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The Sunday Post: Galton and Simpson

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Shepherd's Bush rag and bone men Steptoe and Son were an enduring creation

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson met while both confined to a TB sanatorium in the late 1940s - an experience turned into sitcom Get Well Soon by Galton and John Antrobus in 1997. Finding they had a sense of humour in common, they began contributing to the hospital radio service. When they had recuperated they decided to go professional, and are first credited with script contributions for the 1951 Light Programme series Happy-Go-Lucky.  This starred comedian Derek Roy, but also featured a recurring sketch about Scouts called ‘The Eager Beavers’, one of whom was played by an up-and-coming comedian called Tony Hancock.

Hancock and Galton and Simpson hit it off, and soon they were providing material for him on a regular basis.  At first Hancock mainly worked on stage, but gradually his broadcasting appearances increased.  He co-hosted the variety series Calling All Forces with Charlie Chester, and later appeared in Forces All-Star Bill.  Galton and Simpson wrote all of these, and also the latter’s predecessor All-Star Bill, which gave them the opportunity to work with a number of different comedians. It saw Hancock perform in regular sketches with Geraldine McEwan and Graham Stark, which were the germ of a new idea to have a half-hour comedy programme featuring regular characters without guest musicians or other acts – a concept rarely employed at the time in Britain. 

After a while the series was renamed Star Bill and Hancock was credited above the title, although several weeks later he was replaced by Alfred Marks, only returning for a guest slot in the last show.  He was back full-time in the second series, and at the end of 1954 a new programme started:  the idea of a half hour ‘situation comedy’ was born with “Hancock’s Half-Hour”.

Between the two series of Star Bill, Galton and Simpson had also worked on a series starring Frankie Howerd - already a huge star - which Eric Sykes also contributed to.  Comedy writers for the BBC in the early 50s were a pretty close-knit community, and when Spike Milligan was invited by Sykes to share his office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, Galton and Simpson soon followed, and the co-operative agency Associated London Scripts was formed with Howerd and his agent also joining as non-writing partners.  Over the next few years a plethora of other writers joined also, notably Johnny Speight (Till Death Us Do Part) and Terry Nation (a Welsh comedy writer who would one day, after being sacked as a writer by Hancock, invent the Daleks for Doctor Who).

Hancock’s Half-Hour launched with a different support cast from the Star Bill sketches.  Bill Kerr, a veteran of Happy-Go-Lucky, played Tony’s Australian friend, Moira Lister was cast as his girlfriend, with film actor Sidney James as a rather dubious friend who got Tony into various scrapes. In the convention of the time, all the characters were known by their own names, although Hancock’s character has the full name ‘Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock’ – in fact his real middle name was John).  There was also an actor named Kenneth Williams, relatively unknown like most of the cast. 

Although intended to be far more realistic than the usual comedy shows, Hancock’s Half-Hour still had its share of unlikely plots, and Williams proved adept at some of the most bizarre comedy voices on radio (in competition with The Goon Show which had already been running for several years, unfettered by plot, logic or indeed sanity.  Galton and Simpson however bided their time, and over numerous series throughout the 50s they developed the radio series until it became closer to their original vision – perhaps exemplified by the often repeated 1958 episode Sunday Afternoon at Home, in which Tony and his friends have nothing to do – a not uncommon experience on Sundays at the time. With minimal plot and judicious comedy silences, it expanded the possibilities of comedy like few other programmes.  By this time, Tony no longer had a ‘girlfriend’ in the series, instead the female character was his secretary, Miss Pugh, played by Hattie Jacques.  The characters of Sid James and Bill Kerr had subtly altered, with James now more of a sidekick, albeit still a crooked one, although Kenneth Williams was still doing funny voices.

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, photographed in 1963

The change of emphasis was partly influenced by the fact that in 1956 a television version of Hancock’s Half-Hour had begun.  Learning the techniques of the medium quickly, Galton and Simpson soon realised they needed far less verbal material, and fewer regular characters – so the television series effectively became the Tony Hancock and Sid James show (James being the best acquainted with the visual medium through film and television work).  Hancock, who had always had a great line in visual comedy, reacting to the behaviour of others with an amazing array of facial expressions (a trait developed while working with comedians like Jimmy Edwards), and television gave him ample opportunity to develop these. 

Hancock had made occasional television appearances since 1948, when he appeared in the series New to You with his then partner Derek Scott, and was in a regular sketch called Fools Rush In, part of magazine programme Kaleidoscope in 1951.  Either side of his first BBC tv series of Hancock’s Half-Hour he appeared in two sketch series for ITV, but by the late 50s he became established as one of television’s biggest stars, at a time when the BBC struggled to match the commercial channel’s viewing figures.

The radio series of Hancock’s Half-Hour ended in 1959, but the TV version went from strength to strength, with large audiences tuning in to Hancock and Sid’s comedy adventures.  While some episodes featured different locations, most were largely confined to the iconic setting of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, where Tony and Sid shared a house.  However, Hancock was an unsettled, insecure performer, and as his success increased he began to worry about how he had managed to get such huge acclaim and popularity. 

With the cast having already been pared down for the TV series, he started to wonder if he could succeed without Sid James, and with some reluctance, the writers agreed to try. James was philosophical about the rejection – and had little reason to worry, as Galton and Simpson provided him with his own series Citizen James straight away.  He was soon to begin his long career in the Carry On film series and other television projects, which kept him busy up to his death in 1976.

Legendary sketches

Galton and Simpson wrote another series for Hancock, now just titled Hancock, partly because episodes were reduced to 25 minutes to allow for commercials when the shows were sold to other territories. Hopes of selling them to the US came to nothing, but Hancock was hugely popular in Australia.  Despite misgivings, this series contained some of the best remembered episodes, not only of Hancock’s career, but of television comedy as a whole – The Bedsitter, in which Hancock is the only character, The Radio Ham, and the legendary The Blood Donor.  Ironically, the latter coincided with events which saw the beginning of the end for Hancock.  Always a heavy drinker, following a car crash between recordings for the series, Hancock lost confidence in his ability to learn lines – though the shows were by this time videotaped, they were still performed as-live in front of an audience. 

In The Blood Donor Hancock was reading from cue cards much of the time, and though his performance is still brilliant, he came to rely on these more and more. His drinking too started to get out of control. After the modest success of his first feature film in the lead role, The Rebel, scripted as usual by Galton and Simpson, he questioned their ability to write for him.  After a great deal of work on a follow-up screenplay, Hancock suddenly decided they were too parochial, and decided he could do better himself, and become an international star.  He co-wrote his next film The Punch and Judy Man, but ironically it was even more ‘British’ in tone and his subsequent film career was reduced to cameo appearances.  He also broke with the BBC at this point, but his ITV shows, written by various writers with a less symbiotic relationship to his comic style, failed to live up to expectations. After a somewhat shambolic last ITV series in 1967, he started making a new series in Australia the following year.  However after only two episodes, alcoholism and depression caught up with him, and he was found dead from an overdose on 25th June 1968.

When Galton and Simpson parted company with Hancock in 1961, they immediately found themselves with enough work to keep busy.  They had already scripted the first series of Citizen James for Sid, but handed the task over to Sid Green and Dick Hills for the subsequent two seasons. Meanwhile, the BBC’s head of comedy, Tom Sloan, gave them an amazingly open brief, a series of ten one-off comedy playlets on any subject they liked, to see if anything came of it (note:  this would not happen nowadays).

It was called Comedy Playhouse.  Faced with this generous but daunting task, the two writers set to work.  After a decade and more writing for comedians, who usually more or less played themselves and always felt they knew what material suited them, Galton and Simpson could now look forward to working with actors, who had a respect for ‘the text’ and would not insist on changes.  That said, most of the stars of the ten plays had comedy credentials of one kind or another, including their colleague Eric Sykes, Stanley Baxter, Bernard Cribbins, Dick Emery, Peter Jones, Alfred Marks, Graham Stark and Sydney Tafler (co-star of Citizen James).  One episode though, that did not feature obvious comics, was to star an experienced Irish character actor, and a leading light of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.  The episode, transmitted on 5 January 1962, was called The Offer, and featured two junk men called Albert and Harold Steptoe.  The actors were Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett, both of them experienced television performers, Brambell first appearing in 1947 and having credits including the 1954 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Corbett had a recurring role in the series New Ramps for Old in 1956 and made several subsequent appearances in plays.

The Cold - a 1960 episode of Hancock's Half Hour

Like some of the best Hancock episodes (almost) were, The Offer was a two-hander.  Galton and Simpson had started with snatches of dialogue, and worked out that the relationship between their two characters should be father and son, the latter heading for middle age but longing to get out of his situation, trapped by his needy and manipulative father and the hand-to-mouth existence as a rag-and-bone man. 

