Interview: Galton & Simpson
Two comedy-writing legends chat to DoG about Hancock, Steptoe, and kick-starting their stellar career in a sanitorium...
In the early 1950s Ray Galton and Alan Simpson found that their year together in the micro-culture of a sanatorium had forged a life-long friendship and working partnership, and given them an insight into life well ahead of their years. Their experiments with writing for the sanatorium radio station eventually blossomed into a hugely successful writing partnership that brought British culture Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son, as well as the very popular one-off ‘Comedy Playhouses’ in the 1960s and 1970s, a selection of which are released this week. Thus we were allowed to look back on an amazing career in the company of two writers who made an enduring impression on British culture…When did you realise that you could work together?
RG: Well we were virtually the same age and we had very very similar tastes, and that was in music and comedy, so that was the basis of it, really.
So were you sitting in adjacent beds in the same ward?
AS: One behind the other, in a TB sanatorium in Surrey. We were diagnosed at a very early age. Ray was sixteen, I was seventeen, and it took me about a year to get into the sanatorium because there was a waiting list.
RG: It took me ten days to get into the sanatorium, because they thought well, the poor bugger’s going to die in a couple of days, so let him in [laughs].
Was it really that serious?
RG: Oh yeah.
AS: A year went by and I finally got into the sanatorium because they found some space there, and Ray saw me before I saw him, and he’ll tell you that.
RG: The glass doors were facing out behind our beds and they suddenly went dark as this huge figure came along and I thought who the hell’s that, particularly in the sanatorium, where everybody is skeletal. It was Alan – about six foot four and a half and weighing about 18 stone, I think. Very unrepresentative of TB sufferers [laughs].
So you started writing for a sort of hospital radio that they had?
AS: That’s right. Ray had been in the sanatorium a year or so before I got there, and he made friends with a man who was an engineer. But I’ll let Ray tell you this…
RG: I was put into this two-bedded cubicle, this guy, and he said do you mind going in with Wallace? I thought Barnes-Wallace? Yeah all right, long as he doesn’t make any bombs while we’re recovering…but I couldn’t believe this room that they’d put me into with this guy, because it looked like a small engineering factory. And in fact his father did own a small engineering factory and he was taking after him, I suppose, But anyway, apart from not being able to move because of electronic and engineering equipment, this guy had a big RAF 1155 radio, which he’d lovingly restored and stove-enamelled and chromed and everything else like that. He and another guy put a new network into the sanatorium where everybody could listen to BBC1 and BBC2.
So he installed a little studio, and we had an amplifier, turntables, records, microphones. And then Alan I myself. listening to what were generally record programmes, we said to this radio committee: what would you say if we were to ask you to whether we could write a comedy? And they said ‘By all means!’. I’ll let Alan take it up now.
AS: We were on the radio committee anyway, so they said that we could do it, and we came up with an idea called ‘Have you ever wondered?’. The idea was, ‘Have you ever wondered what would happen if a doctor and patient swapped places?’. Three-minute sketches, which we also performed ourselves. We had our sound-effects man complete with coconut shells and all the equipment.The only snag was that we’d dried up. We were supposed to do six and we dried up after four. [laughs]. So that was it – we thought that was the end of our career. We didn’t write anymore, but we did write a letter to Frank Muir and Denis Norden, which was really the key to it all. We asked if , when we came out of the sanatorium, we could join their office as office-boys and learn how to do it. I should imagine they were laughing like mad when they read this, they’re gonna have these two spotty-nosed eighteen year-olds in their office. So they wrote a charming letter back saying that the best thing we could do if we had any ideas was to send them to the BBC script-editor.
When I came out [of the sanitorium] Ray said ‘You gonna come back?’ and I said ‘I can’t, really, I’ve been told to rest. He said ‘Have you got any other ideas?’. So I said, tell you what, I’ll get in touch with a friend of mine who we wrote some sketches with a year ago. Got in touch with Ray and asked him if he fancied it and he said ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go’. So we wrote some sketches for the concert party and they were very successful.
Having got back into writing again and having got over the writer’s block, we decided to do what Frank and Dennis advised and we wrote a sketch…we sent this script in to the BBC script editor and he wrote back and said they were very amused, and to come up and see them and see if we could do something for them.
