Hancock's Half Hour: The Tycoon featured image

When people talk about antecedents to Red Dwarf, it’s often science fiction which is endlessly referenced. Films like Dark Star, in terms of the situation and portraying working class people in space, or Alien, which amongst other things directly influenced many sets in the show, to Blade Runner, which… erm… I got nothing.

When it comes to sitcoms, there’s the classic “Steptoe and Son in space”, which is often thrown around as an early concept for the show. Porridge is also mentioned, in terms of the claustrophobic trapped situation between characters which the show was trying to evoke. All of this is certainly true, but typically there’s very little analysis beyond mentioning a TV show or film, along with a one line description.

Recently, I’ve had the utter delight of watching Hancock’s Half Hour for the first time. And the episode The Tycoon (TX: 13/11/59) has a number of remarkable similarities to the Dwarf episode Better Than Life, broadcast nearly thirty years later. Moreover, I don’t just mean in terms of character work – the main plot beats of the episode are broadly identical, despite Better Than Life seemingly hanging off a science fiction idea which Hancock would find impossible to replicate.

Rather than vague hand-waving or simplistic single line reductions, let’s take a look at the episode in detail, shall we?

Act 1: The Misery

I won’t keep you waiting for the hook too long. Both The Tycoon and Better Than Life involve a character escaping into a fantasy world. And if you’re going to have a show where your character escapes into a fantasy world, it’s worth giving them a pretty good reason to want to escape the real one. With Hancock, we start with our eponymous hero perusing the morning papers and reading the stocks section… and very quickly deciding to try and leap out of the window:

HANCOCK: Let me go. I’m ruined. This is the only way. Let me put an end to it all. It’s 1929 all over again. Let me go Sid, I’m finished. I can’t face the world any more. Let me go. I can’t face the future a broken, ruined man. It’s better it should end this way. Let me go.
JAMES: Shut up a minute. Have you gone raving mad?
HANCOCK: Don’t you understand? I’m ruined. I’m boracic lint, I’m skint. The market has collapsed. Let me do the decent thing.
JAMES: Now, don’t do anything that you may regret later.
HANCOCK: There isn’t gonna be any later, you fool. I’m gonna jump out the window.

Red Dwarf delivers the financial bad news not with a morning paper, but with a letter:

LISTER: Smeg! Outland Revenue.
RIMMER: Oh oh oh oh, Outland Revenue!
LISTER: Eight thousand five hundred!
RIMMER: Eight thousand five hundred? That’s a lot of tax isn’t it, Lister? How on Titan are you going to pay for that, eh?
LISTER: I’m not. It’s yours.

Hancock reading about his stocks Rimmer finding out about his Outland Revenue bill

Admittedly, with Red Dwarf, the real bad news ups the stakes somewhat, which is an interesting decision in itself, and perhaps not one you would entirely expect when comparing the two shows:

LISTER: This handwriting’s terrible. “I hope this epistle finds you adequately healthy to discharge your duties.” You know maybe I shouldn’t be reading this deeply personal stuff.
RIMMER: Just get on with it.
LISTER: “I write to…” I can’t read that. Oh, “I write to inform. I write to inform you that your father is dad.” Well of course he is. Maybe it’s your father stroke dad…
RIMMER: It’s dead.
LISTER: I can’t make it out.
RIMMER: My father is dead.
RIMMER: My father is dead!
LISTER: Oh yeah it’s an E. That’s what it is. [Happily] Your father’s dead, Rimmer!

In both episodes, the character’s best friend (who they nonetheless share rather an antagonistic relationship with) tries to talk them out of their troubles, although Sid is rather tougher than Lister:

JAMES: Alright then. Go on, jump. Well, go on. Have a go.
HANCOCK: All right then, I will.
JAMES: Go on then, I’m waiting.
HANCOCK: All right, I’m going. There’s no need for you to worry.
JAMES: I’m not worried boy, go on.
HANCOCK: Yes, well, I intend to. You won’t stop me.
JAMES: I don’t wanna stop you. Go on.
HANCOCK: Well there we are. That’s all right, isn’t it?
JAMES: Yeah.
HANCOCK: Right, at least I know where I stand.

A pause.

JAMES: Want a push?

Although even Sid gets fed up after a while:

JAMES: Oh, come in and put the kettle on.
HANCOCK: All right. By heavens Sid, it was a good thing you were there.

