Friday, 24 February 2017

Galton and Simpson

I have been mulling over the place of scriptwriting partnerships since the announcement of the death of Alan Simpson earlier this month. Well, actually I have been thinking about the subject since Galton & Simpson's virtual retirement from the field, but Alan Simpson's sad passing brought it to a head.

A hallmark of their quality was the fact that they were responsible for two great comedy series when so many struggle to produce one. Ted Kavanagh never repeated the success of ITMA, and A Life of Bliss was Godfrey Harrison's only claim to fame (though not famous enough IMO) while other hit shows of the 1950s like Educating Archie and Ray's a Laugh ran through a roster of writers. (To the people named here should be added Bernard Botting and Charles Hart.) A pair who almost made it were Monkhouse and Goodwin before there were irreconcilable differences in the partnership. Even the great Muir and Norden produced only two recognised hits, Take it from here (TIFH) and Whack-O! (In the days before armies of middle executives at the BBC, it was Frank Muir as head of comedy who gave Galton and Simpson their big break.)

It was too much to claim (as one contributor to Radio 4's Last Word did) that Galton and Simpson invented the British sitcom. All of the above (with the possible exception of Godfrey Harrison) were inspired by American originals relayed by AFN. What made Hancock's Half-Hour (HHH) distinctive from other BBC radio sitcoms was that it dispensed with the musical interlude (a hangover from music-hall, where many of the stars came from?) and the catch-phrase on which so many other comedy programmes, including the otherwise ground-breaking Goon Show, depended. The original HHH used gags almost as much as its predecessors, but like The Glums (the final segment of TIFH) steadily developed more character-driven humour. Still, the programme was led by a comedian. It was Hancock's decision to reassert himself as a star performer, which might have broken other script-writers, which gave Galton and Simpson the chance to take the final step for TV. Steptoe & Son was performed entirely by legitimate actors - as, come to think of it, was A Life of Bliss on radio.

Sadly, the trend is now back towards the formulaic American model, driven by ratings presumably, of a gag (set-up followed by punch-line) every twelve seconds at most. (See this analysis from The Atlantic Monthly.) Away from the mainstream, there are alternative comedy programmes which, to my eyes, are simply eccentric for eccentricity's sake. There is a need for broadcasters (and not just the BBC) to trust the judgment of a few experienced men, do away with the junior executives with their metrics and spreadsheets, and, when necessary, have patience.

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