Masters of Sitcom reviewed
‘Ray Galton and Alan Simpson: The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe’ Review by Elaine Schollar
Born in the mid 1960’s, I was too young to experience Tony Hancock, or ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ first time round. But I was just about old enough to view ‘Steptoe and Son’ in the 1970’s, and also remember Mum tuning into the Galton and Simpson ‘Comedy Playhouses’.
‘Steptoe and Son’ was sheer class. It really was ‘situation comedy’. Comedy in a situation. Nothing shallow about it. You left every episode feeling that those two individuals continued to live and bicker in Oil Drum Lane between each episode. And each episode was such quality! Quality actors depicting the humour and sadness that is life. Galton and Simpson brought us such relief and entertainment with the classic scripts they wrote.
I always smile to myself when recalling the episode ‘Divided We Stand’, when driven to despair by living with his father, Harold resorts to dividing the house as far as possible, to limit interaction with him. This even involved the installation of a turnstile to get in the kitchen and up the stairs; and when a fire breaks out in the kitchen, and both Steptoes end up in hospital (in neighbouring beds, naturally), Albert berates his son with the classic line (and resulting image) ‘Even the firemen had to put a penny in the turnstile to get in!’ It was ridiculous. It was superb. It was sublime!
And the episode, ‘The Desparate Hours’, when two escaped convicts from nearby Wormwood Scrubs have the misfortune to fall on Oil Drum Lane as their refuge – a prison of a different kind, where conditions turn out to be worse than those they’d experienced inside. Classic stuff. Extremely funny, in a slightly uncomfortable sort of way. But so superbly written and executed.
Returning to Hancock, my own, personal, first memory of him, is a sad Homburg-hatted individual gazing forlornly into space on the cover of the ‘Blood Donor/Radio Ham’ LP which my parents owned. I understood it to be a ‘comedy’ record, but at the ripe old age of about 10, he didn’t look very funny to me! Little did I know. I grew up, and in the 1980’s, the BBC had the good sense to repeat a number of the classic ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ episodes on television. I got hooked. It was sheer quality.
‘Ray Galton and Alan Simpson - The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe’ brings all of this to life, plus more. Chapter one sets the scene and whets the appetite with excerpts from classic Steptoe and Hancock episodes. The book then describes the transition in this country from comedy, depicted in the norm as sketches in variety shows with musical interludes, to the now more familiar sitcom scenario – and the key role Galton and Simpson played in this transition. Their early pre-Hancock work is also described, on ‘Calling All Forces’ and ‘Happy Go Lucky’.
It’s also a semi-biographical book, describing Galton and Simpson’s early lives and meeting in the TB sanatorium; with the prime focus then moving to their prolific comedy output.
The book includes a number of gems. Excerpts from previously unpublished scripts, including excerpts from the final screenplay, ‘The Day Off’, which they wrote for Hancock and which he turned down, ultimately ending his relationship with them.
‘Ray Galton and Alan Simpson - The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe’ really is a ‘must have’ for Hancock/Steptoe and Galton and Simpson fans. Excerpts from scripts, both famous and previously unpublished, aren’t dumped unceremoniously into a book to generate a quick buck! Instead they are cushioned lovingly between descriptive and informative narrative written by an obvious enthusiast of their work, given access to Ray and Alan’s material and archives, and own words and recollections.
If you haven’t yet got your copy – or even if you have! – I’m pleased to be able to announce that a limited quantity of the book, signed by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, is being made available at a discount to THA subscribers.
‘The Masters of Sitcom’, by Christopher Stevens is published by Michael O'Mara Books, priced £20. THA subscribers can order signed books (while stocks last – first come, first served!) for the special price of £18, with free p&p, by calling 01903 828503 and quoting THA/MOS (UK mainland only).