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Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)


Main image of Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)

Britain's most successful comedy writing partnership, Ray Galton (b. London, 1930) and Alan Simpson (b. London, 1929) not only worked with some of the country's top comedians in the provision of sketch material, they also established, in the 1950s and 1960s, the template for quality situation comedy with two of the most popular sitcoms ever broadcast in this country, Hancock's Half-Hour and Steptoe and Son.

The pair met as teenagers in 1948 when they were both convalescing from TB in Milford Sanatorium. Writing and performing scripts for the hospital radio, they continued their partnership upon release. Hoping for the big time, they submitted material to the BBC in 1951, where comedian Derek Roy chanced upon it. Impressed, he hired them as gag writers for his radio show Happy-Go-Lucky.

They became the series' scriptwriters following their promotion by producer Dennis Main Wilson, and wrote the final four episodes in October/November 1951. They then progressed to such BBC radio shows as Calling All Forces in 1952, where they first wrote for Tony Hancock, and Star Bill (1953-54), again with Hancock.

Galton and Simpson approached Dennis Main Wilson with the idea of a half-hour show featuring Hancock, but using only one storyline per episode rather than sketches. Thus, the radio Hancock's Half-Hour was born, with the duo's intelligent scripts making it arguably the greatest comic creation of the post-war years and turning Hancock himself into a national institution. The radio series ran from 1954 to 1959.

The television adaptation (produced by Duncan Wood) of Hancock's Half-Hour (BBC, 1956-60), followed by Hancock (BBC, 1961), met with equal success. Together, they were the finest examples of television comedy yet produced in this country, cementing the reputations of all concerned, and winning Galton and Simpson the Guild of TV Producers and Directors 'Scriptwriters of the Year' award in 1959.

Galton and Simpson had been working almost exclusively for Hancock throughout this period, although they had contributed to, among others, Early to Braden (BBC, 1957-58), starring Bernard Braden (as well as to his BBC radio show, Back with Braden, in 1956) and The April 8th Show (BBC, tx. 1/4/1958) with Peter Sellers. The Terry-Thomas/Dickie Valentine comedy special Hit the Headlines (BBC, tx. 5/4/1958) had also benefited from their input. When Hancock inexplicably dropped them after Hancock (the biggest mistake the insecure comic genius ever made), the duo had to find other people to write for.

They had initially written some material for Frankie Howerd for inclusion in Ladies and Gentle-Men (BBC, tx. 24/9/1960), and they worked with the comedian quite frequently from this point on into the mid-1970s. It was Galton and Simpson (in the face of BBC opposition) who provided Howerd with his first major series, Frankie Howerd (BBC, 1964-66), following the comedian's low period of the early 1960s. A superb blend of stand-up and sitcom, it helped to return Howerd, if not to the top, at least on to the foothills of comic stardom.

They created a sitcom, Citizen James (BBC, 1960-62), for Sidney James (who had also been ousted by Hancock after the last series of Hancock's Half-Hour), although they handed over the writing reins to Sid Green and Dick Hills after the first series. The BBC also presented them with the opportunity to write a number of stand-alone comedies for inclusion in their own series, Comedy Playhouse (BBC, 1961-63); the series was to continue without their participation until 1974.

The fourth episode, 'The Offer' (BBC, tx. 5/1/1962), was so enthusiastically received by viewers and BBC executives alike that they were persuaded to develop a series from the initial storyline. The result was another landmark in the development of British situation comedy, Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74).

Now working not with comedians or comic actors but with two straight actors, Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, they created a sitcom that was often as achingly poignant as it was funny. The two main themes of male love/hate relationships and the thwarted desire for self-advancement were familiar from the Hancock scripts, but they were elevated here to a dramatic level that would have been impossible with comedians in the lead roles. In its writing and performances, Steptoe and Son set the benchmark by which all that followed would be judged. The series won Galton and Simpson the Writers' Guild Award in 1962 and 1963.

They later wrote another series for Harry H. Corbett, Mr. Aitch (ITV, 1967), but the actor was never able to successfully shake off the Harold Steptoe character, and only one series was produced. Other work included a nine-part adaptation of Gabriel Chevalier's comic novel Clochemerle (BBC, 1972), a British/West German co-production; the critically lambasted Casanova '73 (BBC, 1973) with Leslie Phillips in womanising mode; and Dawson's Weekly (ITV, 1975), a seven-episode sitcom for Les Dawson, featuring different storylines and characters each week.

ITV offered the duo further opportunities to pen separate stories in the Comedy Playhouse mode with the series The Galton & Simpson Comedy (ITV, 1969) and The Galton & Simpson Playhouse (ITV, 1977). Following the latter series, however, Simpson decided to retire.

Galton continued writing with new collaborators, including Johnny Speight, with the one-off Galton & Speight's Tea Ladies (BBC, tx. 4/1/1979), set in the House of Commons, and the series Spooner's Patch (ITV, 1979-82), centred on life in a London police station. Disappointing as the latter may have been, especially in relation to the pair's earlier work, it lasted for three series.

Galton collaborated with John Antrobus on Room at the Bottom (ITV, 1986-88), a satirical look at the modern media, and a six-part series based on his and Simpson's teenage experiences in the TB sanatorium, Get Well Soon (ITV, 1997); he and Simpson had also touched on the subject in a Comedy Playhouse entry, 'Visiting Day' (BBC, tx. 2/2/1962).

Alan Simpson emerged from retirement in the mid-1990s to work with Galton on the updating of some of their earlier Hancock and Comedy Playhouse scripts for Paul Merton. The result, Paul Merton in Galton & Simpson's... (ITV, 1996-97), may not have been a total disaster, but neither can it be classed a success. Whether foolhardy or brave, it was simply an impossible task for anyone to fill Hancock's shoes, and Merton, despite his talents, was not the appropriate candidate.

Galton and Simpson won lifetime achievement awards from the Writers' Guild in 1997, and were awarded OBEs in 2000.

John Oliver

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