Lister’s effort at cheering up Rimmer, meanwhile, is rather more poignant:

LISTER: I remember when my dad died you know. I was only six. I got loads of presents off everyone like it was Christmas. I remember wishing a couple more people would die so I could complete my Lego set. My grandma tried to explain, you know. She said he’d gone away and he wasn’t coming back. So, I wanted to know where, like, you know. She said he was very happy and he’d gone to the same place as my goldfish. So I thought they’d flushed him down the bog. I thought he was just round the U-bend, you know? I used to stuff food down, you know, and magazines and that for him to read. They took me to a child psychologist in the end because they found me with my head down the bowl reading him the football results.
RIMMER: I knew he was dead. I mean they’re all dead, aren’t they?

Sid giving Hancock something to live for Lister giving Rimmer something to live for

And both characters are given something to take their mind off their troubles by their best friend – from the same source that caused the trouble in the first place. Sid, with the same newspaper that gave the stocks news:

JAMES: [reads newspaper] “The East Cheam Building Society. Extraordinary general meeting of all shareholders is called for Monday at 2 o’clock.” That’s today. “It is extremely important that all shareholders attend this meeting to discuss the future of this society.”
JAMES: Well, you got shares in it, haven’t you?
JAMES: Yes, in that job lot I sold you last week.

Meanwhile, Lister, who gets the total immersion videogame from the same post pod as the letter:

LISTER: Rimmer, listen – me and the Cat were going to play a TIV. We wondered if you wanted to come?

Hancock goes to visit the East Cheam Building Society EGM in order to take part, but falls into a dream. Meanwhile, the Dwarfers get hooked into the TIV – an artificial reality game. Both are entering their fantasy worlds, and from this point all but the final scene of each episode is not reality…

Hancock falling into a dream The Dwarfers entering the TIV

Act 2: The Fantasy

As we enter Hancock’s dream, we find him still sitting in the East Cheam Building Society EGM, but things are now rather different. Hancock’s fantasy is all about power:

CHAIRMAN: This company is facing disaster. There is nothing I or my fellow directors can do to stop this trend. I have no alternative but to ask you to accept my resignation. I suggest you place the future of this company in the hands of the only possible man who can save it. I refer, of course, to the greatest financial wizard the economic world has ever known: Anthony Hancock.

Rimmer’s fantasy, meanwhile, is all about, erm, power:

CADET: Sir, I know it’s a most awful bore, but would you mind just signing this.

He produces a book and pen.

RIMMER: What’s that, you little pipsqueak?

We now see that the book has a colour photo of Rimmer on the front in full uniform.

RIMMER: [Reading the cover] “My Incredible Career, by Admiral A. J. Rimmer.”
CADET: I’ve read it eighteen times, sir.

Hancock taking over the company Rimmer with his officer chummies

With Hancock, we get an extended sequence of the lad ‘imself getting stinking rich. World conquest is within his grasp. However, even in his own fantasy his brain rebels, and he gets into a rather nasty card game with his rival Aristotle Thermopylae. Whoever wins the game owns all of the world’s wealth. Unfortunately:

HANCOCK: There you are. I’ve beaten you, I’ve ruined you. You haven’t got a single trick.
THERMOPYLAE: But neither have you, my friend. It is you who are ruined.
HANCOCK: How can be both be ruined?

They both slowly look at James, who is tidying up the cards. He smiles.

JAMES: My pot, I believe, gentlemen?

Rimmer’s diseased brain, meanwhile, gives him financial troubles of his own…

TAXMAN: Mister Rimmer?
TAXMAN: Mister Arnold Judas Rimmer?
TAXMAN: Outland Revenue, sir.
RIMMER: Oh my God!
TAXMAN: This is a demand for immediate payment.
RIMMER: Eighteen thousand?
TAXMAN: If you are unable to pay, sir, I am instructed by the Revenue to break both your legs and pull off your thumbs… sir.

Hancock, lost everything Rimmer, lost everything

And so both Hancock and Rimmer have lost everything. As Hancock awakes from his dream, and the Dwarfers exit the TIV…

Act 3: The Reality

…both programmes end on a callback joke about the character’s financial situation, and possible physical unpleasantness:

CHAIRMAN: What’s going on here? What’s happening?
JAMES: He suddenly attacked me.
HANCOCK: I had every right to. I owned half the world till he came along, half the world. Him and his Chinaman’s whist. Let me get at him.
INVESTOR: Send for an ambulance, somebody.
HANCOCK: He’s ruined me. Ruined me, I tell you.
INVESTOR: He’s mad.
HANCOCK: I’m not mad. Ask Aristotle Thermopylae. He ruined him as well.
JAMES: Wait a minute, Hancock. You’ve been dreaming, boy.
HANCOCK: Leave me alone, let me go. Ruined! Ruined!

