Script Ends: Goodbye Alan, And Thank You

The Arts

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It’s pretty clear to me now that without Alan Simpson and his writing partner Ray Galton I would not have started writing. I first found them listed on the back of an LP (that’s cool vinyl, kids – oh, you’re interested now aren’t you?). It was Tony Hancock’s first album, ‘This Is Hancock’ (I should have kept it, it’s very rare). The cover read; ‘This is Hancock. This is Sid James. This is Kenneth Williams. This is Uncle Bert & Auntie Edie.’ Galton & Simpson had stuck a random photo of a couple in their back garden on the rear off the sleeve.

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This kind of humour was ahead of its time. Monty Python was later to emulate it by cutting an LP with 3 sides on one disc and printing a classical sleeve with the lettering scribbled out.

It couldn’t have been easy writing for Hancock, and you get the feeling that he could be a pain in the arse; sulky, drunken, cliquey, self-deprecating, not as intellectual as he liked to think he was. Clearly G&S (who share their initials with another legendary creative partnership) preferred working with Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble on ‘Steptoe & Son’, although they were too gentlemanly to ever say so.

On radio, G&S’s Hancock shows became an experiment in meaningful silences. ‘A Sunday Afternoon At Home’ has no right be as agonisingly funny as it is. (It’s one of the few shows I can repeat entirely from memory.) Hancock on TV suffered from his refusal to memorise dialogue, purportedly due to a car crash but more likely because of his alcoholism.

Steptoe & Son were more professional and their series achieved a more cohesive whole. They achieved a profundity that Hancock would only have found had he made G&S’s brilliant film script ‘The Day Off’.

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I make no excuses for excerpting from the blogs I wrote about them some while back;

Why do the Hancock’s Half Hour stories, tales of a self-deluding failed artist parted from his money by a conman, still resonate? Because the archetype is still with us, even if the details have changed. This gently faded, doomed faux-intellectual who was so defensive but accidentally bared his soul all the time is a classically funny/tragic idea. ‘I don’t ask for much from life, and I don’t get it.’ If it wasn’t so funny it would be unbearable.

Galton & Simpson maintained that tragedy was funny and comedy wasn’t. They took darkness a step further into comedy in ‘Steptoe & Son’, some episodes of which now seem almost unwatchably cruel and true. But in their other writing they pulled off similar tricks, adapting Joe Orton beautifully for the big screen in ‘Loot’. ‘The Bargee’ is less revealing because the film is sunnier, and I could never track down ‘The Spy with the Cold Nose’, but their greatness lay in Hancock and Steptoe, proof that comedy can achieve the level of poetry.

Galton and Simpson had given Hancock a huge hit with ‘The Rebel’, and he wanted a follow-up. They delivered the story of Hancock, now a bus driver, on his day off, arguing with his landlady and various people around Hammersmith, meeting a girl in the Palais, messing up the date and going home.

It’s virtually plotless, sad and very funny indeed. In it, Hancock meets up with another bus driver, and argues about the pointlessness of saving and withdrawing the same amount each week with his bank. He tries to bully a man on a park bench into admitting he feels insignificant, and fails. He loses an argument about wasps and bees. He meets Charlotte, a girl who works in a dress shop, and pretends he’s an architect building a cathedral, while she pretends she’s a model. He gets found out just before a touching goodnight kiss, and the romance turns sour. The film ends as it begins, with Hancock going home alone as the weather-girl announces tomorrow will be a sunny day – for those with a day off.

When asked how they still work together, Galton said about Simpson, ‘I help him upstairs and he tells me what day it is.’ They agree that downbeat endings are funnier because ‘failures are funny, successful people are not’. This reached a heartbreaking level in Steptoe and Son.

Hancock decided their film was not international enough, and instead made the far more parochial (and embittered) ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Galton and Simpson put away the unloved script and made the pilot for ‘Steptoe And Son’ instead. It was Hancock’s loss, and the beginning of his end.

