Ray Galton

Obituary: Ray Galton (1930-2018)

By WGGB Chair Gail Renard

Ray Galton, comedy writer supreme, has passed away at the age of 88. Along with his late writing partner, Alan Simpson, Ray was responsible for over 600 of the finest scripts to ever grace British radio, television, film and stage.

Ray was born in Paddington and met Alan when they were teenagers at the Milford Sanatorium. Both had tuberculosis and were bored. To pass the time they started writing sketches and a new comedy age was born.

In the 1950s, British comedy writers were emulating the material of fast-talking, wisecracking American comics like Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Alan and Ray wrote about what they knew; a slightly tattered post-war Britain where everything closed down on Sundays and gravy was served by the lump. While writing for the BBC radio show, Calling All Forces, Ray and Alan met comedian Tony Hancock. The young writers went on to develop Hancock’s Half Hour, a BBC radio comedy series about a down-at-heel actor who lived in East Cheam and whose talent wasn’t as grand as his pretentions.

No writers reflected British society in the 1950s and 1960s better than Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. In their script, The East Cheam Drama Festival, the fictional Hancock performed Look Back In Hunger, a perfect parody of John Osborne’s supposedly ground-breaking Look Back In Anger. Another Hancock episode, A Sunday Afternoon At Home was Waiting for Godot meets Pinter. Their observational writing was second to none.

After six radio and seven television series, as well as a film, The Rebel, Tony Hancock (in a move not unlike his character) split with his writers because he felt destined for better things. In an unprecedented step, the BBC offered Ray and Alan their own series, Comedy Playhouse; 10 episodes in which they could write about anything they wanted. From one of those episodes grew Steptoe And Son, a series about rag-and-bone men, Harold and Albert; a father and son bound together by fear, need and hatred. Ray and Alan’s writing surpassed the depths of many dramas. The comedy was the bonus.

Steptoe And Son ran for eight series, three films and a stage play. There was a Swedish version, Albert & Herbert, and also an American one, Sanford And Son, which ran for 135 episodes.

Ray and Alan wrote countless other shows including Dawson’s Weekly for comedian Les Dawson and Clochemerle, a series about a rural French town’s attempt to erect a public urinal.

They were also founders members, along with Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Frankie Howerd, Johnny Speight and others, of Associated London Scripts, a writers’ co-operative.

Alan Simpson retired from script writing in 1978 but Ray decided, with Alan’s blessing, to write on. In partnership with Johnny Speight, Ray wrote the comedy series, Spooner’s Patch, about a corrupt police station. A 2005 play, Steptoe And Son: Murder At Oil Drum Lane (which Ray wrote with John Antrobus) relates how Harold finally murdered his father. Of course, luckless Harold was haunted by Albert in death as in life.

Though Ray and Alan didn’t write together any more, their friendship remained strong; a true brotherhood. They lunched together most days. Although they agreed about comedy, their personal lifestyles were very different. Alan loved football, fine French wines and foods. In his day Ray was the perfect 1960s dandy, a dedicated follower of fashion, and more likely to be found partying at Annabel’s nightclub.

Ray was a dear friend; a kind, gentle, thoughtful man who sadly suffered from dementia in his final years. Ray was cherished by his children, and his manager and friend Tessa Le Bars, and all of us who knew him. My condolences to all and thanks, Ray, for all the laughter.

Photo: Rory Clark