Have you noticed if you stare long enough at the wallpaper you can see faces.
Yes, faces. Look, just above the serving-hatch. A man with a pipe.
I can’t see anything.
Yes you can, narrow your eyes. See?
Of course you can. Squint, man, squint! Don’t shut ’em!
I can’t see anything.
Oh shut up. You wait till you want me to see something.
Years before Seinfeld, a show about nothing. And like Seinfeld, George Costanza, Elaine and Kramer, the dysfunctional household of Hancock, Sid, Bill & Miss Pugh were amiable losers adrift, eccentric, a non-nuclear family in a world that revered gentility and respectability. There are no jokes in Galton and Simpson – it’s comedy hammered out of the commonplace. (When Hancock asks Bill to pass him his letter-opener, it’s not just a letter-opener, but a swordfish letter-opener. Delight at the mundane, poetry of the ordinary).
And what of the later Hancock? A man stares out of a bedsit window, alone now, his friends from Railway Cuttings gone. He struggles to understand the work of Britain’s most eminent philosopher, fails to get a date, lies on the bed, stares up at the ceiling. He may have left East Cheam for a new life but he’s still staring at the wallpaper. Is this a sitcom, or something more profound, the kind of stuff serious playwrights and novelists were trying to do? Is this Galton & Simpson saying to John Osborne and Harold Pinter – look at this, mush, TV comedy can be art too, you know. (As Hancock says, ‘People respect you when you don’t get laughs.’)
And Steptoe & Son? Two men shouting at each other in a filthy house; scavengers, always dreaming, never far from starvation, swearing at each other, crying, making up. Can this be comedy? At first glance not the stuff of sitcom, and not a scenario most of its audience would have experienced, but Steptoe & Son touched a nerve in the British psyche, gave us a glimpse of the truth that even in the Swinging Sixties and the Sunny Seventies none of us were really that far from living at the bottom of the ash-heap, that all this affluence could vanish in a puff of smoke, and that for some living in a shadowy corner of England it had never happened anyway. Above all, the series had humanity, empathy, and the fact that it was watched by 28 million proved that they had empathy too.
We take quality for granted. Those of us who lived through the decade of the Beatles grew up assuming they were the default standard for the soundtrack of our lives, that all subsequent bands would be as good as them; then the decades pass and the bands became ok and quite good and ‘derivative but still a good listen,’ and ‘have you heard so-and-so? – their second album’s not bad, shame they split up after that,’ – then a few more years go by and you realise that Help wasn’t just a top ten tune and Day in the Life simply trippy but the art of its time and suddenly your daughter is coming home from school and telling you that today they studied The Beatles for ‘A’ Level.
It’s the same with Galton & Simpson. At the time it’s standard fare. It’s ‘what’s on the box,’ it’s a funny sitcom. There are lots of sitcoms. You love them all. You love sitcoms. They’re the highlight of your week, this funny encapsulation of British life wrapped up in half an hour. You’re so glad adults invented them. You don’t know who invented the sitcom but you assume it always existed, like your weekly comic. You go to school and you impersonate Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell in the playground.
Only in hindsight when you examine its peers and its heirs do you realise it is extraordinary literature, up there with Dickens, Wodehouse. Harold Steptoe even speaks with the vot and vy of Sam Weller from the Pickwick Papers –‘vot on earth do you fink you’re doin’ Dad?’. (Even the actors, Mr. Corbett and Mr. Brambell, sound like they’ve sprung from the pages of Hard Times).
Time refines the normalised into genius. But what, precisely, was Galton & Simpson’s genius? Many cite their injection of ‘social realism’ into sitcom, their cementing of the template of the half hour one-act comedy as conflict, the characters trapped; all this is true, but even this is not enough. The genius of Galton & Simpson, in my view, was the language. They invented a Galton-and-Simpson-ese unique to them, inimitable. When other writers attempt it, it’s forced. They forged a poetry quite their own, instantly recognisable like Betjeman, Alan Bennet, Dylan Thomas. It’s a language we will never know the crucible of, for none of us were ever in the room when Ray & Alan paced, spoke, typed: it has such a richness of vocabulary, a denseness of rhetoric, that it is no surprise that having to learn half an hour of it each week drove Hancock to drink. I would surmise it grew out of the lower-middle-class 1930’s childhoods of its authors, the rough street-speech of South-Londoners refined by Aunts and Uncles attempting to drag themselves up by their boot-straps by adopting a classier tone, enriching their vocabulary to impress neighbours, relatives, bosses: both Hancock and Harold Steptoe are what my grandparents would describe as ‘hoity-toity,’ with ideas above their station and an accompanying high-flown rhetoric – ‘I wouldn’t expect you to understand the outlook of an intellectual like me,’ ‘You’ve held me back all vese years, Dad – you and vat stupid horse out vere.’ I think Hancock, Sid, Harold & Albert are all Galton & Simpson’s relatives – the grandiose Uncle who boasted of his military service, the Grandfather who in his cups recited a music-hall monologue and said he ‘could have been a Shakespearian actor, but never really fancied it.’
I can never prove it, but after years of listening to and watching their work, I suspect that when they were writing Alan Simpson played the Hancock and Harold Steptoe character, and Ray played Sid and Albert. In their interviews together you can see Alan was the benign dreamer, ever-hopeful – (“No, Hancock didn’t reject us, this is where Ray & I differ – he was breaking with the agent, not us,”) and Ray the scowler, the realist, the hard-edged go-getter (“Well, when he left us I thought, good luck mate…”)
Many genius sitcoms have come since, and will always come, but there will be a place in history for the work of the two men who started it all off, who made the extraordinary artistic journey from the 50’s music-hall of Happy Go Lucky to Steptoe. It was a journey that straddled an age: through it Galton & Simpson grew up – and made British Comedy grow up with them.
Their friendship lasted seventy years – their comedy will last forever.
RIP Alan Simpson (1929-2017)