Wednesday 22 November 2017

Obituary: Alan Simpson

Comedy writing genius and creator along with Ray Galton of 'Hancock's Half Hour' and 'Steptoe and Son'

FUNNYMEN: Comedian Tony Hancock with Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. Photo: M McKeownas
FUNNYMEN: Comedian Tony Hancock with Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. Photo: M McKeownas

Alan Simpson, the scriptwriter who has died aged 87, worked as a shipping clerk before becoming, with his professional partner Ray Galton, one of the geniuses of post-war British comedy writing, creating Steptoe and Son for television and, for the troubled comic actor Tony Hancock, the disgruntled, self-important persona that made him one of the radio stars of the 1950s.

Simpson was still in his teens when he teamed up with Galton, whom he first met in hospital in the late 1940s.

Invariably writing from a left of centre perspective, in the 1950s the pair, with Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Johnny Speight and the comedian Frankie Howerd, formed their own agency, Associated London Scripts.

In their room above a greengrocer's in Shepherd's Bush, they would stare at each other until the script was firmly in their minds - then write it down.

Both Simpson and Galton believed that the most important ingredient in comedy was not the star but the script, a view not always shared in broadcasting at the outset of commercial television in 1955.

With Galton, Simpson managed to raise mundane conversation to the level of high art, with a stream of consciousness shot through with inventiveness.

This was something new, and created (as the chronicler of radio comedy Barry Took put it) "chamber music of the mind".

While still young men, observed the critic Peter Black, Simpson and Galton were writing "some of the most gloriously funny low comedy in the language".

By the early 1960s they had established themselves as one of the most successful writing partnerships in broadcasting, thanks to their work with Hancock, first on radio with Hancock's Half Hour and, from 1956, on television.

One of their sketches for this series - The Blood Donor - became a 20th century classic ("A pint!?! Have you gone raving mad? That's very nearly an armful!").

But when, in 1961, Galton and Simpson offered to write a new series for Frankie Howerd, the BBC turned them down.

Instead the pair were asked to fill a 10-week run of the new Comedy Playhouse strand, writing anything they wanted.

It was, as Simpson recognised, an unprecedented opportunity: "No writer had been given carte blanche like that before."

While the bearded Galton rolled on the floor seeking inspiration, Simpson - clean-shaven, 6ft 4in tall, 17-and-a-half stone, and the more lugubrious of the two - began hammering out the scripts.

By number four in the series, however, their ideas were drying up. During a brainstorming session, Galton came up with the notion of two rag-and-bone men driving their horse and cart down Piccadilly.

"We began writing," Simpson recalled, "and ended up with 10 pages about these two men arguing in their yard."

The result was an episode for Comedy Playhouse called The Offer.

Set in a dilapidated rag-and-bone-man's yard in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd's Bush, it soon mutated into Steptoe and Son, a weekly half-hour situation comedy which ran for eight series between 1962 and 1974 and which became a model of the genre.

At least one critic saw Steptoe and Son as a metaphor for what, in 1964, became Harold Wilson's Britain, recording the tensions between the Labour-supporting son Harold (Harry H Corbett) and his bigoted old Tory father Albert (Wilfrid Brambell).

In Albert Steptoe The Sunday Telegraph's Philip Purser recognised the greatness of Galton and Simpson's creation: "With his nutcracker profile, shapeless layers of clothing, permanent mittens, and excesses of spite, Albert Steptoe is the best comic monster since Snudge."

In May 1964 an American company paid the duo an astronomical £100,000 (€117,000) to write an American version of their British hit; it eventually aired there as the all-black Sanford and Son. They spent some time in Hollywood, injecting "a few gags" into a film about pirates, but it was scrapped in favour of the Julie Andrews musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and after a farewell party attended by Sinatra, Brando and others, Galton and Simpson returned to London to find they had become the highest-paid television writers in the world, commanding a record fee of £2,000 (€2,350) for each 30-minute Steptoe episode from the BBC.

In return, Galton and Simpson delivered a peak weekly audience of 28m viewers - more than half the country.

Alan Francis Simpson was born on November 27, 1929 at Brixton, brought up at Streatham, and educated at Mitcham Grammar School.

Although his early ambition had been to become a footballer, he went to work in a shipping office but in May 1947, at the age of 17, he fell ill with tuberculosis and was given the last rites.