Can you remember what the sketch was?
RG: It would have been ideal for Johnny Depp! AS: Frank and Dennis used to write a show called Take It From Here, and the last sketch was always a pastiche or a take-off of, for instance, a big film or a famous book or a play; or it would be a theme like trouble at t’mill, with Jimmy Edwards and North country mill workers. So we decided to write a script about captain Henry Morgan, the pirate, based in Jamaica in sixteen-ninety-something. As Ray says, ideal for Johnny Depp. You wouldn’t know about that, because this was 1951.
Anyway, they liked it, and what he said he would do is send the script around to a few producers and see what they thought and if they could use it. One of the producers they sent it to was a man called Roy Speer, who was doing a very big radio series called ‘Happy Go Lucky’, starring a man called Derek Roy.
RG: A misnomer of a title if you’ve ever heard one! [laughs]. And we were introduced to Derek who asked us would you like to write jokes for me? So we started writing jokes for Derek Roy and we’d come up with a couple of pages of one-line gags. He would count up the ones he wanted. He used to pay us five shillings, or 25 pence in modern money, per joke. So he’d count up maybe 7 jokes and that was 35 shillings and we’d get 17′ 6 each and that was it, really.
When you wrote together, would you sit opposite each other bouncing off ideas, or would one of you come and start batting a new idea around…?
AS: When we got to do it properly – –
RG: Professionally.AS: — Ray used to come round to me. I lived with my mother in Streatham and Ray used to get the bus over. We used to sit in the lounge and not put anything down until we’d both agreed it. Then we used to take it round to a friend of mine who I’d known for years, who was a secretary, and she’d type it up for us. One of the top television producers in the country now. In those days she was a typist and used to type our scripts. Our first decent fee, which was from Happy Go Lucky was about 22 guineas and the first thing we did was go round to Peter Jones and buy a typewriter. As I was the only one of us who could type, since I’d worked in an office, I was the designated typist. ray used to sit next to me, just as we are now, so that he could see what was going on. Ray’s written with other people since I retired, but when we were working together we never did anything outside and bring it in. Different writers have different ways of working. Some writers write an episode each, swapping over…Ray and I always wrote in the same room at the same time. Nothing would ever go down until we’d both approved it.
Was it generally a smooth working relationship?
AS: Well it’s lasted sixty years so I reckon it must have had something going for it.
RG: We’ve never had a row in our lives, I don’t believe. If someone came up with an idea for a joke or an idea for a comedy or whatever – an idea. If it was greeted by silence from the recipient it’d get passed down and we’d just carry on as if nothing had happened and just carry on. Sometimes I get humpy – probably more than Alan – about Alan not seeing the absolute genius of what I’ve just said [laughs]. And I’ll stay quiet, saying ‘Right, okay – that’s my contribution, let’s see what yours is’ [laughs]. And Alan was probably thinking ‘Wonder why he’s staying quiet?’.
AS: We’d forget who’s turn it was in a way. We’d forget who’d been quiet. One time what I call a ‘creative silence’ lasted about three days. It didn’t mean we didn’t speak in those three days – we’d day ‘Good morning, how are you? Where’d you go last night? Went to the pictures. Oh good!’. Then we’d start working and back to the silence!
How long had you and Ray been working together before you first encountered Tony Hancock? And what was your initial impression of him?AS: We met Tony really with the first show that we did, Happy Go Lucky. We wrote the last three episodes of it. Tony was already in the show, but he was in this one sketch in the show that we didn’t write. Tony was listening to a sketch that we did write and he walked over and said ‘Did you write that?’. We said ‘yes’ and he said ‘It’s very good’. Then he asked us if we’d write some singles for him, which we did, and they were very successful. A similar thing happened – the BBC were doing a show called Calling All Forces, which had been written by Bob Monkhouse and his partner Dennis Goodwin for about two years. For some strange reason which we never got to the bottom of, they decided to go on holiday and not to do the last three, having done eighty-four episodes of an hour. So we were asked if we would do it, and as luck would have it Tony Hancock was already in it. He was the lead with cheerful Charlie Chester. So now we were actually writing for Tony. That went on for a few years up until 1954, when we got the idea of doing a thirty-minute sitcom with him. The idea was that there’d be no songs or musical interludes as it was in all of these type of shows, but to do a complete, single storyline right the way through the whole thirty minutes. And Dennis Main Wilson – he was the director – came up with the idea of calling it Hhhh-ah-ancock’s Half Hour – ‘cos Hancock always had this habit of aspirating his H when it came along.We did that on radio and then we went over to television, and we were doing the two together, for a couple of years. All in all, we wrote everything Tony did from 1952 to 1961. Nine years.Obviously there were problems at the end, but was your relationship with Tony Hancock an affable one?
