...Seeking a new writer with whom to work, Tony Hancock alighted on Terry Nation, who he had encountered in the ALS offices.
The interview process for the new position, conducted at Hancock’s house in Surrey, was far from conventional. ‘To my amazement all he wanted to do was talk about the universe and what part we played in the cosmic scheme of things,’ Nation remembered. ‘I had always been interested in science fiction, but Tony’s thinking was far more involved, far more philosophical.’
Evidently, however, he made the grade and, the issue of intellectual compatibility having been established, the two men set to work on a Friday night. They were still going the following Monday morning, when Nation had to return home for a change of clothing, having not slept and having combated the soporific effects of alcohol with uppers taken from Hancock’s copious supply of pills.
The relationship seemed to work on both sides. ‘He was a wonderful audience,’ Nation said. ‘I would try a joke on him and he would fall off his chair, he thought it was so funny.’ The only problem came with trying to pin him down to anything definite: ‘When Tony first acted out an idea, we would collapse in giggles. When it was on the page in black and white, he went cold. It was as if the act of writing anything down sparked a huge and lingering doubt, first in the material and then in himself to deliver it.’
In October 1962 Nation accompanied the comedian on a series of week-long theatrical engagements in Southsea, Liverpool and Brighton. Officially his role was that of writer, but Hancock’s extreme nervousness about using new material, exacerbated by his dislike of live performances (he woke on the first morning ‘visibly shaking and covered in sweat,’ according to Nation), meant that very little of the work actually appeared in the show. Instead Hancock reverted to the music hall tradition of repeating the old favourites from his repertoire, and Nation ended up in an unexpected role as companion and nursemaid: ‘I had finished the writing and he could have got rid of me at any time. But he was paying me £100 a week virtually to baby-sit with him.’
He described his job as properly starting when they got back to the hotel. ‘They would leave cold food for us, and some booze, and we’d sit up until about two in the morning. Then we’d go to bed, and he insisted we share a room, so we could go on talking. And we would talk about the meaning of it all, what was it all about, all these things. And I would finally fall asleep, and the next thing it’s eight in the morning and he’s called for hard-boiled eggs and champagne. That’s how the day started and we were off again.’
Those all-night discussions would range from ideas for sketches that never materialized right through to the current international situation, at a time when the Cuban missiles crisis was causing many, including Hancock, to believe that the third world war was about to break out; like Nation’s other comedy mentor, Spike Milligan, he was much troubled by the spectre of nuclear conflict...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2011