& Alan Simpson
We talk to the legendary writing team behind
Hancock's Half Hour, Steptoe & Son and Comedy Playhouse
~ 3,700 words ~
You two famously met in a sanatorium...
RAY: A lot of people think that's a nut-house, but that's a sanitarium. This was a TB sanatorium, just outside Godalming in Surrey.
It sounds like the setting for a sitcom.
ALAN: Yes, it's a bit like Cinderalla; rags to riches. That was 60 years ago.
RAY: Amazing to think that if we hadn't both contracted TB and met, Hancock wouldn't have been the same, Steptoe would never have existed, we wouldn't be sitting here, you wouldn't be sitting there. Could have changed the world!
ALAN: Good old TB!
RAY: I went in there at the age of 16, in 1947 – the worst winter we ever had. The snow lasted till May. I used to wake up in the mornings and the bed was covered in snow.
ALAN: (laughing) They wouldn't allow you to close the doors.
RAY: The theory was that fresh air was good for the TB. I didn't get out of bed for a year. I didn't know until much later that they'd only given me six weeks to live. My brother who was in The Navy asked for my prognosis. They just said 'don't take any long trips'.
Were you already there, Alan?
ALAN: No, I came in a couple of years later and we were put in the same room.
RAY: I remember this fellow walking past my corridor window and the room went dark. That was Alan. Years later, Spike Milligan called him "He Who Blocks Out the Sun".
ALAN: We hit it off immediately because had the same tastes in comedy – the stuff being broadcast on the American Forces Network: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Ameche.
How did you start writing together?
RAY: There was a hospital radio station. They did commentaries on the doctors playing the nurses at tennis, that sort of thing. Alan and I thought it would be a good idea if we did some comedy shows. Don't know what made us think we could do it! The show was called Have You Ever Wondered?. It was situations such as 'what would happen if doctors became patients?'. We were going to write six quarter-hour shows, but we ran out of steam after four.
ALAN: But we got our first fan letter there. From a guy up in F26.
RAY: So we got the bug really. Then Alan got out and he went back to work.
What was your job?
ALAN: I was a shipping clerk, in the city. A customs clerk.
RAY: When I got out I wasn't allowed to work, I was still too ill. Then a church concert party that Alan knew got in touch with him and asked him to write some sketches for them. Alan called me, I had nothing to do, and that's how we got started.
If we hadn't contracted TB, Hancock wouldn't have been the same and Steptoe and Son would never have existed.
How did that lead to your first radio writing job?
RAY: We had written a letter to the big comedy writers of the time, Frank Muir and Dennis Norden, asking if we could be their office boys, hoping to learn how to write comedy. They sent a nice letter back saying 'No, but if you have any good ideas, you should send them to Gale Pedrick the script editor at the BBC'. And that's exactly what we did. This was about 1951.
ALAN: We wrote a script about a pirate, they liked it and it got sent around the offices. A big comedian of the day saw it, Derek Roy, who had a radio show called Happy Go Lucky. His secretary got in touch, and we were summoned up town to meet him in his flat. He told us to submit jokes and he'd pay us 5 shillings for every one he used. So Ray would come over and we'd think of jokes about fat women, mothers in law – all the traditional stuff. We'd take them up to London, where Derek would read them, ticking the ones he liked, crossing out the ones he didn't, then he'd call in his secretary to pay us off. One big hit was 35 shillings, which we divided up into 17 and 6 each - now we were professionals!
RAY: But the show was a disaster. It was a big show, with lots of talented people, but it didn't work. The producer had a nervous breakdown... (laughs) he was carried away, and they brought in Dennis Main Wilson, who used to do The Goon Show. Mad bugger he was, but very good. And it was like one of those Mickey Rooney backstage films: 'You're all troopers, you've got a turkey on your hands, but you've got to get in there...'. There were tears rolling down all the actors' faces.
Then Dennis looked over at us and said 'are you writers?'. We thought we'd better say yes. So he said 'can you write the whole show?'. And we said yes – we had to really or our career would have been over before it started. He said 'okay, do it'. Luckily for us it was only on once a fortnight, so we had two weeks to write each show. We sat up together at Alan's house, working all the hours God sends, me getting the last bus home. Luckily for us the show got better – well, it couldn't have gotten worse. So we survived that. Funnily enough, that's where we first met Hancock. He was doing a sketch in the show about boy scouts, with Hancock as their leader; a good cast – Bill Kerr, Vic Emory, Peter Butterwoth and Graham Starr.
Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock and Ray Galton.
ALAN: So we met Hancock by virtue of being in the studio at the same time.
RAY: He walked up the aisle having done his bit, turned to us and asked 'did you write that?'. We weren't sure what to say, but said yes, and he said 'very funny' and walked off. Two months later he asked us to write a 5 or 10 minute sketch for him, for Workers Playhouse, where he had to provide his own material. He said 'how much do you charge? I've not done this before, I'll give you half of what I get.' We said yeah, fine. And he got 50 guineas! We were like, wow – that's three times what Derek Roy's paying us!
Then we had a hiatus of about six months or so, until we were asked by a BBC producer to write the last six shows of Calling All Forces – which had previously been written by Bob Monkhouse and Denis Goodwin. They'd written it non-stop for 18 weeks – why they didn't do the last six we never found out. They said they were going on holiday. We thought, Christ, we've never even been in the forces, but we said we do it. And Hancock was in that, but he was second banana to Charlie Chester. We did that six shows and then BBC changed the name of it, got rid of Charlie Chester, elevated Hancock to the star and we were right in there, for years!
ALAN: Two years – up to '54.
As is Mustard tradition, we have a question from one of our other interviewees:
RAY: (laughs) The telephone call!
ALAN: The story, or theme, comes first. Sometimes the story develops once you've started writing. You plot it in your mind first, working out roughly where it's going to go. But then we would write very loosely, so if it took us a different route, we'd go with it.
RAY: It's a strange rule we made there. No matter what we were writing, if something happened that took us that way or that way, we'd forget the plot and go follow it. The time factor is very important: the longer you've got, the longer you'll take. If you've got a short deadline, you take the first story that comes along that's workable.
ALAN: We were always working to deadlines, but radio was about 20 weeks long. So you might start four or five weeks ahead, but you gradually lost time and you were working for weeks and weeks, waiting for the perfect story. Quite often we didn't know how it was going to finish, so we'd spend a load of time trying to manufacture an ending. But in the ones where we had a close plot, like The Blood Donor, we had the ending before we started.
RAY: Which was very unusual for us. Only happened about twice.
ALAN: I remember one time we got stuck whilst doing The Les Dawson Show. We couldn't see where it was going. Then we lifted one scene out, put it before another scene, and it all worked. Like doing a crossword puzzle. Of course, it's better to know where you're going, but sometimes you have to start with just half an idea. Whenever we had a half-idea, I used to write them down. So by halfway through the series we'd have a whole page of half-ideas. Then when we started a new show we'd go over all the half ideas, to see if anything worked. On two or three occasions we put two of the half-ideas together and we'd have a show. Never throw anything away! Even if it's only a suggestion, a smidgen of an idea – write it down. You never know when it might come in useful.
How did the division of labour work?
ALAN: Simple: I did the typing and he didn't! Nothing was done outside working hours, outside of the room. Certain lines, certain build-ups write themselves – you don't have to wait for the other person to say 'and then what happened?', you know what the next line is. All our feed lines from our women characters were uninteresting. Our first leading lady was Geraldine McEwan, who plays Miss Marple now. She was 21 then. The second, Moira Lister, put up with it for a couple of years then said 'you don't really need me'.
RAY: Somebody said to me the other day, they thought she was wonderful, Moira.
ALAN: Our third leading lady was Andree Melly, George Melly's sister. She started off French because of her Christian name, then in the next series turned up with a cut-glass English accent. Nobody noticed. Then she got fed up and left.
RAY: We weren't very good at writing for women, and Tony Hancock wasn't very good being around women, as such, until we got Hattie Jacques. She was magic as far as we were concerned. We could write for her, whereas we couldn't really write for the usual good-looking romantic interest sort... couldn't do that.
ALAN: Hattie was a very funny woman.
When writing a script, it's better to know where you're going, but sometimes you have to start with just half an idea.
BBC Audio are releasing recovered soundtracks from lost TV episodes of Hancock: there's Flight of the Red Shadow, The Wrong Man, Horror Serial and Beauty Contest.
