Obituary: Ray Galton, scriptwriter who co-created Steptoe & Son and Hancock’s Half Hour

Ray Galton in 2014 (Picture: Justin Tallis/PA Wire
Ray Galton in 2014 (Picture: Justin Tallis/PA Wire
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Raymond Percy Galton, writer. Born 17 July, 1930 in London. Died: 5 October 2018, in London, aged 88.

Ray Galton was 16 and working as a junior clerk with the Transport and General Workers’ Union when he contracted tuberculosis and was given six weeks to live. He pulled through and was sent to recover in a sanatorium in Surrey. It was there that he met Alan Simpson, who was also recovering from tuberculosis.

It is funny, sometimes, how great relationships begin, both funny haha and funny strange in this case, for Galton and Simpson went on to redesign the template for British television comedy for decades to come. They are credited with the development of the modern sitcom, moving away from formal jokes, gags and catchphrases to a comedy rooted in characters who might have been pulled from real life.

Galton and Simpson enjoyed huge success in the 1950s and early 1960s with Hancock’s Half Hour, with Tony Hancock, first on radio and then on television. Anthony John Hancock played Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, a perpetually pessimistic lower middle-class character with a dry, unintentional wit and social and cultural aspirations that were never fulfilled.

In The Blood Donor, one of the most celebrated episodes, Hancock goes to give blood and thinks that the pinprick to take a drop to determine blood group is the entire procedure. When told they need a full pint, he replies, “A pint? Why that’s very nearly an armful.” It came second last year in a poll of comedians to determine the best one-liners of all time (behind Dad’s Army’s “Don’t tell him, Pike”). Hancock himself had aspirations of greater things. He worked with Galton and Simpson on the much underrated film The Rebel (1960), playing an office worker who moves to Paris to pursue his hopes of becoming an artist, but who has no talent whatsoever. But the star and writers split soon afterwards. Hancock never enjoyed such success with others. He committed suicide in 1968.

Galton and Simpson’s other big hit was Steptoe and Son, with Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett as father and son rag-and-bonemen. Corbett’s character Harold had similar aspirations to Hancock, which were continually and seemingly effortlessly undermined by his uncouth widower father Albert, who just turned out to be better at everything, from acting to attracting women.

It was character comedy, with a setting that owed much to kitchen-sink drama; a comedy of observation, ultimately a comedy of disappointment, sometimes heartbreaking, even cruel, and difficult to watch, or at least like – not that that stopped a mass audience tuning in each week.

It was perhaps not surprising that Steptoe and Son was downbeat, sometimes downright depressing stuff, given that it was written by two men whose relationship began in the very shadow of death. It inspired comparisons with Samuel Beckett, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who wrote Waiting for Godot.

And yet Steptoe and Son was drawing an audience at its peak of 28 million – more than half the population of Britain, unthinkable today. Harold Wilson persuaded the BBC to postpone broadcast of one episode because he feared Labour voters would rather watch it than turn out to vote in the 1964 general election.

Labour won for the first time in 13 years with an overall majority of just four seats. Harold would have been delighted as he was a Labour man, while his father was a Tory, although if Galton and Simpson had scripted this particular storyline, it would have ended with Harold as despondent as ever and Albert chuckling away at the late-night news that the Tories had held on.

The son of a bus conductor, Ray Galton was born in Paddington in London in 1930. His formal education was ended prematurely during the Second World War when he was 14 and his school was bombed and he went to work for the transport union before contracting tuberculosis.

“I’d had the symptoms for a while – tiredness, weight loss, a terrible cough, night sweats,” he said. “My brother Bert came home on leave from the merchant navy and knew straight away that it was TB.”

Galton and Simpson began writing gags for hospital radio and then for BBC radio shows, receiving five shillings (25p) for every one that made it onto the air. They first worked with Hancock on radio variety shows and the relationship evolved from there. Hancock’s Half Hour began on “the wireless” in 1954, graduating to television in 1956.

Steptoe and Son developed out of a single one-off episode of Comedy Playhouse in 1962, in which Harold’s plans to leave home are thwarted by his father. There were eight series between 1962 and 1974. Ultimately it was so successful that there were local adaptations in several other countries, including the US, where it became Sanford and Son. There were also a couple of feature films.

Galton and Simpson were sufficiently big names to get their own series called The Galton and Simpson Playhouse in 1977, but none of the various comedies went on to become series. Simpson more or less retired from full-time writing in the late 1970s and Galton teamed up with Johnny Speight, the creator of Till Death Do Us Part, on Spooner’s Patch, and John Antrobus on Room at the Bottom and Get Well Soon, a 1997 BBC sitcom set in an NHS sanitarium, and based on his first meeting with Simpson.

None of his later shows proved anything like as popular as Hancock or Steptoe, which were the subject of various reboots and revivals.

In 1996 Galton and Simpson reworked a couple of the Hancock scripts for a short series with Paul Merton and in 2005 there was a stage production, written by Galton and Antrobus, called Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, in which Harold has murdered Albert, throwing a spear at him while Albert was on the toilet, and Albert comes back as a ghost. Galton continued to see Simpson regularly until the latter’s death last year.

Galton married a former schoolfriend, Tonia Phillips, in the 1950s, they separated, got back together, and he is survived by their three children. She died of cancer in 1995.

BRIAN PENDREIGH