In the next bed in the sanatorium in Surrey was Ray Galton, who had been given six weeks to live.

They spent three years in hospital recovering together, sharing an obsession with comedy which they cultivated by listening to the American Forces Network and the BBC.

To help pass the time, they wrote and performed their own comedy routines over the hospital radio. On their discharge in 1950, they tried selling comedy scripts to the BBC. Within a few months they had graduated to professional work with the comedian Derek Roy in a series called Happy Go Lucky, selling gags for five shillings a time.

"We used to pick a subject," Simpson remembered, "for instance, fat girls, thin girls or "my wife", and write as many jokes as we could think of on the subject.

"We'd then take Derek about three or four pages of these one-liners and he'd tick them or cross them out and give the resulting sheet to his secretary, who'd then count up the ticks and pay us accordingly, five bob a tick."

When Derek Roy's regular producer, was replaced by Dennis Main Wilson, he promoted Galton and Simpson to be the show's principal writers.

By 1952 they were writing another act-and-sketch radio show, Forces All-Star Bill, starring the up-and-coming Tony Hancock.

They developed the idea of a situation comedy show, "non-domestic with no jokes and no funny voices, just relying on caricature and situation humour".

The result, in 1954, was Hancock's Half Hour. As well as the regular cast, which included Kenneth Williams ("bang went our ideas of no funny voices"), the writers had the odd speaking part, roles that Simpson enjoyed more than Galton.

In 1956 the series moved from radio to television. In all, the pair wrote 160 shows for Hancock, drawing on the actor's own insecurities to create a great English comic character, but eventually falling out with him over the script for a feature film, The Punch and Judy Man.

But although Hancock fired his writing team at the height of his comic powers, the pair had already formed one of the most fruitful writing partnerships in the history of British comedy.

With their mixture of fantasy and the commonplace, the early editions of Hancock's Half Hour that sprang from Galton and Simpson's pens were a revelation of economy and insight.

The success of their one-off for Comedy Playhouse about a couple of rag-and-bone men caught Galton and Simpson unawares.

Although the BBC urged them to develop it into a series, after nine years of working with Hancock the pair were reluctant to tie themselves down again.

But while on holiday in Spain, Simpson read a rave review of Steptoe and Son and realised its potential.

At the headquarters of Associated London Scripts in Bayswater, Simpson hammered out their work on a typewriter they had owned since turning professional, rejecting anything more modern, and explaining that he relished the feel of punching the familiar keys each day.

In 1955, at the height of his radio success with Hancock's Half Hour, Simpson was at the wheel of his sports car driving through Kennington, south London, when it struck two pedestrians, one of whom was killed.

Simpson, who was treated for shock, denied that he had been racing Galton, whom he had just overtaken as the pair drove home by the same route after visiting friends.

As well as radio and television, Simpson's 30-year collaboration with Ray Galton produced a number of feature films, starting with the under-rated Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel (1960), and going on to include The Bargee, The Wrong Arm of the Law (both 1963) and two Steptoe films, Steptoe and Son (1971) and Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973).

With Galton, Simpson also wrote for the stage in Way Out in Piccadilly (1966) and The Wind in the Sassafras Trees (1968).

Although he collected many awards for his work with Galton on the Hancock and Steptoe series, including, in 1964, the John Logie Baird award for an outstanding contribution to television, Simpson's later television shows, including Dawson's Weekly (1975) for the comedian Les Dawson, and The Galton and Simpson Playhouse (1976-77) for ITV, failed to sustain the early magic.

The pair dissolved their partnership in 1978.

In 1968, Simpson had accepted an invitation to become president of his local amateur football team, Hampton and Richmond FC.

With his financial support, the club built a new covered terrace and a boardroom converted from a former gents' lavatory.

In 1995 he and Galton updated some of their classic scripts for Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's..., one of which was entered for the Montreux television festival the following year.

In 2014, for the 60th anniversary of Hancock's Half Hour, Radio 4 re-recorded five episodes with Kevin McNally.

Like Galton, Alan Simpson was appointed OBE in 2000.

He married, in 1958, Kathleen (Kate) Phillips, who died in 1978. (© Telegraph)

Telegraph.co.uk

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment