Alan Simpson: Half of one of the most successful comedy writing partnership

Alan Simpson was half of one of Britain’s most successful comedy writing partnerships. 

February 8, 2024, marked the seventh anniversary of Mr Simpson’s death.

In 1929, Mr Simpson was born in Brixton and moved to Mitcham as a baby, where his family lived in a two-up, two-down terraced house.

He attended Mitcham grammar school but left early and worked as a shipping clerk. 

His father Francis was a milkman, who died when Mr Simpson was just 16.

Alan Simpson (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Hugo van Gelderen)

At 17 he faced more bad luck, contracting tuberculosis. His good luck was being put in a ward with the teenage Ray Galton.

Throughout his two-year treatment, Mr Simpson stayed at the Surrey County Sanitorium in Milford, near Godalming, alongside Mr Galton, who happened to be the only other young patient on the ward.

The boys became soulmates, they could make each other laugh.

After they were both discharged – with the help of antibiotics – they produced sketches for a church concert party in Mitcham. 

Ray Galton in 1964 (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Hugo van Gelderen)

A testament to their talent, things moved fast. In 1951 the duo supplied the well-known comic Derek Roy with jokes at five shillings a go for his Happy Go Lucky radio programme.

They ended up writing all the shows, an hour once a fortnight, for 20 guineas each.

The post-war comedy world in Britain was one of snappy patter and one-liners. With the rise of the supermarket, shopping centres and television, class and class conflict seemed to be withering into the background behind bright sparkly advertisements and packaging.

Mr Simpson, on the other hand, said he always wanted to write about working-class characters, because he said he could understand them best.

Star of Hancock’s Half Hour, Tony Hancock (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/The Spotlight)

In 1954, the two young men created Hancock’s Half Hour, first a radio series before transferring to television starring Anthony John Hancock, otherwise known as Tony Hancock.

Hancock hated the rich and powerful, who get in the way of his search for fame and social acceptance. 

Working throughout the You never had it so good era of the 1950s, the two comics humbly worked against the grain and made sure to shine a light on the people who had never had it.

It is said, throughout their career, that Mr Galton would stride up and down the room testing ideas for their material out loud, while Mr Simpson translated the thoughts on to paper, using a manual typewriter.

Title Screen of the Hancock’s Half Hour 1957 Series 2 (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use)

Possibly their most popular series, Steptoe and Son, ran for eight series between 1962 and 1974, with a peak audience of nearly 30 million. 

Mr Simpson and Mr Galton were well rewarded for keeping the nation entertained.

Throughout their careers they received the Guild of TV Producers and Directors’ Scriptwriters of the Year in 1959, the Screenwriters’ Guild best comedy series for Steptoe and Son four years straight from 1962 to 1965, the Screenwriters’ Guild best comedy screenplay in 1972, and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain lifetime achievement award in 1997.

They collaborated one final time in 1998 for the BBC’s Galton and Simpson Radio Playhouse series, celebrating half a century of their writing partnership.

Until Mr Simpson’s death in 2017, aged 87, the two friends remained close. 

Pictured top: From left, Alan Simpson, Ray Galton, Rien van Nunen and Piet Römer (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Hugo van Gelderen)

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