One half of the writing team behind Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, Alan Simpson has died aged 87.
“From their first attempts at humour in Milford sanatorium, through a lifetime of work together, the strength of Alan and Ray’s personal and professional bond was always at the heart of their success.” – Statement issued to the BBC by Ray Galton and his family
Alan Simpson died after a enduring a long spell of ill health due to lung disease. He is best known to television audiences for his work with writing partner Ray Galton and on-screen talents Tony Hancock, Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell; as well as writing material for the likes of Eric Sykes, Peter Sellers and Frankie Howerd.
Born in Brixton, London in November 1929 he initally had no ambition for writing, following school he worked as a shipping clerk however his career path changed when he became seriously ill. Sent to recover from life threatening tuberculosis in a Surrey sanatorium, he met fellow patient Ray Galton. The teenage pair became close friends, enjoying the same comedy programmes and comedians including the much-loved Goon Show of BBC Radio.
Tony Hancock during his years with ATV. He starred in Galton and Simpson’s Hancock’s Half Hour for the BBC
In 1949 they created their first script for hospital radio with the production Have You Ever Wondered? The show brought together their experiences in of their spell in the sanatorium. After a few semi-professional writing gigs the pair ended up being hired by BBC Radio to write gags for the programme Happy-Go-Lucky. Described as a ‘A light-hearted blend of comedy and music’ the show featured Tony Hancock as one of the character actors.
Tiring of the sketch show writing for radio the pair teamed up with Hancock to produce what has been described as radios first ‘true’ sitcom when in 1954 Hancock’s Half Hour was launched. The popularity of the show saw it transfer to BBC Television two years later. The series would run until 1961.
The BBC note that ‘Galton and Simpson are credited with bringing social realism to British comedy’ something that was very much at the fore with their next project for the beeb. In 1961 Hancock, who had become full of professional doubts, critical of his work and boozing heavily sacked Galton and Simpson, he later departed the corporation for a short-lived less humourous and successful stint with ATV in 1963.
The original Steptoe and Son became a massive sitcom hit for the BBC.
Back over at the BBC Ray and Alan began work on a Comedy Playhouse script. Entitled The Offer, it followed the lives of a father and son who worked as rag-and-bone men, both with very different ambitions and views of the world. Living in squalor in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd’s Bush the show starred Harry H. Corbett as Harold and Wilfrid Brambell as Albert in the lead roles. The one-off playhouse feature became the long running Steptoe and Son which would air from 1962 through to 1974 with a total of eight series and 58 episodes. The series is often repeated on BBC Two and also more recently on UKTV.
The sitcom also hit the big screen twice with the 1972 film Steptoe and Son and the 1973 Steptoe and Son Ride Again. The writing duo switched to ITV in 1977 with the Yorkshire Television produced series Galton and Simpson’s Playhouse, however none of the pilot shows were picked up as series and Alan Simpson quit writing the following year. The pair however remained friends and occasionally re-united for script work, including in 1996 when Paul Merton took on the brave decision to re-create the Tony Hancock shows in his own image, Galton and Simpson tweaked their original scripts for the production.
“Having had the privilege of working with Alan and Ray for over 50 years, the last 40 as agent, business manager and friend, and latterly as Alan’s companion and carer, I am deeply saddened to lose Alan after a brave battle with lung disease.” – Tessa Le Bars speaking to the BBC