Writing history... | Steve Bennett meets Galton & Simpson

Writing history...

Steve Bennett meets Galton & Simpson

The BBC has offended public decency. Questions are asked in Parliament. Moral campaigners protest about the erosion of standards, and call for a return to good old-fashioned entertainment, without the need for such low blows.

Not 2009, but June 1962 and the furore concerns the third episode of a new sitcom called Steptoe And Son, ironically now held up as a paragon of good, wholesome comedy. But in its time, it was not without controversy.

Writer Ray Galton remembers how his rag-and-bone men caused offence: ‘They are trying to remove this grand piano from this high-rise apartment. They get it as far as the front door and they get it wedged, so they just leave it. And as they walk away the young man says to the old fella, “Well dad, we’ve learned one thing today… what goes up can bleeding well stay there.”

‘There were questions asked in Parliament the next day and Mary Whitehouse had a go about the BBC broadcasting obscenities.’

So what does he think about standards now, in the wake of the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand backlash? ‘I just think it’s unfortunate they did it,’ he said. ‘What made us laugh is that there were only two protests til someone pointed it out.’

His long-time collaborator Alan Simpson agrees: ‘Yes, I just think it was a lapse of judgment more than anything else.’

But now, it seems, even Galton and Simpson’s classic comedy is coming under renewed inspection as the BBC fears causing further offence. The duo are dusting down four of their vintage scripts, including the timeless Tony Hancock blood donor episode, for a radio season – and attracting the attentions of the taste scrutineers. ‘They’re already worried about certain aspects in the light of this Jonathan Ross thing,’ Simpson adds.

If anyone knows about the cyclical nature of comedy, it’s these two esteemed veterans. They pretty much invented sitcom as we know it, creating realistic scenarios for Hancock as early as 1955, when most comedians’ radio offerings were knockabout variety affairs, based on their music-hall acts. Decades before Seinfeld was being hailed as a ‘show about nothing’, these two had their characters moping about the house, killing time, for half hours at a time.

Chatting in Galton’s imposing but unpretentious house on the edge of Hampton Court, South-West London, this pair of septuagenarians remain modest about their own achievements – considering themselves almost jobbing writers who struck lucky.

But they certainly worked hard. ‘We wrote more than 600 shows,’ Simpson says. ‘We were writing 40 a year at one time. Nobody told us it couldn’t be done. We used to just go in and work day after day.

‘There are a few clinkers in there now and again, but that goes for everything. Deadline is the biggest incentive for writing. You can’t ring up and say, “There’s nothing this week.”

That scenario nearly happened to them only once: when it got to Friday night, the deadline for sending a Comedy Playhouse script to the BBC – but they hadn’t thought of anything.

‘We asked our secretary not to let anyone in,’ Galton says: ‘But then Graham Stark [the comedian and writer] arrived and we agreed to let him up. He showed us a story from the paper – just a few lines as a Stop Press – about two cars that had got stuck in a narrow road. We both jumped up and said, “That's it.”

‘We wrote the script in four hours non-stop the next morning. Alan did the typing and he couldn’t move his arm for a week. It was called Impasse, and funny enough, that’s one of the four we’re doing for the radio adaptations.’

However, the job in hand today is to promote two DVDs of their lesser-known shows, released on Monday to mark 60 years of their comic partnership, which formed when they were both laid up at a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent. The new releases are a sitcom they wrote for Les Dawson called Dawson’s Weekly and a series of seven one-off Comedy Playhouses they created for ITV in 1977, featuring an array of stars such as Leonard Rossiter, Richard Briers, John Bird, Frances De La Tour, Patricia Hayes, Warren Mitchell and Arthur Lowe.

‘It’s a great shame there’s very few of them still alive,’ Simpson recalls of his cast: ‘Arthur’s dead, Leonard Rossiter’s dead, Brian Glover’s dead…

‘Arthur was suffering from the beginning of narcolepsy at the time,’ he adds. ‘We’d be sitting around the rehearsal table doing the read-through, and when it was his turn, you’d look across the table at him and he’d nodded off. So you’d say “Arthur!” and he was straight back into it. It was just five-second cat-naps.’

‘It was the second time we had worked with Arthur. In 1972, we were going to remake the entire Hancock oeuvre with Arthur Lowe playing the Hancock part, and in the Sid James part we were going to have James Beck, who played the spiv [Joe Walker in Dad’s Army].