 

 

 

11 comments on “Script Ends: Goodbye Alan, And Thank You”

  1. Jo W says:

    This year isn’t starting well. Another great,gone.
    By coincidence,the Drama tv channel have been showing repeats of Steptoe and Son and yesterday’s episode was the one about a family funeral. Sad and funny because I could recognise some characters from funerals I’ve attended.
    I hope that there are laughs as well as tears at Alan’s. 🙁

  2. Gareth says:

    RIP Alan. I grew up listening to Hancocks Half Hour (in the late 1980’s – my dad had them recorded on cassette tape) but only listening to them again in the past few years did I realise how brilliantly written they are. The best ones get straight into the story and set the scene immediately – and set up characters – through dialogue. Wonderful writing.

    Tony: “I wouldn’t expect you to understand the outlook of an intellectualy like me…… You’re not particularly bothered about the impending stagnation of Western civilisation, are you?”
    Sid: “No, not really. As long as my horses don’t stagnate, I don’t care what happens.”

  3. Brian Evans says:

    I find it galling that the BBC gave more time yesterday to Tara whatsit-whatsit dying (who cares?) than to the far more upsetting death of Alan Simpson-a man who did so much work for the BBC and helped them make millions with overseas sales.

    I read years ago that the best definition of farce is tragedy played for laughs. Everything that Galton and Simpson wrote was a text book example of that definition. Thanks to both of them for so enriching the output of TV and radio.

  4. Martin Tolley says:

    Ooh look! it’s started raining!
    – That’s all we wanted! You watch: it’ll go dark in a minute and we’ll have to put the lights on. I think I’ll go to bed.
    – You’ve only been up an hour!
    I thought my mother was a bad cook but at least her gravy used to move about.
    A quarter past two – another nine and three quarter hours before it’s Monday.
    Depressing isn’t it? I don’t care very much for Monday either… and me Saturdays are always spoilt thinkin’ about Sunday.
    G&S didn’t write this… they just came round to ours and stole what we said.

  5. Davem says:

    A great loss but leaves a wonderful legacy.

  6. James Grant says:

    Alan Simpson and his partner Ray Galton wrote for a television series that in the 1950’s and 1960’s could empty the pub’s of Great Britain cos hardly anyone had a television set and they all went home to watch Hancock! Now that’s what’s called scriptwriting!

  7. Vivienne says:

    Sundays weren’t’ Sundays without Hancock’s Half Hour. You thought they would cheer you up, but succeeded only in producing a fellow feeling of 1950s Sunday despair.

  8. admin says:

    Unpacking my books onto nice new shelves, I found a copy of Galton & Simpson’s novelisation of ‘The Cold With The Cold Nose’, which is basically the script. It’s a James Bond parody. Here’s a classic exchange.

    ‘I’d like a vodka martini, dry, crushed ice, with a twist of lemon, stirred but not shaken.’
    ‘I’m afraid we’re out of vodka, sir.’
    ‘Oh. I’ll have a brown ale then.’

  9. Brian Evans says:

    That above gag could be pure Tony Hancock. Brilliant.

  10. Jan says:

    Even as a kid I think I realised Steptoe + Son was,about as good as comedy got. You could be really laughing one moment and be brushing a tear away the next.
    I have seen a couple of the repeats on’Drama’ and the episodes have not tarnished. Still cruel, harsh and mightily funny. The episode where Leonard Rossitor and an elderly Irish actor escape from the Scrubs and end up in Oil Drum Lane at Chateau Steptoe and decide they were better off inside. And the memorable long build-up to Harold calling his dad “Steptoe the klepto” you can’t improve on that. My English Lit teacher spent ages trying to explain tragi comedy in relation to Shakespeare’s plays no need really those half hours sit coms got the point over far more clearly.

  11. John Howard says:

    I can still hear the sighs in ‘A Sunday Afternoon at Home’

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