Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Britain is still a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to an old laughter maker called Alan Simpson

Alan, seen here on the right, is 83 years old today. He is next to his longtime co-writer, 82 year old Ray Galton and old men of Britain remember, with affection, the laughter they were given by their tv comedy scripts when they were boys and young men in the 1950s and 60s. In particular, I remembers their work for comedian Tony Hancock on radio and tv between my 7th and 14th years from 1954 to 1961 and their long-running tv situation comedy,  'Steptoe and Son' between my 15th and 27th year from 1962 to 1974.

What you possibly didn't know about Alan, that he :

* was born in 1929, in Brixton, London and after the Second World War at the age of 19, was working as a shipping clerk, when he contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to an isolation hospital, the Milford Sanatorium in Surrey, where another patient was the also young, Ray Galton.

* had Ray later say of him that : “when Alan went past, the room went dark, because he was a big man - about 6ft 4in and 18 or 19 stone. I saw this shuffling figure with a big brown dressing gown on, with the collar turned up, going by swinging his toilet bag on his way to have a wash. I thought, "Who the hell's that?", because you expect everyone in a sanatorium to be thin and weedy and he was the biggest guy I'd ever seen.”

* hit it off immediately with Ray and had the same tastes in comedy namely : Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Don Ameche. who were being broadcast on the radio on the 'American Forces Network.US' along with comedy shows such as 'The Phil Harris Show' and 'The Jack Benny Show' (left).

*  followed the suggestion by the hospital's radio station , that they do a comedy show, later said that they " sat down and came up with an idea called "Have you ever wondered..." – situations such as what would happen if doctors became patients and patients became doctors, but we dried up after four sketches. We found the hand-written scripts the other day. They look pretty amateurish now but it was quite ingenious – we were only 18." 
Alan Simpson and Ray Galton flank the slightly smaller Tony Hancock.* after he and Ray were out of the Sanatorium sent the BBC a 10 minute radio comedy script where their target was the Bogart-Hepburn movie, 'The African Queen' and received a reply which said: “Don't read more than appears on the surface of this letter but we read your script and were highly amused. Make an appointment with my secretary and maybe I can point you in the right direction."
* saw his first successful radio series with Ray, 'Hancock’s Half Hour', end in 1955 after each script was conceived, written and then delivered within a week and then made the transmission to tv, where the series would become become the yardstick by which all other British sitcoms would be measured for decades to come. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sglbGXcTbwE

next, in 1961-62, co-wrote a series of  'Comedy Playhouse' with 10 half-hour plays for the BBC of which one, 'The Offer', was well received and from which emerged the series 'Steptoe and Son',  two 'rag and bone men', father and son, who lived together in a squalid house in West London and later inspired the series 'Sandford and Son' in the USA and
'Abert & Herbert' in Sweden.

* underpinned his humour with Alan with black comedy and made the character played by Tony Hancock and Harold Steptoe pretentious, would-be intellectuals who find themselves trapped by the squalor of their lives and expanded this theme in their script for Tony Hancock's film, 'The Rebel' in 1961, about a civil servant who moves to Paris to become an artist.
An excerpt with the wonderful Irene Handl : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-0pz95cJxnY and another with the equally wonderful George Sanders : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_uq3uZmnsY

* rewrote the script of the film The 'Wrong Arm of the Law' starring Peter Sellers in which he couldn't make up his mind whether he wanted to play the policeman or gangster boss, first decided to play the first and then changed his mind, electing to play the villain, Pearly Gates. and a week into shooting, went up to Lionel Jeffries playing the policeman and said  "I've cocked it up. I'm playing the wrong part."


* in 1972, with Ray adapted Gabriel Chevalier's 1934 novel 'Chlochemerle' 
as a 9 part BBC/West German co-prodction in 1972. and in which the town's Mayor, plans for the erection of a gentlemens 'pissoir' in the village square do not go down well with the rest of the inhabitabts. who aren't so impressed with his intentions.

  *  retired from scriptwriting in 1978, concentrating on his business interests and has said : " Ray and I were almost Siamese twins until I retired. I'd only intended to stop writing for a year but never got back to it. But we're still in touch. I live around the corner from him and on Monday mornings my cleaning lady kicks me out of the house, so I go around to Ray's for coffee."
* " Sometimes we'll reminisce. Some of my fondest memories are from the Hancock days. He was a dream to work with – one of those rare performers who could read something perfectly first time. He had his problems and was never a great party man, but he was funny. When we had readings with Hancock, Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Bill Kerr – some of the biggest laughers in the business – they would be on their knees roaring, eyes watering. It was incredible, and Ray and I would stand there like kids thinking, 'We did that.' "
A radio interview with Alex Belfield :

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