Writer who, in partnership with Alan Simpson, created the great ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and ‘Steptoe and Son’
RAY Galton, the scriptwriter who has died aged 88, earned — with his professional partner Alan Simpson — pride of place among the greats of post-war British comedy writing; between them they created Steptoe and Son for television, having earlier, on 1950s radio, made a star of the troubled comic actor Tony Hancock.
Galton was only in his teens and seriously ill with tuberculosis when he first met Simpson, a fellow sufferer, in hospital in the late 1940s. Both saw the world from a Left-wing perspective, and in the 1950s — with Eric Sykes, Spike Milligan, Johnny Speight and, later, the comedian Frankie Howerd — formed their own agency, Associated London Scripts.
It was a sort of writers’ collective, run from rooms above a greengrocer’s in Shepherd’s Bush. Galton and Simpson took the (then) unfashionable view that the most important ingredient in any comedy was the script rather than the star.
By the early 1960s Galton and Simpson had established themselves as one of the most successful writing partnerships in broadcasting, thanks to their work with Tony Hancock, first on radio with Hancock’s Half Hour and, from 1956, on television with Hancock. In both, the hero was a middle-aged bachelor frustrated by the failure of the glum drudgery of reality to meet his intellectual aspirations.
Hancock’s cultural allusions derived from Galton and Simpson’s own reading binge in the TB sanatorium. In Hancock’s Half Hour they fashioned one of the earliest and wittiest radio sitcoms in Britain; because they started so young, they were known as the Boys. The series charted the recurring disappointments of the irritable Hancock, trapped in gloomy lodgings at 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.
When the show transferred to television, innovative camera shots, using frequent close-ups, caught Hancock’s extraordinary range of expansive facial expressions. One of Galton and Simpson’s sketches for this series — “The Blood Donor” — became a 20th Century comedy classic (“A pint!?! Have you gone raving mad? That’s very nearly an armful!”).
But when, in 1961, Simpson and Galton offered to write a new series for Frankie Howerd, the BBC turned them down, declaring that Howerd was a spent force. Instead the pair were asked to fill a 10week run of the new Comedy Playhouse strand, and offered carte blanche as to stories and settings.
While Simpson, clean-shaven and at 194cm and 112kg the taller, heavier and more lugubrious of the two, began hammering out the scripts, the bearded Galton rolled on the floor seeking inspiration.
When their ideas started drying up, they held brainstorming sessions punctuated by periods of silence that could last for hours. It was during one of these that Galton recalled “totting” for junk to earn money as a teenager, and came up with the notion of two rag-and-bone men, father and son, driving their horse and cart down Piccadilly. He and Simpson started writing, and the result was a 10-page script for Comedy Playhouse called “The Offer”.
Set in a ramshackle totters’ yard in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd’s Bush, the original two-hander soon mutated into Steptoe and Son, a weekly half-hour situation comedy starring Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett which ran for eight series between 1962 and 1974 and attracted audiences of 20m.
Such was the show’s popularity that during the General Election of 1964, the opposition Labour leader Harold Wilson persuaded the BBC to delay the episode scheduled to be broadcast on polling day by an hour because he feared for its damaging effect on voter turnout. Wilson’s estimate that the delay was worth a dozen or more seats to Labour was impossible to verify, but the party’s slim majority of four was enough for him to form a government.
The continuing success of Steptoe and Son transformed Galton and Simpson into the world’s highest-paid television writers, commanding a record fee of £2,000 (€2,290) for each episode.
Between them they redefined the British television sitcom, relocating it from middle-class cleanliness to the squalor of Oil Drum Lane. The dark and risky relationship they created between father and son infused the writing with pathos and poignancy as well as smut and slapstick.
As one of their biographers noted, their achievement in creating Hancock and Steptoe was immense, and to change the nature of the sitcom and capture the public’s imagination not once but twice was — and remains — an unprecedented feat.
Raymond Percy Galton was born on July 17, 1930, the son of a London bus conductor, and grew up on a Surrey council estate. After Garth School, Morden, he worked as a plasterer’s apprentice, then took a job with the Transport and General Workers’ Union, but in 1947 he contracted tuberculosis, was admitted to a sanatorium at Milford in Surrey and given six weeks to live. Galton was bed-ridden for a year, and in the next bed, also with TB, was Alan Simpson.
They spent three years in hospital convalescing, fostering their shared obsession with comedy by listening to the American Forces Network and the BBC on a huge RAF 1150 radio receiver salvaged from a Lancaster bomber.
To help pass the time, they wrote and performed their own comedy routines over the hospital radio, and on their discharge in 1950 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 [28 cents] a time.
The first went: “Jane Russell pontoon?” “Yes, it’s the same as ordinary pontoon but you need 38 to bust.” When Roy’s producer was replaced by the young Dennis Main Wilson, he promoted Galton and Simpson to be the show’s principal writers. By 1952, they were writing another actand-sketch radio show, Forces All Star Bill, starring the upand-coming Tony Hancock.
Between them the three developed the idea of a comedy “with no jokes and no funny voices, just relying on caricature and situation humour”. The result, in 1954, was Hancock’s Half Hour, a show relying on the development of the characters. They had to admit defeat on the question of funny voices when Kenneth Williams became a favourite with his weekly admonition: “’Ere, stop messing about!”
Each episode would take two to three weeks to write. At the headquarters of Associated London Scripts in Orme Court, Bayswater, Galton would stare into space or lie on the floor while Simpson bashed out the words on a typewriter they had owned since turning professional.
Galton and Simpson wrote 160 shows for Hancock, eventually falling out with the comedian over the script for his film The Punch and Judy Man (1963).
But by then the pair had assured their place among the great writing teams in British comedy history. With their mixture of fantasy and the commonplace, the early editions of Hancock’s Half Hour were a revelation of economy and insight.
As well as radio and television, Galton’s 30-year collaboration with Alan Simpson produced a number of feature films, starting with the 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). The pair also wrote for the stage in a revue, Way Out in Piccadilly (1966) for a resurrected Frankie Howerd and the Liverpudlian singer Cilla Black, and in an adaptation of Rene de Obaldia’s The Wind in the Sassafras Trees (1968), also starring Frankie Howerd, which transferred from London to Broadway.
Although he collected many awards for his work with Simpson on the Hancock and Steptoe series including, in 1964, the John Logie Baird award for an outstanding contribution to television, Galton’s later television shows, including Dawson’s Weekly (1975) for the comedian Les Dawson, and The Galton and Simpson Playhouse (1976-77) for ITV, lacked the early magic, and the pair dissolved their partnership in 1978.
In 1995 they updated some of their classic scripts for Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson’s..., one of which was entered for the Montreux television festival.
In 1997 Galton revived his career, writing Get Well Soon, about patients recovering in a sanatorium. Like Simpson, he was appointed OBE in 2000. Alan Simpson died in February 2017.
Ray Galton, who died on October 5, married, in 1956, Tonia Phillips; she died in 1995; they had a son and two daughters. © Telegraph
DREAM TEAM: Comedian Frankie Howerd (centre) joins a script conference between Ray Galton (left) and his writing partner Alan Simpson in December 1964. Photo: PA/PA Wire