HOWWE MET; RAY GALTON AND ALAN SIMPSON
Sunday 11 June 1995
RAY GALTON: It was 1948, somewhere round about August, and I was lying on the bed in my little ward in the Surrey county sanatorium near God-alming where I was being treated for TB. Alan was there, too, also being treated for TB. When Alan went past, the room went dark, because he was a big man - about 6ft 4in and 18 or 19 stone. I saw this shuffling figure with a big brown dressing-gown on, with the collar turned up, going by swinging his toilet bag, on his way to have a wash. I thought, "Who the hell's that?", because you expect everyone in a sanatorium to be thin and weedy, and he was the biggest guy I'd ever seen. They liked to put people of similar ages together, so we were put in next to each other. He was always the last one up in the sanatorium; he used to stay in bed as long as possible.
A sanatorium isn't like a hospital, because you're in there a long time; within reason, they let you do what you like. We started writing a comedy series for broadcasting through the sanatorium, and they created a little radio room in a linen cupboard. We were tremendously keen on comedy, and then we had this idea of doing this show, so we wrote to Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. I think we asked if we could be their tea-boys when we got out of hospital, but we weren't really serious about writing.
Alan got out of hospital before me and went back to work; I was there another few months. Then Strepto- mycin came on the market and I was out in four or five months, though I wasn't allowed to go back to work.
When I got out, Alan got in touch with me. We wanted a professional opinion of our work, so we wrote this sketch, The Pirate Sketch, and sent it to the BBC. We got a letter back saying, "We were highly amused and would you like to come up for an interview." We got drunk on that letter.
That's how we got working on the show called Happy Go Lucky. The fee was 20 guineas; three shows at 20 guineas - that was 60 guineas. We knew we had to do it - if we didn't, we might as well pack up. It was terrifying - we worked every hour of the day.
About six months after the end of Happy Go Lucky, Bob Monkhouse and Dennis Goodwin, who had been writing Calling All Forces for about 60 weeks, went on holiday, and the BBC asked us to write the last six shows. We said yes. Hancock was sharing top billing with Charlie Chester, and that's how we started writing for him.
We were nervous of him; we were so young. We still thought you had to be born into showbusiness, and neither of us had any connections. Tony was very friendly, very pleasant and quite generous. We wrote for him for a couple of years, and he always had guests on his show - so we wrote for practically every big comedian in the country, and quite a few film stars, too.
We had the idea of doing a situation comedy, half an hour, with no funny voices, no jokes as such, and a complete storyline with no interruptions by a singer or instrumentalist - which all shows had then. Our producer had quite a job persuading the BBC that it should happen. That's how Hancock's Half Hour started, which ran for 10 years and really made our names.
After we split with Hancock, we were offered 10 shows to do whatever we liked - no one had ever been offered that before. Show number four was called The Offer - and the characters were called Steptoe. The head of the department came to rehearsals and said, "You know what you've got here? It's a series if I've ever seen one." We didn't want to do a series, because we'd done 10 years with Hancock. For months we said no, but as we were running out of excuses, we said: "If Harry Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell want to do the show as a series, we'll do it", thinking that they wouldn't - they were straight actors. But they both jumped at it, so we had to do it, and in the end we were bloody glad we did.
When it comes to writing we're good meshers. Alan always did the typing and I did the sitting down watching him type, the wandering round the room, the lying on the floor...
We agree about most things. We were both committed socialists, left-wingers - now we're champagne socialists. We both enjoy wine, talking about it and being snobbish about it. We also love France. Alan goes six times a year, and I occasionally go with him. But we don't agree about everything. Alan is a sports fanatic and I couldn't care less about it, but we were and are friends. Why are people friends? Because you like each other, you get on, and you can talk to each other about anything.
ALAN SIMPSON: The first time I saw Ray, I was walking along the corridor at the sanitorium in my dressing-gown. At first we didn't have a lot to do with each other because we were at opposite ends of the block. I was in Ward 2 and he was in Ward 14. But I was transferred to 14; that's when we became friends. We were both in for three years, and for the last two we were in this ward together. We used to listen to comedy shows, and we were both film fans. We've known each other 47 years, and we don't look a day older.
We started writing a comedy series, for broadcasting over the sanatorium radio system - we played the parts with a couple of other patients, one of them doing the sound effects. We were playing, really, like playing at trains.
We had another year in the sanatorium after that. I'd been a member of a church concert party before, and when I got out, I got in touch with Ray. He used to come over on the bus to Mitcham, where I lived, and we wrote four or five sketches for it. Then we wrote a 10-minute skit and sent it to the BBC. We got a letter back, asking us to go in. I remember running over to Ray's house waving this sheet of paper, like Chamberlain with the Munich Agreement.
This script we sent in - it was the summer of 1951 - ended up on the desk of the producer of a show called Happy Go Lucky, with the top comedian of the time, Derek Roy. He phoned me at the shipping office where I was working and said he'd like to meet us with a view to us writing for him. Ray and I went to see him and he said he'd pay us five shillings for each joke he bought - that was our first professional payment. Ray would come over to my mum's house, we'd sit in the front room and write two or three sheets of one-line jokes. Derek Roy would go through them, he'd tick them or cross them, count them up, give us the money from petty cash, and Ray and I would go back home and share it out. We'd started being professionals.
Our big break came when Happy Go Lucky flopped. The producer had a nervous breakdown and they brought in a new one who sacked all the writers and asked us if we could write the whole show. We worked all the hours God sent - our doctors would have been horrified.
At the time, my mother was keeping me for 30 shillings a week - she was horrified about me giving up my job. She said, "If, after a month, you can't pay me the 30 shillings, will you go back to work?" I said, "It's a deal," and the very first week, we landed a six-guinea solo slot. Then we got this Happy Go Lucky offer that paid around 25 guineas - a fortune.
When we first started out, nobody know what scriptwriters were. When we went to open a bank account, the manager said, "Well, what do you do?" and we said, "We're scriptwriters," and he thought we did sign-writing on windows. We said, "No, we write scripts," and he said, "Yes, but what do you do during the day?"
Later on, Ray and I became well-known. We got our own show, the Galton and Simpson Playhouse. About 10 years later, after we had finished working with Hancock, we were given 10 half-hour television shows to fill however we liked. We decided to do 10 comedy plays instead of a series. But we reached episode four and we dried up. We had to use a technique we had when we couldn't think of anything - we'd start by saying, "Two ... something or others" - two rat- catchers in Buckingham Palace or whatever. Ray said, "Two rag-and-bone men walking down the street..." We started writing, and decided they were father and son, and that the son was quite old, he was about 37 - that was the key. We did five episodes and went on holiday to Spain. On my way down there, I got a Daily Mail, and read that Steptoe and Son had been such an enormous success that the BBC had decided to repeat it immediately, back to back - it had never been heard of before. We were delighted. The episodes that are going out now on BBC2 are 30 years old - and the audience seem to be quite young, which is very, very nice. What we write about doesn't seem to date - some of them could have been written yesterday. The political arguments are still the same - you just change Blair and Major for Heath and Wilson.
Ray and I have lots of things in common, but the most important thing is the sense of humour, the sense of comedy. In a partnership you spend more time with each other than you do on anything else - you can spend more time with each other than you do with your families. So if you don't get on, it's purgatory. 8
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