How We Met: Ray Galton & Alan Simpson
'Hancock, Sid James and Kenneth Williams would be on their knees roaring, eyes watering'
Sunday 04 January 2009
Alan Simpson OBE, 79, is a comedy writer and one half of the prodigious writing partnership Galton and Simpson, responsible for penning Steptoe and Son, Hancock's Half Hour and Dawson's Weekly. He lives alone in Surrey
In 1947, when I was 17, I ended up in Milford Sanatorium for 13 months with tuberculosis, which was rife. I was putinto a cubicle with a chap my age called Ray Galton. We hit it off immediately and had the same tastes in comedy – what was being broadcast on the American Forces Network: Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Ameche.
We suggested the hospital's radio station do a comedy show. "Well, you do it," they said. So we sat down and came up with an idea called "Have you ever wondered..." – situations such as what would happen if doctors became patients and patients became doctors, but we dried up after four sketches. We found the hand-written scripts the other day. They look pretty amateurish now but it was quite ingenious – we were only 18.
Before we got out we wrote a letter to Frank Muir and Denis Norden, then the biggest comedy writers in the country, asking if we could work for them as office boys. We got a charming letter giving us the elbow but suggesting we write a sketch and send it to the BBC. We didn't do anything until a year later, when we were both out, and sent them a script about a pirate called Captain Henry Morgan. Days later we got a letter saying the BBC was "highly amused" and to come in for a meeting. Within four years we were working with Tony Hancock. We couldn't believe it.
Most writers meet as writers but neither Ray nor I had written before we met so we only ever knew how to do it together. I did the typing and we didn't put anything down until we'd agreed the line, rewriting as we went without doing drafts. For a while we shared an office with Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan. Eric used to write by hand in enormous letters, with three sentences to a page. Spike didn't have the patience to think of the right line so just wrote non-stop. When he couldn't think of a line he'd just write "Fuck it" and keep going. Then he'd go back and do draft after draft until he'd taken out all the "Fuck its".
Ray and I were almost Siamese twins until I retired. I'd only intended to stop writing for a year but never got back to it. But we're still in touch. I live around the corner from him and on Monday mornings my cleaning lady kicks me out of the house, so I go around to Ray's for coffee.
Sometimes we'll reminisce. Some of my fondest memories are from the Hancock days. He was a dream to work with – one of those rare performers who could read something perfectly first time. He had his problems and was never a great party man, but he was funny. When we had readings with Hancock, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Bill Kerr – some of the biggest laughers in the business – they would be on their knees roaring, eyes watering. It was incredible, and Ray and I would stand there like kids thinking, "We did that."
Ray Galton OBE, 78, is a comedy writer and the other half of Galton and Simpson. He lives in Surrey with his daughter, Sara, and her children
In the winter of 1947, the snow lasted from January to April. I was in the sanatorium, where they used to keep the French doors open in the night. I used to wake up with snow all over the bed. Behind me there were glass doors on to the corridor. One day a fellow walked past and the room went dark. I turned around to see the biggest guy I'd ever seen. I later found out it was Alan. Spike Milligan would go on to call him "He Who Blocks Out the Sun".
Later in our careers, after we'd split with Hancock (we disagreed about our second film), Tom Sloan, the head of light entertainment at the BBC, asked us up to write some shows – anything we liked – for a series called Comedy Playhouse. The fourth show was called "The Offer", which was about two rag-and-bone men. During rehearsals, Tom said, "You know what you've got here?" "No," we said. "This is a series," he said.
We knew it was good but we didn't want to get involved with writing for the same people every week again. But Tom kept at us for months so we said we'd only do it if Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett played the leads, thinking they wouldn't. But they jumped at the chance and that's how Steptoe and Son started.
Alan and I never had verbal rows but there were silences. Alan's very easy to get on with but if I suggested something and it wasn't taken up, I'd go quiet. Sometimes there'd be days when we didn't say anything and neither of us would know what it was about. But we managed to get things done.
The only time we got worried was on a Friday night when we were supposed to have sent our Comedy Playhouse script to the BBC but hadn't thought of a thing. We asked our secretary not to let anyone in but then Graham Stark, the comedian, arrived and showed us a story from the paper about two cars that had got stuck in a narrow road in Cornwall. We both jumped up and said, "That's it." We took Graham to the pub, got pissed, then wrote the script in four hours non-stop the next morning. Alan couldn't move his arm for a week – it's the fastest we've ever written. It was called "Impasse". Jolly good it was, too.
'The Galton and Simpson Playhouse' and 'Dawson's Weekly: The Complete Series' are both out on DVD on 19 January
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