ALAN: I remember those. The Wrong Man was based on the film of the same name, starring Henry Fonda. I played 'the wrong man' at the end with an enormous great beard.
RAY: The joke was that he's a foot taller than Hancock – so how the hell could they have got them mixed up? In the Hitchcock film it really is a lookalike for Fonda. There's a lot of visuals in there that they're not going to get!
How was your working relationship with Hancock?
ALAN: We never used to work with him. He was one of those rare comedians who left you alone and never came up with any ideas or suggestions. He left it entirely up to us. It was great!
RAY: He said, 'look, you're the writers. I'm the actor. I'll do my part you do your part'. That was it. The only time he stopped doing that was on the first film, The Rebel. We got together and thrashed out the storyline in his flat for a week. Then we went away and wrote it. But that was the only time he gave any input.
How did you find it writing a film script rather than a TV episode?
ALAN: We always had the same problem: we'd write too densely. We'd write a script that lasted 2.5 hours and it had to be cut down to 1h 40 mins, so you'd have to lose jokes and plot lines. A top film script is very sparse – obviously there are exceptions – but it's usually about an hour script that the director makes into an hour and a half. We didn't leave him any leeway.
RAY: It's funny, one script we wrote, The Spy With A Cold Nose, was being passed around Hollywood as the perfect example of how to write a comedy script. But it turned out not to be. It was funny, but it was so tightly scripted that the director couldn't do anything but just shoot it.
Peter Sellers at home
with wife Britt Ekland
ALAN: Peter Sellers was going to do it. He'd had thirteen heart attacks in America and came back here. His agent and financial man said 'Peter's back here and he's asked whether you'd write something for him. Nothing too strenuous – a nice English film, where there's not too much running around'. We had this idea about a vet, and we took a draft down to Peter, who had just married Britt Ekland – another good reason to visit him. We'd show bits and pieces to Peter and he'd be rolling around on the carpet laughing his head off, we were so worried he was going to have a heart attack!
Peter was absolutely mad about the script and he said 'right, how shall we do this – through your company, or my company, or..?' and then he just started casting it. We finished the script, it was all going ahead, ready to start and then we had a call from his representative. 'Peter can't do it.' 'Why?' 'He's going to do What's New Pussycat? with Woody Allen'. 'Oh.' And that was it.
RAY: They said he was contracted to do it, but didn't know.
ALAN: So Laurence Harvey did the film in the end, with Lionel Jeffries playing more or less the same sort of part he'd had in The Wrong Arm of the Law. We were told 'it has to have a bird in it' – a love interest. So we had to write a new character.
I think The Rebel really stands up. How successful was it at the time?
ALAN: Very successful for a first film. Critically speaking, I think the first two thirds were fine, then it went off a little towards the end. Tony was fine in it, George Sanders was very good. It's now considered much more favourably than it was at the time, as a satire on the art world. At the Royal College of Art, we are told it's regarded as a classic!
RAY: And also, wossisname...
ALAN: Lucian Freud, yeah, he is supposed to have said it's the best art film ever made!
ALAN: Lucian Freud, taking the piss out of us...
The 1970s Playhouse series, the second set you did, has just been released on DVD for the first time...
ALAN: Yes, the ones from the 1970s, one of the few things we did for ITV, with episodes starring people like Arthur Lowe, Leonard Rossiter, Charles Gray and Freddie Jones. Also, for Radio 2, we're adapting some of the scripts for modern actors Rik Mayall, Paul Merton. Mitchell & Webb and Frank Skinner. The problem is that some of them are too short, less than 30 minutes! So we've had to add to them, which has been interesting. We'll see whether, thirty years later, they still work. The aim is good stories, beautifully played.
How did the original 1961 series of Comedy Playhouse come about?
RAY: Tom Stone, the head of light entertainment, had given us the brief that we could do anything we liked with this new idea of 'Comedy Playhouse'. We'd already said we wanted to write something for Frankie Howerd, but he wouldn't let us do that, saying 'no, no, no, he's finished'. We said 'he's just at a drop in his career'. He said 'no, I want you to write this, and you can do what you like with it – cast it, direct it, be in it, anything'. This was something that had never been offered to a writer before – or since, I think.