AS: It was a very very good relationship. Very affable, very amusing, very enjoyable. We got on like a house on fire. He was a bit older than us p- we were 22-23, and he was 27-28, but we got on marvellously and he was such a good performer, and he made our stuff so good. He timed it beautifully. You couldn’t have asked for a better relationship, and the other thing was that he left us to our own devices. He said to us “You’re the writer, I’m the performer – you write it and I’ll do it’. He never phoned up in the middle of the week as some of them did saying ‘I’ve had an idea – what if this week he does this and that’, or suggesting jokes…he never did anything like that, but left it entirely up to us. And the first time he saw a script he’d invariably give a perfect reading on the first read-through, which is very rare. The only one other person who could do that was Bernard Braden.
No it was a lovely relationship that only finished really in a disagreement over a film script. We couldn’t agree on a subject, and Ray and I couldn’t hang about, we had to earn a living and do a series at the BBC out of which came Steptoe & Son.
How much was your material for Hancock influenced by your relationship with him?
You often say that you were influenced by the Goons and Braden, but your signature-humour is very much comic-tragedy, isn’t it?
AS: I think that really came about through Steptoe. As we got older we developed as writers, as you do. You’ve got to remember that when we started we were very young. In the time we spent in the sanatorium, we were mixing with people older than ourselves.
Did your time there inform the humour that came later?
AS: The first thing we did was read more – we became self-educated in the sanatorium, and we were mixing with older people. Normally when you’re 17/18, you mix with 17/18 year-olds, but there we were mixing with 30, 40, 50 year-olds, as equals, learning about life in a way that we wouldn’t have done normally. So you could say that we either didn’t have a youth or that we grew up much quicker than most people did. By the time we were 26/27 we were writing as if we knew life inside out [laughs].
There’s a fatalistic streak in your work for Hancock too – was there a point where you realised that worked for your style of writing, or was it just a slow development?
AS: It gradually evolved. When we started writing for Tony, it was nothing like it became. It was more gag-oriented and based on the character Tony played in Educating Archie, who was a schoolmaster. Getting to know him and writing for him week after week, we gradually evolved it into a version of ourselves, really. We found that working with Tony, we could delve into subjects and give him attitudes not normally associated with the music-hall comics. And this was extended when we did Steptoe – we were dealing with actors there. We could get into subjects that comedians wouldn’t normally handle.
How was it going from the Hancock ensemble to these mini two-hander stage plays in Steptoe & Son?
AS: Well we’d already got away from the ensemble thing with the last series of Hancock. Dropped the half-hour, and we didn’t have Sid, Bill, Hattie Jacques, we didn’t have anyone. We just had Hancock surrounded by actors. That last series had The Blood Donor in it, The Radio Ham…some of the stuff that he’s best remembered for. And we enjoyed the idea of writing for straight actors. You got more reality.
So the more dramatic performances heightened the kind of comedy that you were doing?
AS: It certainly brought the best out of Tony. when he was with straight actors he was much better than he was playing opposite comedians.
Do you think he responded to not having to be funnier than someone else who was on set?
AS: Absolutely. He was a very generous performer, Tony – he was never a line-counter. He’d never say ‘I haven’t got much in that one, have I?’. Many comedians were like that, but Tony never was. He took the same view as Jack Benny/ Jack Benny was another one who influenced us tremendously, and influenced Tony too. Jack Benny had ‘The Jack Benny Show’ on the radio,. and a lot of the time he was just feeding people like Phil Harris. Someone asked him, ‘Do you mind the rest of ’em getting laughs when you’re just sort of standing there?’, He said ‘What you’ve got to remember is the name of the show; it’s called the Jack Benny show, not the Phil Harris show or the Alice Faye show. It doesn’t really matter who gets the laughs, it’s still the Jack Benny show. He had a very sensible attitude, and Tony took that view as well – long as it was good for the show.
