The secrets of scriptwriting with Galton and Simpson
PUBLISHED: 12:52 04 June 2013 | UPDATED: 17:06 10 February 2017
Scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the brains behind comedy classics Hancock and Steptoe and Son, created some of the finest comic creations of the post-war years. But the shows would never have existed if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting at Milford Sanatorium...
It was an unpromising beginning. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the scriptwriting legends behind Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, met as teenagers in a bleak, ice-cold sanatorium in Milford at the height of post-war rationing. Both were suffering from TB and had been given just weeks to live.
Ray will never forget that winter of 1947. “The snow lasted from January until April, and I used to wake up with snow on the bed because they kept the French doors open – believing the cold helped to ease the condition,” he says. “One day, this chap walked past and the room went dark. I turned round to see the biggest guy I’d ever seen. It was Alan. Spike Milligan would go on to call him ‘He Who Blocks Out the Sun’.
They formed an immediate friendship, united by their shared love of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Don Ameche – stars on the American Forces Network. It seemed natural to take this a step further by writing their own material for the hospital’s radio station. Neither of them had any writing experience, but it was the start of a collaboration which would change the face of British comedy. “It’s amazing to think that if we hadn’t contracted TB, Hancock wouldn’t have been the same, Steptoe would never have existed and we wouldn’t be sitting here,” laughs Alan.
It’s a Monday morning and the veteran writers are chatting in Ray’s elegant William and Mary house near Hampton Court Palace. Ray has lived there since the Seventies; first with his late wife, now with his daughter and two grandchildren. It’s the only private house in the palace grounds – on land bestowed to the architect by the king and queen in lieu of unpaid bills.
Ray and Alan, who are 82 and 83 respectively, always meet on Mondays. “I live just around the corner,” says Alan, “but on Monday mornings my cleaning lady kicks me out, so I go round to Ray’s for coffee.” They swap stories and no doubt indulge in a little reminiscence, comforted by their shared memories and experiences. They have good reason to wallow in nostalgia, however, because on Saturday June 1 they will be returning to Milford Sanatorium, now the Milford Specialist Rehabilitation Hospital, to unveil a blue plaque commemorating their first meeting. Ray believes their ability to chart the bleakest emotions stems from their years there.
“We grew up much quicker than most. By the time we were in our mid 20s, we were writing as if we knew life inside out.”
Not everyone was quick to spot their talent, however. Hoping for the big time, they wrote to Frank Muir and Denis Norden, then the country’s biggest comedy writers, asking if they could work as office boys. They wrote a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter back, suggesting they send their ideas to the BBC. A year later, they submitted a sketch, which prompted a letter from the BBC saying ‘highly amused’, and inviting them in for a meeting.
Leading the way
They first wrote for Tony Hancock in 1952, and later approached producer Dennis Main Wilson with a radical idea for a half-hour show featuring the star, with no stand-up jokes, guests or sketches – just a single storyline with believable characters.
“Nowadays, we take it for granted that a sitcom goes on without any interruptions,” says Alan. “But when we started, a comedy show was always in three acts – with music intervals in-between.” Ray nods: “Even The Goon Show was done that way. There would be absolute madness on air, then they’d break off for a harmonica player and the Ray Ellington Quartet.”
The radio version of Hancock’s Half-Hour began in 1954 and transferred to television with equal success two years later. It turned Hancock himself into a national institution. “Hancock was a dream to work with – one of those rare performers who could do something perfectly first time,” says Ray. “He was also one of the few comedians who left you alone and rarely came up with ideas or suggestions.”
Unlike his buffoonish TV character, Hancock was bright, sophisticated and well read, adds Alan. “It was only in later years that he developed a drink problem. We had stopped working with him by then, so we didn’t see the bad times.”
Hancock’s decline was all too evident in his later television performances, culminating in his suicide in 1968. “By then, he was reading everything from prompt cards and we couldn’t believe how bad he was when he did those last shows for ITV,” says Alan, sadly. “It coincided with the launch of Steptoe and Son on the BBC, which was doing so well. The press took great delight in comparing the two.”
Steptoe evolved when Tom Sloan, the BBC’s head of light entertainment, asked them to write some episodes for a series called Comedy Playhouse. “The fourth show was called The Offer, which was about two rag-and-bone men,” says Ray. “During rehearsals, Tom said: ‘You know what you’ve got here? This is a series.’”
Initially, they resisted the idea. “After Hancock the last thing we wanted was to write for the same cast every week,” says Alan. “Eventually, we said we’d only do it if Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett played the leads, thinking they wouldn’t. But they jumped at the chance!”
