Remembering Ray Galton 

Ray Galton (right) with Alan Simpson & June Whitfield at the Queen's Hotel, Bournemouth, in 2012. Picture Hattie Miles

By Jeremy Miles

I was sad to hear about the death of Ray Galton who, with his long time writing partner Alan Simpson, penned wonderful scripts that raised TV comedy to a fine art and gave us post-war classics like Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. It’s hard to imagine that this loveable pair are no longer with us. But Alan died last year aged 87 and now Ray’s death at the age of 88 brings a special era to a close. 

Hattie took the picture of them above - Alan on the left and Ray on the right with with their old friend June Whitfield.

I had the privilege of meeting them several times over the years, usually at Hancock conventions or commemorations. They were delightful people - friendly, witty and very generous with their time. I heard them happily telling stories to fans that they’d told hundreds of times before yet always with great enthusiasm. 

Mind you they were exceptional stories. Galton and Simpson were teenagers when they met in a sanatorium in 1948 while recovering from TB. It was the start of a writing partnership that a few years later would take them to the BBC where they would meet up-and-coming comedian Tony Hancock. It was a perfect match. For Galton and Simpson had an intuitive understanding of how to find the humour in the bleak and austere world of 1950s suburban London, providing the perfect vehicle for Hancock’s lugubrious, hang-dog persona. Ray was from Paddington and Alan was from Brixton while Hancock's semi-fictional alter-ego was based in East Cheam. It was a world they understood and one that fed into their wonderfully observational writing.

The Hancock programmes thrived on radio and TV from 1954 to 1961, including all time classics like The Blood Donor and The Radio Ham, before the troubled comedian went his own way. 

Galton and Simpson were undeterred and almost immediately started working on a one-off play called The Offer. It was about the rag and bone trade and so well received that it was quickly developed into the long-running sit-com Steptoe and Son which started in 1962 and ran until 1974. 

I loved hearing them talk about those years - working with Hancock, writing Steptoe and Son and their time sharing an office with Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes - a mixture of creative anarchy and extremely disciplined writing filtered through a highly-tuned partnership. Both Ray Galton and Alan Simpson perfectly understood that the rhythm, timing and delivery of their words were all important. They didn’t write jokes but their situation comedy was among the funniest you’ll ever hear.

The last time I saw them was in 2012 when they came to Bournemouth as guests of the annual Tony Hancock Appreciation Society dinner. They were on good form as ever but both were by now in their 80s and becoming frail. Alan was having difficulty walking and Ray was experiencing a few problems with the early signs of dementia. 

They had a great evening though and enjoyed chatting with other guests including actress June Whitfield who had worked with them and Hancock back in the 1950s and another old friend, the veteran Radio Times photographer Don Smith. Much was made of the fact that the combined age of this intrepid foursome was now somewhere around 330 years but typically they saw the funny side of it. 

As we said farewell, Alan Simpson leant over and told me: “We’re still a great team you know. We help each other a lot. He helps me to get up the stairs and I help him remember what day it is.” With that they both fell about laughing.” It’s my last memory of them and though tinged with just a little sadness, it is one I will treasure.

© Jeremy Miles 2022