Associated London Scripts seemed like a real greenhouse for learning to write comedy…AS: That’s exactly what it became. It started when Ray and I were working from my mother’s house, in 1954, just before we started Hancock’s half-hour. We got a phone call from Spike Milligan and he just wanted to know whether we had agents. We said ‘No, we don’t’ and he said ‘Neither do Eric Sykes and myself – we work in the same office. We don’t want to give ten percent of our money to an agent, and we thought safety in numbers, is there anybody else that’s in the same boat? Would you like to come and have a meeting?’ So Ray and I went up to their office in Shepherd’s Bush and had this meeting and we agreed with them that we should all get together. We formed a little group and got a secretary, the woman who’d been typing our scripts for us, Beryl Vertue, and that was her first entry into show business. And we started out with just the four of us and Beryl. And Frankie Howerd, who was a close associate, sent a writer over who’d been writing scripts for him, and he suggested that he come and be represented by us – and that was Johnny Speight. Then the BBC sent down a man called Louis Schwarz and then Terry Nation turned up, who created the Daleks. So in about two or three months we had a little hive of about seven or eight writers. The idea was that we all put in ten percent and run it. We weren’t looking to make a profit; it was more like a co-operative. But the way it worked, Ray and I and Spike and Eric, we never had to put our ten percent in, and we got free offices and free stationery. But we never took dividends or got paid. We got paid in kind, I suppose [laughs]. It just gradually built up. Another agent came in and in the end we had about thirty or forty writers. Playwrights, film-writers. We didn’t really have actors, just writers. That went on for about fourteen years, and then Robert Stigwood made an offer for the agency. Ray and I thought it was a good idea and Beryl Vertue was running the office by this time as the managing director. We thought it was a good idea because it meant we could get into producing ourselves, into film production, which we weren’t able to do from where we were working. Spike and Eric disagreed – they wanted to stay independent, but when we put it to the writers they all voted to go with [Stigwood] and so off we went, and left Eric and Spike alone.
Was it camaraderie or friendly competition amongst the writers in the early days of Associated London Scripts?
AS: Not much competition but certainly camaraderie. A lot of alcohol was consumed…we used to mix with each other, look at each other’s work. The thing is that with Ray and I working together, we were our own sounding-board. Quite often Eric or Spike or someone would bring their work in to us for us to see it, so we used to say ‘Yes, very lovely, very funny, marvellous’ whereas we never did it to them because we’d already started it ourselves.
Was transferring these characters from your TV work to film a hard process for you, with Hancock and Steptoe? Was one very different to the other?
RG: Very different, yes. Hancock was very upbeat about the whole thing of going on to film. It’s something he wanted to do – I won’t say desperately, but he thought ‘I must be known in the rest of the world’, i.e. America. That was in mind when we wrote the film The Rebel for him. It was very successful, I think, the first film, and especially for him.
Did you struggle with the longer format?
RG: Ah. Well, yes. As he wasn’t playing Tony Hancock from East Cheam really…with film, you have this very different format, when you get an hour and a half instead of half an hour, so we really had to concentrate on construction, and the same applied when we transferred over to films with Steptoe. You had to have a different mindset, be aware that it was an hour and a half and people could get bored depending on how good you were – and everybody else, the director and everyone.
Did doing the Steptoe film help you when you moved to doing your Playhouse pieces?AS: The Playhouse pieces started before we did film. Steptoe & Son came out of the Playhouse; we didn’t do the Steptoe films until the 70s. And then the next series of the Comedy Playhouse’s were on ITV in the mid-70s, which is what they’re now putting out on DVD, along with Les Dawson’s Weekly. Also bear in mind that we’d already re-written a screenplay for a film called The Wrong Arm Of The Law, before the Steptoe film. Which was one of the most successful things that Peter [Sellers] ever did. That came out in about 1963 I think. And there was one called The Bargee which was also in sixty-three. And we did Loot, though that was in the late sixties.