And the episode The Offer famously developed into Steptoe & Son...
ALAN: The Offer came at another point of our career when we had writers block, couldn't think of anything. Finally we got to the stage when we had to write something, so Roy suggested two rag and bone men. I thought he was joking, but then realised that maybe it wasn't such a bad idea. But we didn't have a story or anything. We just had to start writing: first rag and bone man, second rag and bone man - just them arguing. It became obvious that one should be older, staying at home in the yard while the other one went out on the round. But halfway through, it was just bickering. We asked: what's the relationship, where's this going? We can't just have thirty minutes of arguing. So we stopped and reread what we'd done and it became obvious…
RAY: The answer came with the idea that they were father and son.
ALAN: That was the catalyst. The son was getting on a bit – 37 years old, still at home with an old father. Not a usual situation; more usual for women in those days. We wrote the last half of it with the son trying to get away and the old man saying 'piss off then, but you're not having the horse, the horse is mine'. And the son says 'I don't give a toss, I'll move it myself – I'm going, you're not keeping me back any longer!'. And he gets between the shaft, but he can't move it. In the end he collapses in tears, proper tears. We were used to comedians just turning their back to the audience and doing sobbing noises. But this was an actor, he was really crying. Then the old man takes him back and says 'never mind, tomorrow's another day'. And off they went into the house. We knew that he was doomed forever.
Wilfred Brambell & Harry H. Corbett.
Did you have any inkling that this episode was special?
ALAN: No, it was just meant to be a one–off episode, we didn't even call it Steptoe & Son, it was just The Offer.
RAY: Tom Stone came down to the rehearsal on that episode. He nudged us and said, 'you know what you got here, don't you? This is a series'. We said no thanks, we didn't want to do a series. We'd got Comedy Playhouse, which had made us stars – we didn't want to get lumbered with another comedian or whatever for another 10 years. For six months he kept asking and we kept saying 'no'. In the end, we said 'look, if Harry and Willy want to do it, we will'. We were thinking they're straight actors, they won't want to.
I remember on The Offer we'd rehearsed in boys clubs, places like that, and then we got into the studio at the Beeb on the day of recording. We all went up to look round the set and I said 'what a wonderful set'. And Harry said 'never mind the set, what are all these chairs?'. We said 'they're for the live studio audience'. Harry looked aghast: 'nobody told me I had to do this in front of an audience – I'll have to rethink my entire performance!'. So we were convinced that he would never want to do a series, being a straight actor. He'd taken a week off from Bristol Old Vic, playing Henry V or something, to do that one episode.
ALAN: But he jumped at it. They both did, so that's how the series started.
RAY: And Tom Stone was quite right. It did work.
ALAN: So we thought, 'okay we got to call the characters something', and there was a camera shop over at Richmond called 'Steptoe and Figg'. So we tried Figg & Son...
RAY: (laughing) I don't think we did!
ALAN: (laughing) No, Steptoe was the one. It's funny how things come round though. Freddie Jones redid The Offer on radio with John Thompson as the young man, playing them as Mancunians rather than cockneys. And it worked perfectly.
We've been blessed in our career really, with all the wonderful performers we've worked with.
There've been stories that Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett didn't get on, but you've said this isn't true..?
RAY: That thing they did on the BBC, The Curse of Steptoe, was balderdash really. They got on very well. It got a bit fractious towards the last series, just a little bit. Then after we finished, they volunteered to go and do a tour of Australia – nothing to do with us. Now, two men who hated each other were never going to do that.
But I think their relationship did break down over there. As far as we can tell – we don't know for sure, we weren't there. I think the old man got chucked out of New Zealand anyway, for shouting his mouth off on the radio or TV, saying 'what a rotten country' or something. So that was the end.
ALAN: (lauging) They all disintegrated after we stopped working with them! Same thing happened to Hancock!
RAY: Never mind The Curse of Steptoe, it must be The Curse of Galton and Simpson!
Surely the curse of not having Galton and Simpson?
RAY: Yeah, yeah... alright. But they were two bloody good actors, we couldn't have had anybody better.
ALAN: We've been blessed in our career really, with all the wonderful performers we've worked with.
Galton & Simpson interviewed by Alex Musson
Galton & Simpson