Almost in one bound the programme transcended the conventions of comedy. Had it not been for the studio audience it could have been mistaken for a bleak drama of the human condition, with situations skilfully moving from the comic to the near-tragic in a few lines.  At once, it was recognised that this was something beyond the usual class of material even with Galton and Simpson’s high standards.  Although they were to go on to write another full series of Comedy Playhouse in 1963, The Offer was to be the only one of their pilots to be developed into a series.  Comedy Playhouse continued for many years, and became the source for a number of successful series by different writers.

The new series, Steptoe and Son, was quickly put into production. After a new opening sequence was filmed to replace the Comedy Playhouse titles, The Offer was repeated on 7th June, followed by another five episodes.  Such was the immediate huge success of the series that the BBC started repeating the new episodes only three weeks afterwards.  A further series was then commissioned to start in January 1963, preceded by a short mini-episode within the annual Christmas Night with the Stars programme.  A third series followed in January 1964, and a fourth in October 1965. And that, for the time being, was thought to be that…

The four 60s series of Steptoe were notable for the consistently high standard of the writing, as Galton and Simpson relished the opportunity of working with Brambell and Corbett, developing the characters and their back stories. Although lacking the clout and ego of a star like Hancock, the two actors were not without their own personal issues. Corbett especially found to his dismay that his serious acting career was blighted to some extent by his fame as a comedy star.  He had been an ‘actor’s actor’ who others would come to see perform, and was known for his Shakespearean work – but like many others with a family to support, the money and security was welcome. 

Funny and poignant

When they all called it a day after series four of Steptoe and Son, Corbett found that he was typecast – and in an episode of the series Acting in the Sixties in 1967, he can be seen trying to play the part of the ‘serious’ actor, and somehow failing.  Feature film success eluded him, and while Brambell was content with what came along (during the original run of the series he had a major role in the Beatles’ first feature film A Hard Day’s Night), Corbett was doubtless in two minds when the BBC decided to revive Steptoe and Son, in colour, in 1970.  The role had taken a while to go away, since as well as guest appearances on The Ken Dodd Show and Christmas Night with the Stars, there was a radio version of the series and all the original television episodes were repeated through 1967.

The new series, heralded in Radio Times as The Return of Steptoe and Son, began with an episode showing the death of the Steptoes’ beloved cart horse Hercules, and in a way like another 60s comedy series that was revived in the 70s, The Likely Lads, there is a more melancholy feel to the new version.  Harold in the 70s lusting after dolly birds and foreign travel is a more tragic and pathetic figure than he was in the 60s.  Colour and better quality pictures somehow made his desperation to escape seem all too likely to fail, and yet there was a slightly less plausible feel to the episodes.  Some of these trod slightly familiar ground, but unlike Sykes which re-made black and white episodes directly in colour, there was plenty of innovation, and a number of classic editions, including Divided We Stand in which the Steptoes partition their house to avoid each other, and The Desperate Hours in which  two escaped convicts (including Leonard Rossiter) find returning to prison preferable to the miserable life of the Steptoes. 

Four series were also made of the colour revival, and instead of sketches, Christmas was celebrated in 1973 and 1974 with double-length episodes, in the last of which Harold finally managed to escape on holiday without his father.

After eight series, two Christmas specials, various sketches, record albums, radio versions and two films under their belt, it was finally time to call it a day for the Steptoes (well, almost...)

Sadly, Corbett never found another vehicle to match Steptoe and Son, and his serious acting career never revived.  After various other roles in television and films, including a reprise of the Steptoe characters in adverts and stage tours, he died of a heart attack in 1982, three years before the death of Wilfrid Brambell (though playing his father, Brambell was only 13 years older).  Brambell, who in real life cultivated a sophisticated and dapper image, also found little fame in later years, despite making an appearance in the sitcom Citizen Smith in an episode confusingly called Only Fools and Horses.

Galton and Simpson never managed to top their success with Steptoe, and after another series of comedy pilots for ITV in the late 70s they decided to end their writing partnership, though they have remained close friends ever since.  In 1996, Paul Merton starred in a series of adaptations of some of their old scripts, a mixture of Hancock and Comedy Playhouse episodes, though this met with mixed reviews. 

But nothing can take away their place as two of the best, most original and skilled comedy writers that have ever emerged from radio and television. Their shows are still funny and poignant today. Hancock’s Half-Hour changed the face of comedy and was a vehicle for one of the greatest instinctive craftsmen of 50s broadcast comedy. The acclaimed Steptoe and Son was one of those creations in TV history where a mixture of long experience and a series of happy accidents produced an enduring classic.

Andrew Martin will be your regular Sunday guide through the history of broadcasting by digging out archive gems and information from the BBC Genome listings.

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