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Comedy writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson interviewed

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson are masters of comedy writing, with some classic British sitcoms to their credit, including Hancock's Half Hour, and Steptoe and Son, as well as a significant influence on subsequent comedy classics. I asked them about their favorite reading, comedy writing, and a bit about Tony Hancock.

READERSVOICE.COM: I was interested in how you worked out your plots for the many episodes of radio and tv you’ve written over the years. For instance, with some of the Hancock’s Half-Hour tv episodes you sometimes have Hancock going through a lot trying to achieve something, and then when he does finally look like he’s achieved it, something happens to undo it all.

RAY GALTON/ALAN SIMPSON: Striving to achieve, achieving, and then undoing the achievement is what happens in many sitcoms. We sometimes started with a plot but also sometimes got to the last page before we knew how to finish it. There was no set pattern, but it is always good to have a twist if possible.

RV: How did you get ideas for the situations Steptoe and Son got themselves into, and how did you come up with solutions for how they got themselves out of them?

R/A: We took situations from life, and from known stories, eg “The Desperate Hours”, and sometimes from dredged up past memories, eg “Divided We Stand” (an idea from something Ray’s elder brother had told him).
Mostly it was sitting down and thinking, thinking, thinking – sheer hard work.

RV: Can you tell me the titles of three of your favourite humour books or some of your favourite authors of humour?

R/A: Stephen Leacock, James Thurber, Thorne Smith.

RV: What other kinds of reading do you like to do? Can you list a couple of titles, whether it’s biography, history, or anything else? What sort of magazines and papers do you read?

Ray: Very catholic wide-ranging reading, historical- Russia’s War, Nutmeg Wars, facts/ weird things, The Map That Changed the Earth, biographies – Churchill by Roy Jenkins, Queen Victoria, diarists, essayists, authors that write well – Phillip Roth, John Updyke, Elmore Leonard.
Newspapers – The Times, Sunday Observer. Magazines- Private Eye.

Alan: Police procedure novels, Simenon, Ian Rankin, Chandler.
Newspapers – The Times, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday. Magazines – Private Eye, Newsweek.

RV: Were there any books you read on how to write that you could recommend to beginning writers? What advice about the writing of comedy would you give to beginners?

R/A : Watch and listen to as much tv and radio comedy as possible. Then it’s trial and error. Keep writing, observe how others do it. You cannot teach it.

RV: I read an interview with you both from the early seventies where you listed some of your favorite variety shows from radio. I was wondering which sitcoms you’ve thought were outstanding on tv and radio since then.

R/A: The Office, Alan Partridge, Peter Kay, Father Ted.

RV: Do you think radio sitcoms will make a comeback, as people spend a long time in their cars commuting these days, and it would seem there’s an audience waiting for it to happen. Or do you think radio sitcoms are a thing of the past?

R/A – Yes, it’s a great way to learn the trade. Radio comedy has always been good and with the advent of digital radio and cheap production, radio sit-coms are not a thing of the past.

RV: I was wondering what was, in your experience, the difference between Tony Hancock the comedian and Tony Hancock the person.

R/A : Tony Hancock, the person, was a knowledgeable, well-educated man with many interests, some of them passionate. Tony Hancock the comedian, as in “Hancock’s Half Hour”, was a funny character we created, with pretensions and superficial knowledge some of which was flawed.

– An authorised book, Steptoe and Son by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with Robert Ross, was released on the 40th anniversary of the show, and chronicles the life of the classic sitcom in a biographical style. (BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2002.)