Ray Galton obituary: a pen against the tide

With Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son, the late screenwriting duo Galton & Simpson defined the post-war British TV sitcom as they lampooned the age that bore it.

17 July 1930–5 October 2018.

Andrew Roberts

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Ray Galton (left) with Alan Simpson

Ray Galton (left) with Alan Simpson

Ray Galton, who died on 5 October, wrote 164 editions of Hancock’s Half Hour (1954-61) and 57 episodes of Steptoe & Son (1962-74) in collaboration with his writing partner Alan Simpson. The two met in a TB sanatorium in the late 1940s, and their early experiments with hospital radio resulted in the creation of radio and television programmes that truly deserve the oft-used phrase ‘defining an era’. Anthony Aloysius St. John Hancock and Harold Steptoe are naturally eager to take part in an England that is now free of ration books, the former with belligerence, the latter with naïve optimism.

In Hancock’s Half Hour, the Quixotic hero regularly ignores the warnings of Sid James, the Sancho Panza of East Cheam, and sets off into the outside world. The result is often-confusing automat cafes, recalcitrant waitresses (the wonderful Liz Fraser) and various authority figures who entirely fail to recognise his sense of self-worth. He usually returns home with the unassailable view that it is others who are raving mad, whereas Harold Steptoe (Harry H Corbett) approaches life with carefully learned phraseology. “Your mere presence tends to impinge upon my aesthetic pleasures and moments of relaxation,” he informs Albert (Wilfrid Brambell), only to receive the response “In other words, I get on your tits.”

Steptoe and Son: The Offer (1962)

Steptoe and Son: The Offer (1962)
Credit: Copyright © BBC Photo Library

A precision of language is a crucial element to Galton and Simpson’s understanding of character, with Tony Hancock regularly declaiming misunderstood phrases with the grandiloquence of a sub-par Donald Wolfit. By the early 1960s, Steptoe & Son captured the painfully stilted use of sales copy in everyday life, with Harold’s dialogue often on a par with Joe Orton’s ‘Edna Welthorpe’ praising a pie filling – “Choc-full of rich fruit”. In 65 Today (1963) Harold attempts to combine a birthday celebration for his father with a realisation of colour supplement-style temptations of affluence with a night in the West End. After all, this what ‘successful people’ do, according to the glossy images – so why does the ‘miserable git’ not respond in the appropriate manner?

Thus, it was perhaps safer to remain at home, for the writers innately understood the routines of institutionalisation. In the 1958 radio Half Hour, the inmates of 23 Railway Cuttings know that time appears to have halted – “You watch, it’ll go dark in a minute, we’ll have to switch the lights on. I think I’ll go to bed.” They realise that next weekend they must make more determined efforts to leave the front parlour – but they never will. Every Steptoe & Son is overshadowed by the conclusion of the 1962 pilot episode The Offer, which concludes with Harold sobbing “I can’t go. I can’t get away.” His refuge is his prison, and now he is trapped into mutual dependency with his father.

Alan Simpson retired from scriptwriting in 1978 and Galton went on to collaborate with Johnny Speight and John Antrobus. ‘Galton & Simpson’ also worked with Frankie Howerd and Les Dawson, but their principal legacies are Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe & Son, the programmes that virtually defined the British situation comedy. And, for the perfect encapsulation of wariness towards post-war change, look no further than Tony Hancock in The Rebel (1961), demanding coffee – with no froth.

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