He races to the window.

HANCOCK: Farewell!

And jumps… only to find out he’s on the ground floor.

HANCOCK: Oh for crying out loud, don’t they build anything above ground level?

Poor old Rimmer, meanwhile…

LISTER: Who said you was a loser, eh? Who said nice things never happen to you?

The door to the cupboard opens, and the taxman comes out carrying a big hammer.

TAXMAN: I did!
LISTER: Oh no, we’re still in the game!
TAXMAN: You certainly are. Now, what about my eighteen grand? Come on, it’s bone crunching time, me old china. Now, where’s those little thumbies?


Hancock about to jump out of the window again Rimmer getting his fingers bashed in

And as each show ends, it’s worth taking a moment to ponder what we’ve just seen. With Better Than Life, it’s tempting to look back on science fiction antecedents for the show. What was the first story to have an artificial reality game? How did that story progress? All of which is well worth analysing, of course.

But the broad points of the Hancock episode are, to all intents and purposes identical to Dwarf‘s, despite the fact that there is no science fiction involved whatsoever. Substitute an artificial reality game for a dream, and you remove the science fiction element from the story, yet the major story beats match nearly exactly. A character has something awful happen to them, escapes into a fantasy world… but crucially, their own inner character fucks everything up for them, because they won’t let themselves be happy. And for me, that’s the most interesting way of looking at the story.

HANCOCK: Even in me dreams, he’s still at it!
RIMMER: My brain’s rebelled. It just won’t accept nice things happening to me. It just keeps fantasising horribleness.

Close-up of Hancock, annoyed Close-up of Rimmer, annoyed

All of which perhaps explains why, whenever I look at Red Dwarf, I still see a character comedy first, and science fiction second. Although trust Hancock to have done everything thirty years before. Not content with inventing the modern audience sitcom, it has the cheek to do Red Dwarf‘s supposedly science fiction ideas first too.

Stone me.

20 comments on “Hancock’s Half Hour: The Tycoon

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  • I’ve skim read this, I’ll read in depth later. Just want to post some applause.

    Cant believe you’ve left it this long to watch hankcock. The two murderers is just awesome one of my favourite half hours of TV that episode. Simple missunderstanding premise but so well escalated the pacing is a perfect half hour on concept.

  • I often wonder if the world wide audience for Red Dwarf that comes to the show through sci fi fandom predominately, misses anything from not seeing the uk comedy heritage within the crafting. I know they get the humour of character and situation, and intelligently interpret references and/or educate themselves on notes from a different countries past culture if they are inclined to rewatch dwarf often. But in the comparing of the show to star trek most often, would they ever look to US sitcoms or their own viewing of britcom over seas when thinking of an episode. (unless a space ship / alien was involved somewhere). So its nice to see an article like this, as red dwarf hear in my house sits on a shelf next to hancock, porridge DVDS etc. And Still Game, my favourite current sitcom which i could say has the trapped feeling of red dwarf intact in it’s half hour plots. I could compare Marooned’s dog food inventory scene to that of Jack and Victor buying broken vaule custard cream biscuits eeking out their pensions, just as stuck and bored from poverty, as snow was to our ship mates.

  • This is cracking. Like the kind of thing I should have written at Uni at some point. A bit intellectual for G&T, surely?

  • I love the sci-fi setting for Red Dwarf, and it’s maybe the reason I became obsessed with it, due to its totally unique ‘world’ to get lost in – but as for what makes the show great, it’s undeniably the character comedy. People often talk – on the DVD documentaries, for example – about how the show has such clever science, but I never really agreed. The sci-fi elements are fairly underdeveloped a lot of the time, as they simply exist as a framework to explore some element of the character(s)’s personalities. Terrorform isn’t really about a psi-moon, it’s about Rimmer’s self-hatred; The Inquisitor isn’t really about a time-gauntlet wearing killing machine, it’s about the characters and whether the standards they place on themselves; DNA isn’t really about a DNA changing machine etc. etc.

    I know this is something most of us here are fully aware of, but I agree that it’s a shame this isn’t something that’s mentioned often on a wider scale. I often see the ‘monster of the week’ format criticised for later Dwarf, but other than some parts of VI, I don’t see the ‘monster’ as being any more important to the plot than the actual stasis leak is in Stasis Leak.

    The sci-fi tropes of the show allow these ideas to be explored in an interesting and unique manner, but they aren’t the key focus on the episodes.

    Other than VIII, obviously.

  • Lovely.

