Alan Simpson: 1929-2017

By WGGB Chair Gail Renard

Alan Simpson (left)Alan Simpson was half of one of Britain’s most important comedy writing partnerships. Alan was born in Brixton and his bad luck was contracting tuberculosis at the age of 17. His good luck was being put in a ward with the teenage Ray Galton. The two of them became instant soulmates and, during their two years of recovery, the writing team of Galton and Simpson was born. It was more than a writing partnership; it was a lifelong friendship and brotherhood (Alan is pictured left, with Ray).

The post-war comedy world in Britain was one of snappy patter and one-liners. Music hall turns imitated Bob Hope, Jack Benny and other quick fire American comics. From the start Ray and Alan were only interested in developing recognisable characters in everyday surroundings. At a time when the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said, “You never had it so good”, Ray and Alan wrote about people who never had it, full stop.

Their characters and storylines could make you laugh so hard you’d hug yourself, but also had depth. In 1954, Ray and Alan created Hancock’s Half Hour, first a successful radio series, later transferring to telly. Their star was comedian Tony Hancock but their creation was Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, a pretentious failed actor, living in shabby, bomb-scarred 23 Railway Cuttings in East Cheam.

I discovered an old Hancock LP when I was 11 and read the sleeve notes: Hancock’s “residence is situated in the Borough of East Cheam, pop. 73,684 (1931.) Rates in the pound, nine and three… Schools, none. Churches one. Pubs two hundred and sixty seven.”

This was a far cry from “Take my wife – please!” Even as a child, I knew I wanted to be in comedy. After reading that cover, I knew I didn’t want to be a performer like Tony Hancock, but a writer like Ray and Alan. I never dreamt I’d end up being their friend and also telling them that story.

Their writing had incredible precision. Alan told me that in their famous Blood Donor episode, they knew that Hancock could have got a laugh saying, “Why that’s an armful.” But not satisfied, they worked till it became, “Why that’s very nearly an armful.” Comedy gold.

Alan was only interested in comedy coming from character, not jokes. He once saw some lines I was writing and looked at me reproachfully, “Is that a joke?” I took the lines out.

Ray and Alan’s other hit series was Steptoe and Son, which ran from 1962-1974. It was about father and son rag-and-bone men, Albert and Harold, living in a junk yard, tied together more by need and desperation than love. It was an unlikely setting for a comedy, but Steptoe and Son ran for eight series, two feature films and a stage play. There were many foreign versions. It was a time of social realism and Galton and Simpson’s work reflected Britain as much as Cathy Come Home did.

Alan used his success to make conditions better for all writers – he was a WGGB stalwart and sat alongside Jimmy Perry and Denis Norden on the Writers’ Guild’s Television Committee, fighting for writers’ pay and rights.

Ray and Alan also joined forces with Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Frankie Howerd and Johnny Speight to form a writer’s co-op agency, Associated London Scripts. Beryl Vertue started as their typist and, not surprisingly, ended up running the whole shebang.

Apart from his writing, Alan loved French food and wines, driving in his Rolls-Royce and eating his way around France. He was a passionate football supporter and proud President of Hampton & Richmond Borough Football Club for many years.

My heartfelt condolences go to Ray Galton, Alan’s brother-in-arms, and Tessa Le Bars, his manager and friend; the two people closest to him.

Alan made the world a much funnier place. Let’s lift a glass of fine French wine to him tonight.