Were you surprised by how people took to Steptoe & Son?
AS: The amazing thing about it is that Ray and I, after we’d written the first series, immediately after we’d written it…Ray had hired a villa in the South of Spain where we wrote the film script. On the way down I picked up the Daily Mail in a place on the Spanish border. It was about two days old and it carried this story about Steptoe & Son. It was such a success, the first of the six shows, but it didn’t catch on until number two or three and it was a hit by number six, and the BBC decided to repeat the series from the next week! It was an overnight success.
Are there any other of the Playhouses that you wish you could have expanded on?
AS: To be perfectly honest, we weren’t looking to get together to write another series. We weren’t writing with the idea of getting another series. As Ray says, we fought against the idea of Steptoe & Son as a series, purely because we’d been doing it for nine years. So we weren’t looking for another series though funnily enough we did one with Robert Morley called Our Man In Moscow. Years later it was suggested that this be made into a series in America, starring Dana O’Connor, would you believe. I think we did a pilot but nothing came of it. But no there was nothing else really that I think would have made a series. The point is, we didn’t try. We weren’t interested really.
Did you have any concerns when you revisited the Playhouse scripts with Paul Merton in the mid-90s whether they would translate forward in time?
RG: I think our main concern was that out of the series we put two or three Hancock ones in. We were a bit worried for Paul that he would be compared unfavourably with the original? A few of the critics did [indecipherable 51.00] before that but the rest of the series played beautifully, and we just took it as an entity and not individually. But they did work…
AS: As Paul got used to it he became better, more relaxed. His big problem was the same as Hancock – learning the lines. That’s a thing that actors learn in their infancy. We did two series, and in the second series he was very relaxed and did a very good job.
Did you feel pressure to modernise some of the humour? Did you feel pressure to change or moderate some of the humour?
RG: Not that I remember. Do you?
AS: No. This was over ten years ago and all the PC stuff that’s coming in now hadn’t really started. Also we weren’t really controversial in that respect. It wasn’t something like Alf Garnett.
RG: The funny thing is…I don’t know if you listen to the radio a lot, but there’s a show on now called Count Arthur Strong.
I don’t know that show.
RG: You ought to catch it because it’s very funny, and it’s so old-fashioned it’s unbelievable [laughs]. And it’s very funny and getting a bigger audience than it ought to. But it’s terribly old-fashioned – a bumbling, oldish man.
Did you initially think that the humour of Steptoe and Hancock would travel?
RG: Not really. We were asked a long time before it became a big thing in America, asked by another company to write an Americanised script for them, which we did. They were so pleased with it, but we didn’t tell them it only took about two or three hours, because we were out there for about two months. When they read it they said ‘Okay, the problem is, where are we going to set it in America? Is it going to be New York?’ And the other guy said ‘Well, if we put it in New York, everybody will say ‘Jewish’. If we put it in Boston they’ll say Irish. And if we put it in Chicago they’ll say Italians’. And they lost enthusiasm for it.
AS: We suggested they play black, and they said ‘What a wonderful idea, but impossible,. we can’t do it. Not allowed to portray black people in poverty-stricken…if he was a doctor..? Or lawyer, yeah, that’d be great. But no, can’t do it, and in Los Angeles they’d be Mexican.’
RG: A couple of years later Yorkin and Lear phoned us up and said that they’d very much like to do this in America and would we object to it being portrayed by black men? [laughs]
AS: Three years ago it couldn’t be done, and now it could.
RG: It went to Scandinavia and was a huge success out there…Portugal…Holland….
AS: And they did it shortly after we’d done our version.
The Dutch show quite a British sensibility in terms of their humour though, don’t they?
AS: The point of all this is that it depends entirely on your translator [laughs]. And every time we’ve been lucky to have a very good one. Our Swedish translator is the last person you’d think would be able to do this, but does it beautifully. He takes our vernacular and turns it into his vernacular without losing anything.
Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, thank you very much!The Galton and Simpson Playhouse: The Complete Series is out now.
23 January 2009