‘We picked one of the scripts and adapted it for Arthur, and spent the first page explaining the relationship between Arthur and James Beck – he was his brother-in-law who had divorced, so that was the reason for them to be together.

‘We made the pilot at Television Centre and it was sensational, and we were all ready to go and James Beck had appendicitis and went into the hospital and never came out. It turned out he was allergic to antibiotics and the more they did for him, the worse it got. He died within a fortnight, at 44.

‘Arthur, said, “It all comes in threes you know, it all comes in threes. First Hancock’s died, now James has died, I don’t think I’m going to do this.” So we didn’t do any more.’

Ray interjects: ‘I tell you what, we must find out from the BBC whether they’ve got a copy of that pilot. It’s the Economy Drive episode we did, but it never went out.’

Fans shouldn’t hold out too much hope, however. The corporation had a woefully poor record when it comes to keeping old recordings, which is why most of the early televised Hancocks are still missing. The reason, Galton says, is the same thinking that they as writers had: that it never occurred to them that they were creating anything of lasting value.

‘We never thought that way at the time,’ he says. ‘It’s the same reason the BBC wiped shows: they didn’t think they had anything of importance there.’

They were innocent times compared to today’s global market for content, with a thriving market for content from DVD firms, countless TV channels and internet video sites.

‘The first time that we did anything like this was when three guys approached us from Pye Records and said they would like to put Hancock out on a long-player,’ Galton says. ‘We said, “yes, go on, go ahead.” They said, “Do you own the copyright?” and we said, “Yes, but the BBC own the tape, so you’ve got to get permission from the BBC.”

‘The BBC said, “Yeah, all right.” They didn’t ask for any money, they just said they wanted a copyright printed on the LP, and that was it, in small type. Nobody realised there was a market.’

It came as a surprise to them both, then, to find out that the Les Dawson series – the only sitcom he ever did - had survived; especially as it has never been repeated on TV.

‘ITV had a policy of not repeating anything in those days,’ said Galton. ‘So practically everything we did for Yorkshire Television, that was it, they were never seen again.

‘I had great fears about the Les show,’ Simpson adds, ‘because we had no indication that they had it, until they said they were thinking of releasing it. Our experience of the BBC was that a lot of shows had been wiped, and as they had a policy of not repeating it, we thought maybe they don’t exist any more – but fortunately they did.’

The show stemmed from an special Galton and Simpson had been commissioned to write for Dawson as ITV’s entry in the 1974 Montreux international festival, called Holiday With Strings, also included on the DVD. 'In many ways Les was like Hancock, visually and with the misanthropic attitude,’ Simpson says.

Despite that, the show lost out to The Goodies when it came to the prizes, but the series was still commissioned.

Simpson has another reason to recall that first one-off episode, as it marked the last time he ever flew, following an incident that sounds like something from one of their scripts. ‘We were in Oslo and we got a phone call saying, “Get to Montreux immediately. It’s a contender,”’ he recalls. ‘So we booked a flight to Geneva and it had to land at Copenhagen on the way. And we were sitting in Copenhagen Airport looking out at this aircraft we’d just landed on and there was this ladder up. The canopy on one of the engines had been taken off and there’s a bloke on top of this ladder with a fucking great mallet, belting the life out of something in this engine. And they came on and said “now this plane is ready for take-off” and I thought: “I’m not doing this again…”

In his memoirs, Dawson said the show was the best thing he’d ever done, although critics at the time were less than enthusiastic. Galton said that Yorkshire TV wanted to do another series, but ‘Les’s agent had already decided he could make money at the one-hour sketch presentation show, so we never got around to doing any more.’

Dawson was a change for Galton and Simpson, who preferred working with actors than comedians.

‘Actors never try to put things into the script,’ Simpson says. ‘They just learn their lines and do it. Les, of course, was the complete opposite. Like all comedians, he was forever looking for places to put in some of his wheezes. In the end, we got through to him that he didn’t need it, but it wasn’t his natural instinct. He was putting lines in like “face like a sackful of spanners” and the script didn’t need it, it spoils it. In the end, he was intelligent enough – and got to trust us. He came to realise…

‘That we were right,’ Galton concludes his writing partner’s thought. And, given the enduring appeal of the shows they created, history seems to have proved them right.

    Dawson's Weekly (Buy at Amazon) and The Galton And Simpson Playhouse (Amazon) are both released on Monday.

Published: 13 Jan 2009

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