64. "Twelve Angry Men," Hancock's Half Hour (1959)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
Like Jack Benny and Burns & Allen in the United States, Tony Hancock was a radio star who successfully made the move to British TV in the 1950s. Hancock's Half Hour is a sitcom that plays a lot like a sketch comedy, in that the titular character (Tony Hancock playing a non-TV-star version of himself) is in different settings every week, with only one other regular character (SIdney James as Hancock's pushy best friend).
Hancock's Half Hour is in a small genre I'd call flâneur-coms, after the French term for someone who likes to walk through a city and take in all its experiences. Mr. Bean is another example, as the title character wreaks havoc in hotels, restaurants, swimming pools, etc. Certain episodes of The Jack Benny Show also qualify, such as the "Christmas Shopping Show" (video here) in which he literally strolls around a department store encountering various zany characters. Currently, Louis C.K.'s Louie puts him in various New York City situations without the benefit (or crutch?) of a regular supporting cast.
A flâneur-com is a rare thing, I suspect, because it's very difficult to write, and it depends so much on a single performance. What's impressive about Hancock's Half Hour, compared with the shows mentioned above, is that it's so focused, executing a complete and coherent story every week (at least in the ones I've seen).
Hancock: What do you think, Miss? Guilty or not guilty?
Woman juror: Guilty. The man is a menace, society needs to be rid of these people, lock him up, throw away the key, and let the beast die in prison!
Hancock: So much for the gentler sex.
I hadn't even heard of the show until last summer, when Jamie Weinman cited it in a post about the holdout-for-justice trope:
The “Twelve Angry Men” story has become a big part of TV comedy, too, since so many comedies do a jury duty episode. Probably my favourite episode of that type is actually called “Twelve Angry Men,” from Hancock’s Half-Hour. It’s sort of a direct parody of the film version, since it replaces the good liberal humanist hero with a juror (Tony Hancock) who is a complete idiot, trying to acquit an obviously guilty person for no good reason, but who acts like he’s convinced that he is a crusading hero.
In the Hancock version of "Twelve Angry Men," he has been elected foreman of a jury for a jewel robbery case, presumably because he volunteered the loudest and no one wanted to waste breath arguing with him. After arguing with the judge and getting a piece of evidence stuck, Lucy Ricardo-style, on one of his fingers, he grandstands in the jury room. Here's one of his big, mistake-laden speeches, the length of which would be almost unheard-of in modern sitcoms. (I nicked the transcript from here.)
Hancock: I shall not go through the facts of this case again, save to suggest to you there is some element of doubt in this boy's guilt. As Shakespeare said in "The Merchant Of Vienna," when Portion accused Shylock Holmes of pinching a pound of meat: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd, it droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven, upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd, twice bless'd, the sign of good — no — it blesseth him that gives, and him that takes."
Take the case of Doubting Thomas, who was sent to Coventry for looking through a keyhole at Lady Godiva. Can anybody prove he was looking at her? Can anybody prove it was he who shouted out: "Get your hair cut"? Of course not, this is sheer supposition! Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain? Brave Hungarian peasant girl who forced King John to sign the pledge at Runnymede and close the boozers at half past ten! Is all this to be forgotton? My friends, it is not John Harrison Peabody who is on trial here today but the fair name of British justice, and I ask you to send that poor boy back to the loving arms of his poor white-haired old mother a free man! I thank you!
After Hancock hams it up, his pal Sid announces that he's also refusing to join the "guilty" stampede, but it's because he likes the hotel lodgings and wants to drag out the deliberations. Then there's a twist...
As Weinman points out, lots of sitcoms do jury episodes; The Dick Van Dyke Show and All in the Family, among others, put major characters in a "Twelve Angry Men" situation. But the American shows seem less cynical about the criminal-justice system. The only episode I've seen that's even more irreverent than Hancock's Half Hour is the "Jurying" episode of another British sitcom, Peep Show, in which Jeremy votes to acquit an obviously guilty woman in hopes of sleeping with her.
I've only seen eight or so episodes of Hancock's Half Hour; there are a lot of full episodes and short scenes on YouTube, but two enjoyable episodes, "The Blood Donor" and "The Missing Page," seem to have gone missing. I shall have to investigate further and report back if any entry surpasses the high standards of "Twelve Angry Men."