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RAF Centenary Gala Revives Hancock Gem 60 Years On

Published: 19 Mar 2018

One of the most famous British comedy sketches ever written will be recreated for the first time in more than 60 years, as part of celebrations marking the Royal Air Force's Centenary later this month.

Tony Hancock joined the RAF in 1943, not long after his older brother, Colin, died in action in September 1942 aged only 24. His wartime experiences would be frequently referenced and lampooned in his ground-breaking situation comedy, Hancock's Half Hour, but never more memorably than on December 30th 1956. An episode called The Diary - a parody of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - featured what is now known as The Test Pilot sketch. Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, it sees Hancock as an RAF test pilot and Kenneth Williams as his hapless mechanic.

The sketch will be performed at a Gala Evening at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, March 31. The event will raise the curtain on a wide range of RAF Centenary activities that have been organised around the UK, including a massed flypast in London in July.

Actors Kevin McNally and Robin Sebastian, both of whom starred in BBC Radio 4's The Missing Hancocks - recreations of lost Hancock's Half Hour shows - will perform the sketch live as part of the evening's entertainment.

Tristan Brittain-Dissont, Archivist of the Tony Hancock Appreciation Society, said The Test Pilot sketch has not been professionally performed since it was first broadcast, despite being one the most famous pieces of comedy in British history.  In 1966 Hancock attempted to recreate the sketch as part of a one-off performance at the Royal Festival Hall. A few days before the show, he called Williams to ask if he would participate. Tristan said: "They had not spoken for four years and there had been a degree of bad blood even before this when Ken had left Hancock's Half Hour in 1959, dissatisfied with his revised role in the show. Ken ignored Tony's calls and the reunion never happened.''

Kevin McNally will play Hancock whilst Robin Sebastian takes on the role of Williams. Asked whether the new performances could recapture the magic of Hancock's original efforts, Tristan said: ''Tony was a comic actor beyond compare. But so were his writers, Galton and Simpson. Given the hard test of the passage of time, the scripts for Hancock's Half Hour are now being more formally recognized as classics of British literature, and not just 1950s' comedy. As such, they do not rely purely on Tony's performance, in the same way that a John Osborne play of the same period does not now rest upon it being performed by Burton or Olivier."

The RAF Centenary Gala takes place at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, March 31, and features the Bands of the Royal Air Force, the RAF Squadronaires, along with serving and veteran members of the Royal Air Force. The evening will include special performances by Alexandra Burke, Tom Fletcher from McFly and male harmony group Blake. Comperes are Dan Snow and Carol Vorderman. For more details, or call the box office on 020 7589 8212.

Photo © Karla Gowlett

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