says. “What he’d produced wouldn’t have been published as an autobiography, as there were only 80 pages of typed manuscript, but I got the sense, reading it, that he was plotting a framework for a future work.
“The document is easy to date as being written in 1962. What comes through in it was his great affection for the world in which he grew up.”
Which included the city of Birmingham.
Aged three years old, Hancock left the Midlands for Bournemouth with the rest of his family, to aid his father’s ailing health.
But Fisher says the comic always felt a close bond with the city of his birth – as his affection for another Brummie comedian, Sid Field, proved.
“Birmingham was important for one very good reason,” he says. “Growing up, his greatest hero was the comic actor, Sid Field, who was a big star of the 40s and, just like Hancock, died tragically young.
“As a young man, Tony saw him perform in review in London. I don’t think he deliberately copied him – but he definitely influenced him subliminally. Sadly, Field’s work isn’t very well-known, today.
“He left only a couple of not particularly good films. But, watching them, you see a wonderful use of comic moroseness. “Field had a very round face, like Tony, and you can see where Hancock would have been spurred on.
“When Hancock discovered Sid was born and brought up in Birmingham, he got really excited. He turned to his friend Graham Stark, the comedy actor, and said, ‘This is the guy for me.’
Hancock never forgot the Field he plowed for inspiration. “One of the funny things about Hancock is when he became very successful, suddenly the world was his oyster, and he went and bought not one, but two cars.
“He never really got to drive them properly. But he called one car Sid, and the other was Harvey. Sid wasn’t named after his side-kick, Sid James – it was Sid Field.
“And Harvey came from the title of a play Sid Field did in the West End.”
As well as pouring over the freshly-discovered Hancock document, and talking to his brother, Fisher interviewed friends plus colleagues – including Hancock’s former lover, Joan Le Mesurier, who was also the wife of his close chum, Dad’s Army actor, John Le Mesurier.
A TV movie was recently broadcast about the affair, but Fisher avoided it, not wishing to be unduly influenced in the telling of his own version of the complex relationship that existed between the three characters.
“Joan Le Mesurier told me a tale, about the time near the end of Hancock’s life,” Fisher says, ‘‘probably from a couple of months before he went on that last trip to Australia.
“He’d gone on a bender, and for 48 hours he was out of the house that he lived in with Joan.
“Then, suddenly, there was a knock at the door, and Tony Hancock was there, looking the worse for wear, holding this huge bouquet of flowers, which he’d obviously bought as a token of appeasement.
“Joan grabbed it and bashed him over the head with it.
“And he turned to her and, even in the state he was in, said, ‘Stone me, I’m glad I didn’t try and win you over with a bottle of Champagne!’
“To be able to come up with a line like that, at such a dark time in his life, was wonderful. I suppose it’s just another example of Hancock’s impeccable comic gifts.”
n Tony Hancock – The Definitive Biography by John Fisher (Harper Collins: £20).