Steptoe, which focused on the conflict between father and son rag-and-bone men, laid the ground rules for all the best sitcoms over the next few decades – its characters trapped by their own flaws, convinced they were born for better things, but doomed to repeat their mistakes. It ran for eight series (1962-1974) and attracted 28 million viewers at its peak, an unthinkable figure in today’s world of multi-channel television. “We were so popular that the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, asked the BBC to delay transmission on the night of the 1966 General Election until after the polls had closed, so people would go out to vote,” laughs Alan.
Surrey played its own part in the series’ evolution. “We needed a name and decided to call it something and son – after Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son,” adds Alan. “In Richmond, there was an old photographer’s shop called Steptoe and Figge. We didn’t like Figge. But then we came up with Steptoe and Son because Steptoe has two syllables – and two syllables are always better than one.”
In those days, it was unusual to cast actors in comedic roles, but Corbett and Brambell brought added depth to the show. “They were very fine actors,” says Alan. “Off-screen, Brambell was like George Sanders – spats, overcoat draped over his shoulders, walking stick, homburg hat. He used to get changed after the show, have a shave, put his own teeth in, walk out of the dressing-room and no one recognised him.”
While both writers continued to work solidly after Steptoe and Son, they had no further high-profile successes. Alan formally retired from scriptwriting in 1978, concentrating on his business interests, while Ray collaborated with Johnny Speight on several projects.
But they are far from forgotten. In the mid-nineties, Paul Merton revived several Hancock’s Half Hour scripts for ITV to a mixed reception. There have been other revivals, too, including Emma Rice’s adaptation of Steptoe and Son, currently running at The Lyric, Hammersmith.
A new Hancock film, The Day Off, is also in the making, based on a full-length film script for Hancock that has never been made public. It was discovered in 2011 when author and journalist Christopher Stevens found an unmarked folder in Ray’s cellar.
Ray and Alan wrote the script in 1961, and it was intended to launch Hancock as a global superstar. Hancock rejected it, asking for something “more international”. “He wanted to be a big star in America and maybe he felt that the script was too parochial, too English,” says Alan. “Then again, his next film was The Punch and Judy Man, set in rainy Bognor at the end of season – and you can’t get more English than that!” Filming is scheduled to begin in September and they’re hoping for a big British star in the Hancock role.
Ray and Alan are more popular than ever, though they struggle to name modern comedy series they admire. Alan hesitantly singles out the BBC sitcoms Miranda and Outnumbered, while Ray is a big fan of Count Arthur Strong’s Radio Show on Radio 4.
As for comedians they don’t like, Alan politely declines to comment. “It’s only opinion,” he says kindly. Their comedy may be timeless, but their manners, thankfully, are unmistakably old school.
MY FAVOURITE SURREY
Restaurant: Monaf’s, an Indian restaurant in Station Road, Hampton. Alan: I eat there regularly and they really look after me. If I park down the road, they even get the car for me. And did I mention their excellent wine list?
Shop: The Cheese and Wine Company – also in Station Road, Hampton. They serve an excellent range of traditional cheeses and wines carefully selected from independent producers.
View: The Devil’s Punch Bowl at Hindhead. Local legend has it that it was created by two warring giants. One, scooping out earth to throw at the other, created the landmark before missing the throw and creating the Isle of Wight.
Place to relax: Hampton and Balham Football Club. Alan: I’ve been president since 1967 and support them every week.
Place to visit: Hampton Court Palace. There’s so much to see – from Henry VIII’s crown of state and the Chapel Royal to the world famous maze.
Me and Galton & Simpson
Guildford-based comedian Paul Kerensa is best known for co-writing BBC One’s Not Going Out and working on scripts for Miranda. In March he released his new book, So A Comedian Walks Into A Church
“Galton & Simpson hold legendary status in the world of comedy writing,” says Paul. “I can’t name another writing partnership who achieved the success that they did, without ever being accused of selling out or dumbing down – oh, and they’re still with us. Their scripts pre-date Monty Python by a decade, yet were edgy and bleakly funny long before any Alternative Comedy boom came along. If you watch a Hancock or Steptoe & Son now, you wonder why the world of comedy needed modernising. It didn’t; they had nailed it then, and their blackly comic, man-on-the-street worldview is something comedians and writers still try to emulate today. We try, but we don’t come close.”
Rob Colley, who lives in Guildford, has been writing television comedy for over 20 years for the likes of Graham Norton and Have I Got News For You. He recently won a RTS award as part of the writing team behind The Thick of It
“I’ve always wanted to write comedy and one of my earliest influences was Steptoe and Son,” says Rob. “I used to watch it with my father and it was an irony that a show where a father and son bickered brought me closer to my own dad. They were fantastic scripts but an additional stroke of genius was the casting of such quality actors who brought a real depth to the characters. Hercules has long since gone to the Knacker’s yard and Shepherd’s Bush has changed beyond all recognition, but the show still makes me laugh. It’s truly stood the test of time.”