Rossendale Free Press
THE DIVINE COMEDIES
The gift of laughter was unwrapped for viewers 60 years ago. MARION McMULLEN looks at the birth of some comedy classics
HAVE you heard the one about the two comedy writers?
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s first attempts at humour came in Milford Sanatorium as they recuperated from near-fatal bouts of tuberculosis as teenagers.
Ray was given just weeks to live at one point and former shipping clerk Alan had been read his last rites.
Both luckily recovered and bonded over a love of American humorists, such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. “We hit it off immediately,” Alan once recalled.
They proposed the hospital put on a comedy show, but were told to do it themselves and began working on sketches. They later submitted work to the BBC and went on to get their big break with Hancock’s Half Hour with Tony Hancock.
It marked the start of Galton and Simpson, one of the nation’s most successful comedy writing partnerships, and later led to the BBC giving them the opportunity to write 10 short comedy episodes each lasting 30 minutes that had the potential to be developed into sitcoms.
And so Comedy Playhouse was launched on December 15, 1961, and one of the first successes was a story called The Offer, which went on to become Steptoe And Son about father and son rag-and-bone men living in squalid quarters in Shepherd’s Bush.
It went on to run for 57 episodes starring Wilfrid Brambell as “dirty old man” Albert Steptoe and Harry H Corbett as his long-suffering son Harold.
“You are morally, spiritually and physically a festering fly-blown heap of accumulated filth,” Harold told his father during one family argument.
The sitcom proved so successful it took up much of Ray and Alan’s time so other writers were drafted in to Comedy Playhouse from 1963 and over the next 11 years the laughter flowed with comedies like Till Death Us Do Part, The Liver Birds, Not in Front of the Children, Up Pompeii, Are You Being Served? and Last Of The Summer Wine.
Till Death Do Us Part in 1965 saw writer Johhny Speight’s comedy creation Alf Garnett brought to life by Warren Mitchell.
Clean-up campaigner Mary Whitehouse did not approve of Alf’s strong language and used to count the number of swear words uttered in every episode.
Johnny said: “I didn’t create Alf Garnett. Society created him. I just reported him. I’m a grass.”
The Liver Birds about two female flatmates in Liverpool began in 1969 and ran for 86 episodes.
Writer Carla Lane, who created the series with Myra Taylor, once admitted Sandra (played by Nerys Hughes) was based on herself and Beryl (played by Polly James) was based on Myra.
Future Bergerac and Midsomer Murders actor John Nettles played Sandra’s boyfriend Paul.
Up Pompeii!, with Frankie
Howerd as Roman slave Lurcio, also launched in 1969 and the first series was written by Carry On film scriptwriter Talbot Rothwell.
The Radio Times even described the pilot as a sort of “Carry On Up The Forum”.
Are You Being Served? followed in 1972 and saw Mollie Sugden, John Inman, Wendy Richard and Frank Thornton among the staff of
Grace Brothers Department Store.
The sitcom ran until 1985 and was packed with double meanings galore from Mrs Slocombe’s comments about her pet cat, to Mr Humphries calling, “I’m free,” whenever a customer in need of assistance appeared.
Last Of The Summer Wine started in 1973 and became the longest-running Comedy Playhouse success – and is believed to be the world’s longest running TV sitcom – notching up nearly
300 episodes before finally coming to an end in 2010.
Writer Roy Clark’s gentle Yorkshire comedy followed the fortunes of three elderly friends who were still young at heart. It was watched by around 16 million at its height in the early 1980s.
Peter Sallis was the only actor to appear in every episode and also played his character Norman Clegg’s own father in the spin-off First Of The Summer Wine.
He had the honour of uttering the final line spoken in Last Of The Summer Wine – “Have I locked the door?”
However, not every Comedy Playhouse episode went on to sitcom success. Clicquot et Fils starred Eric Sykes as an undertaker in a small French town in 1926, with Warren Mitchell as his assistant.
It never made it beyond the pilot episode and was a rare blip in Galton and Simpson’s comedy roller-coaster. Steptoe And Son earned them Writers’ Guild Awards in both 1962 and 1963, and they were also celebrated with OBEs in 2000 and landed a Bafta Fellowship, the Academy’s highest honour, in 2016.
David Walliams was among those who paid tribute when Alan passed away in 2017.
The Little Britain star said: “Alan Simpson was half of one of the greatest comedy writing duos of all time with Ray Galton. Hancock and Steptoe and Son are masterpieces”.