    Makes you wonder what other plots Rob and Doug may (or may not) have (consciously or unconsciously) lifted… More, please.

    Got to be careful in these litigious and over-sensitive times.

    I read a chapter in “V for Vendetta” that was exactly the same as a Stephen King short story (which was published a decade earlier). I love finding out about plagiarism.

  • Thanks everyone. It was a lot of fun writing this one.

    With regards to whether Rob and Doug had actually seen The Tycoon – the only TV showing they could have conceivably seen was, I believe, in January 1966, when Doug Naylor was 11. As for VHS releases, I think the first time The Tycoon was released was 1997 – a full nine years after Better Than Life was broadcast.

    So I’m not making any specific argument that Rob and Doug *saw* this particular episode, although clearly it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d watched some Hancock. In fact, in many ways, it’s more interesting if they *hadn’t* seen it. It’s merely an argument that Dwarf is drawing on the same kind of things that Hancock was doing thirty years earlier, even when it’s supposedly doing science fiction plots.

  • Really nice article, lovely to read new things about Better Than Life after almost three decades.

    I’d object to the playing down of Dark Star as a primary influence though, or the idea that it’s not a comedy. I mean, it’s got an uptight man in a khaki uniform stood on a cramped grey set castigating a slobbish low-level technician wearing a Hawaiian shirt! And a submarine-like observation dome that they go in for a mope! And a jukebox-pop parody about longing for a long-lost idealistic dream version of Earth over the end credits!

    Also no-one ever seems to clock that the “Dennis The Donut Boy” gag, perhaps the most vocally disliked line in Red Dwarf history, is a direct homage to an identical moment in Dark Star.

    There’s a really nice (and cheap) Bluray available from Fabulous Films which also boasts a monster documentary almost double the length of the film. Recommended. It’s gobsmacking watching all the prototype Dwarf ingredients appear on screen. And okay, it’s hardly Blazing Saddles, but it is a comedy and by far the closest contender for the mantle of Red Dwarf Senior.

    (By the way, I’m Darrell. I have no idea what WordPress account I’m in here.)

  • I didn’t mean to dismiss Dark Star as an influence really – or any of the other films/shows for that matter – so much as trying to acknowledge they’d been talked about before, and this was something a bit different. Perhaps it hasn’t been talked about quite as much as it deserves to have been, mind.

    DwarfCast commentary on Dark Star due, perhaps.

  • Oh yeah, it wasn’t a dig by any means. I only bothered with Dark Star myself this year and I felt a bit of a fool for having ignored it for so long in connection with one of my favourite things.

    I did Silent Running at the same time, and there’s another influence that can’t be overstated.

  • Don’t worry, didn’t think it was a dig! I’m really happy people seem to like the piece.

    I may do a Dark Star and Silent Running double bill this week.

  • Excellent article John, and a Dark Star commentary is a great idea for a DwarfCast. I can’t believe I’ve never realized the Dennis the donut boy joke is a Dark Star reference. Lister reasoning with Pree to get her to shut down put me in mind of Doolittle persuading the bomb not to explode.

  • I would be up for covering Dark Star if I could stay awake for the duration. I’ve tried and failed three times so far.

  • Thanks John. You’ve already inspired me to check out Filthy Rich & Catflap, Colin’s Sandwich, The Brittas Empire and now Hancock (Allo Allo and Hi De Hi I will get around to). We are now as far away from Better Than Life as Better Than Life was to The Tycoon – nearly 30 years.

  • This is a great article. Well observed on all the parallels. I need to watch some Hancock.

    I’m going to be incredibly nitpicky though and say that this isn’t entirely accurate:

    “Both are entering their fantasy worlds, and from this point all but the final scene of each episode is not reality‚Ķ”

    Because the BTL final scene turns out to be a twist in which they’re still in the game. Very pedantic I know!

  • >I would be up for covering Dark Star if I could stay awake for the duration. I’ve tried and failed three times so far.

    Perhaps a DwarfCast is the type of engagement you need to steer you through the more soporific moments. And you can finally find out what happens to the – you know… thing. With – …?
    Nope. Can’t remember.
    It reminds me of the time I watched Chic Murray knowing he was a favourite of Billy Connolly’s. Jesus suffering fuck.

    Anyway I quickly scanned the plot of Dark Star on Wikipedia (a bomb! Of course, it was a bomb!) and I read this telling sentence: “…the food processing computer repeatedly serving chicken-flavored liquid meals.”

  • Just got to the Hancock episode The Missing Page.

    They’re doing Lolita jokes.

    Is the missing page Page 61?

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