At the age of 87, Alan Simpson, one half of one of the greatest comedy-writing partnerships of all time, has died of a lung disease. In a way, that’s hardly surprising, for his partnership with his fellow giant and partner, Ray Galton, was forged when the two men met in a tuberculosis clinic.
To younger people, the names may not trigger even associations, let alone memories, but the Galton and Simpson writing team has two absolute, landmark, ground-breaking series under their belt.
The pair began on Radio, in the early Fifties, as writers of a new kind of radio sitcom, Hancock’s Half Hour. The show was built around the formidable talents of the Birmingham-born comedian, Tony Hancock, an incredibly funny man who, by everyone’s accounts, was an immense natural reader of scripts: Hancock could always find the funniest reading of a line, even when, in rehearsals, he did not understand the line.
When he began to work with Galton and Simpson, he had already begun to sketch out his comedic personality, the pseudo-intellectual, self-involved, convinced he knew more than he did, convinced he was more than he was. But Galton and Simpson took that proto-character and shaped it, subtly, brilliantly, refining it detail by detail, until the country simply stopped for half an hour every time ‘the Lad Himself’ was on the air.
What Galton and Simpson did, having absorbed such techniques from American radio comedy shows, was to turn comedy towards character and situation based. It was not a variety act, a stand-up, with jokes and silly voices and musical interludes, but a complete half-hour story in which the laughter arose from the interplay of the people involved. For Britain, this was a radical departure.
For much of its radio life, Hancock’s Half Hour was an ensemble show, built around Hancock or, as Galton and Simpson perfectly devised him, Antony Aloysius St. John Hancock, perennially unemployed actor, deluding himself that he was fit for the fine things. The writers brought in Hancock’s home address, 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, and surrounded him with a troupe of eccentrics.
There was South African actor and comedian, Sid James, who would become a massive star in his own right, but here playing Hancock’s main foil, a spiv, wheeler-dealer, a chancer out for himself. Australian Bill Kerr was the third man, the dumb one, continually getting the wrong idea but completely amiable about it. Hattie Jacques played Hancock’s secretary, Grizelda, haughty, strait-laced, stiff-necked, and the cast was completed by Kenneth Williams, usually providing silly voices to great effect.
What Galton and Simpson did, slowly and carefully, was to write Hancock the character down, much to Hancock the comedian’s frustration. The character gradually grew more shabby, and thus more funny in contrast to Hancock’s pretentions, although Hancock, who dreamed of being an international star, kept wanting to be written up.
The success of the radio show led to a parallel life on television. In order to free up space, Kerr wasn’t carried over, and increasingly the show became a two-hander with Sid James. The television audience was equally fascinated with Hancock, and the nation stopped for his shows, with Galton and Simpson in perfect control of stories that found fun in Hancock’s character in the most mundane circumstances. It was character comedy of a kind never seen before, and it changed the face of British comedy.
Hancock’s insecurities finally led to a break-up. Anxious not to be seen as just part of a double act, the final TV series, simply titled Hancock, dispensed with Sid James. Hancock also moved into films, with the Galton/Simpson scripted The Rebel, which aimed for the international audience he craved, but which failed, leading to the split from the writers who had powered him.
But before that was the last BBC TV series, which included at least two absolute classics in The Radio Ham and, most especially, The Blood Donor, which showed the character of Hancock at his worst, condescendingly giving blood, with multiple misunderstandings and prejudices: thirty minutes of lines that have achieved comic immortality and the perfect ironic ending.
To have created Hancock’s character, and so many horribly funny scripts would be enough to justify any ordinary writers coasting for the rest of their lives. But from Hancock, Galton and Simpson doubled up. They created, and for over a decade, wrote, Steptoe and Son.
Steptoe, like Hancock before it, was not merely incredibly funny, but it dealt with issues no-one had previously thought to turn into comedy. It was funny, but it was also painful, cruel and bleak, turning these things into humour both cathartic and bitter.
The series starred two comedy actors, as opposed to a comedian, and gave the writers more to work with. Harry H. Corbett (the H. distinguishing him from the creator of Sooty and Sweep) and Wilfred Brambell played Harold and Albert Steptoe, son and father, rag and bone men living in their yard at Oil Drum Lane.
Corbett played Harold, a handsome young(ish) man in his early thirties, a man with dreams of elegance, taste, style. Harold wanted to improve himself, to move upwards, onwards, away from this horrible world of dirt and rags and scraps, everything third hand or worse. He wanted to meet interesting and attractive women, to travel. He was aspiration, but he was aspiration bound, and aspiration forever defeated.
Because the wizened, aged Albert, had turned him into a prisoner. A prisoner of the yard and their world, continually dragging him back and down, pouring scorn and spite on his dreams, and playing on Harold’s filial duty to his wizened, scruffy, disgusting old man.
It was the first sitcom to play on anything but love and respect within the family, the first to tread into the dark waters where family ties are literal ties, biding you to someone you hate. Galton and Simpson produced endless stories around that awful, clawing, cloying bond between the two Steptoes, the one who dreamed of being upwardly mobile, the other scared of losing his son to such mobility and frustrating him at every turn.
It was a classic. Although my own tastes run more to Hancock, I can’t pretend that Steptoe and Son wasn’t the superior, stronger, more challenging programme.
Alan Simpson, together with his writing partner of seventy years, who survives him, wrote these. Galton and Simpson wrote more, and their scripts are still held up as models of comedy nowadays. In 1978, after the death of his wife, Alan Simpson retired. But why should he have been expected, or even asked, to do more? He and Ray Galton created Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock. He and Ray Galton created the Steptoes. How much else are people expected to do in their lives?
We have lost another giant.