Ray Galton and Alan Simpson have been in the cellar and found some classic scripts. Nick Ahad talked to the comedy writers.
If you are a comedy writer working in television today, or a fan of comedy, or if you like anything on television today written to make you laugh, you owe a debt of gratitude to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
Today it is difficult to imagine just how revolutionary they were as writers. It is also difficult to imagine what the British comedy landscape might look like had they not come along and changed it beyond all recognition with their series Hancock's Half-Hour.
Beginning on radio in 1954, there were six series of the comedy with 101 episodes running until 1959. The success of the radio series led to the show transferring to television in 1956, with 63 episodes being screened.
Before Hancock came along, sitcoms were steeped in a history of fast-talking knockabout humour, a comedy born directly of the music hall tradition. With character and situation, Hancock's Half-Hour was shockingly naturalistic: if you want to learn about comedy today, study Hancock's Half-Hour. The blend of pathos, tragedy and humour seen in The Office, Alan Partridge, Fawlty Towers – any comedy that followed it – can be traced back to the moment in 1954 when Galton and Simpson created Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock.
"Hancock was experimental when we first wrote it," says Galton.
"We wanted to do a sitcom that had not been done before. Until then it was all silly voices and musical interludes, even The Goons would pause sketches for a bit of music."
Simpson adds: "We wouldn't dream of doing a show with music in the middle – it would have completely broken up the story and that was what we were most interested in."
Galton interrupts to say: "It's why we could never write for ITV with an advert break in the middle. We always believed that you need half an hour to tell a story properly."
The snow usurped plans for a face-to-face meeting at Galton's Hampton Court home, so a three-way telephone conversation is the back-up plan. At first, there is a concern that it could be a little confusing. Alan Simpson says he has a way to head off any confusion at the pass.
"I'm the cockney and Ray's the posh one," he laughs.
"Am I posh?" asks Galton.
It's hard not to feel like an outsider witnessing banter between two old friends: these two have been pals since
they first famously met in Milford Sanatorium in 1948 when Galton was 17 and Simpson a year older and both were being treated for TB. It was a key moment in the lives of both writers. Scripts for the hospital amateur radio led to a
comedy writing partnership that produced not just Hancock, but also Steptoe and Son.
Today they are discussing the recently published The Lost Hancock Scripts. "Lost" is a euphemism. They were in Galton's impressive cellar all along – they were not so much "lost" as wiped from the files of the BBC.
"We can understand why. It was a question of space and the BBC could never have imagined why anyone would want to keep tapes after the show had been broadcast. The tapes were expensive, so they were used again," says Galton.
While some of the episodes will remain "lost" and we'll never see Tony Hancock in some of the early scripts from Galton and Simpson, the next best thing is the book, in which the writing pair have chosen ten – five radio and five television – of their favourite Hancock scripts. "Lots of young people seem to discover Hancock through parents or grandparents – hopefully this is another way of them finding out about that comedy," says Galton. And learning about the birth of modern comedy to boot.
Their finest half-hours
The Hancock Festival: Nov 30, 1954: Spike Milligan appears in the episode after waking up in the studio – he was locked in after recording The Goon Show the previous evening.
The Election: May 31, 1955: Episode concerning a General Election with a hung parliament.
The Newspaper: Feb 8, 1956: The story of a newspaper tycoon like no other.
The Great Detective: Oct 7, 1957: Sexton Hancock, the scourge of the criminal classes and his most infamous case.
The Drama Teacher: Nov 25, 1957: Hollywood star Jack Hawkins appears as the teacher.
The Lost Hancock Scripts, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, published by JR Books, available now.