That joke isn't funny anymore
A recent purchase from Trafalgar Road's invaluable branch of Save the Children - Tony Hancock's second film, The Punch and Judy Man. This is the first product of Hancock's generally disastrous separation from his scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, and is not generally well-regarded. It's also a fascinating failure, which was quite possibly the intention. Co-written by Hancock with Philip Oakes, this is in several places pretty transparent autobiography. The appalling seaside town is based on Bournemouth, where he grew up (although filmed in Bognor Regis), the disintegrating marriage has much in common with his own, and the miserable entertainer may just have something in common with the co-scriptwriter. Still, reference-spotting is mostly fairly pointless, and if this were just a 'this is me!' exercise it would be pretty drab. As it is, the film is a weird conflict between the overambitious and the low-key. The opening titles seem to declare straightaway that we're now watching something serious - shots of a crushingly bleak Bognor filmed in expressionist tones, windswept, shadowy and cruel. The detail of the town is similarly relentless. The moments where we see inside the Punch and Judy show are mordant and claustrophobic, and a potentially sentimental element - a weird child who follows Hancock around for every performance - is dropped remarkably quickly.
It's the technique which makes it such a jarring film, though. For Steptoe and Son Galton and Simpson deliberately chose straight actors, so they wouldn't play for laughs, as Hancock and his supporting cast of comics always did - and here, you can see Hancock forcing himself not to be funny. His co-star Sylvia Syms claimed that his first takes in the film would always be hilarious, and he would then insist on incessant retakes until the joke disappeared. The glorious idiot of the TV series and The Rebel is exchanged for a depressed, mundane man, mildly nonconformist, but with little else to distinguish him. Sometimes this leads to total failures - a long slapstick scene in an icecream parlour with the aforementioned child is astoundingly unfunny - but elsewhere it makes for an understatedly devastating film. The scenes from a marriage are particularly stunning, with an opening breakfast rivalling the dinners of Citizen Kane in the ability to describe mutual hatred and anomie in a few gestures. The final scenes, after a potentially cathartic battle with the town's dignitaries, return to domestic inertia, but of a rather different kind. Quietly brought together by mutual ostracism, the couple seem to be unromantically reconciled. Yet the whole scene hinges on Hancock looking lovingly at his wife's new black eye.