Script Ends: Goodbye Alan, And Thank You
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.
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’.
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.