Lowly office worker Anthony Hancock (Tony Hancock) climbs aboard the train to work in dejected mood. It's the same week in, week out, the daily grind, a boring job that is destroying his artistic soul, and what does he get to show at the end of it? A silver cigarette case, if he's lucky. When he reaches the office, he sets about the books in unison with his co-workers, yet his heart is in self-expression, and when nobody is looking, he draws sketches to amuse himself, but then his boss (John Le Mesurier) notices and orders him in for a stern talking to. However, Hanckock goes rather berserk when trying to explain himself - maybe a change of scenery would be best?
The Rebel was basically a spin-off from Hancock's Half Hour, the acknowledged classic, groundbreaking radio and television series that shot Tony Hancock to fame. It was written by his long-time collaborators Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, working from a story all three had devised, and is probably a film that shows him at somewhere near to his best in comparison with the handful of others he made before his untimely death. In the film, the joke was that Hancock has the soul of a great artist trapped in the body of a mediocre man, so as always, he has ideas that far outweigh his abilities, but once he gets to Paris to find himself he finds something that his character never found on TV.
Which is acceptance of his grand ideals. And also the early establishing of the sitcom movie trope that the characters must go on holiday. Of course, it's acceptance by people who are as equally pretentious as he is - the film has a noticeable element of the Great British Public's suspicion of all things artistic, as if the whole art world is a fraud perpetrated by folks who think they can get away with any old rubbish as long as they claim to be aesthetic. So the creative types tend to have half a moustache or blue hair, or are taken in by Hancock's terrible paintings and the way he bluffs his way through highbrow conversations.
The real talent (Paul Massie) goes unnoticed because these people are easily fooled, and Hancock manages to string them along with his blustering proclamations on the nature of his craft, stuff about shapes and colours that we can perceive are the words of a man who really doesn't know what he's on about, but has been enabled by his surroundings to believe otherwise. It was true that Galton and Simpson committed to the milieu of a Parisian art world that was at once mocking and rather bleak, as if this bunch don't actually know what they're doing, then their dedication is unavoidably hollow and more or less a complete waste of time. Hancock's landscapes and life paintings are pitifully amateurish, and that's the gag. But is it really all that funny?
While it has a few good laughs, The Rebel doesn't really compare to Hancock's TV and radio series, in spite of his personality being of a piece with that material. He's at his best in more mundane surroundings than Paris or Monte Carlo; in fact, the first part where he trades barbs with the philistine landlady (Irene Handl) would make a perfectly decent Hancock's Half Hour. Where's Sid James when we need him? It's better than The Punch and Judy Man, though, since it has a philosophy, though blue-lipsticked and thickly-eyelinered Nanette Newman's beatnik lecturing Hancock on the benefits of suicide isn't amusing at all in light of how he ended up a few years later. Also with: Oliver Reed in a bit part; an action painting Tony Hart would be proud of; and a couple of cows, one of whom is called Ermintrude, which begs the question, was Eric Thompson a fan of this and was he inspired by it when creating his narration for The Magic Roundabout, or was Ermintrude a very bovine name? Music by Frank Cordell.