Harry Enfield has said that ‘comedy without Galton and Simpson would be like literature without Dickens,’ and he may be right. Their two most lasting creations, Hancock’s Half Hour (illustrated above) and Steptoe & Son, influenced almost everything of worth that came after, from Fawlty Towers and Porridge to The Office and Gavin and Stacey. Nonetheless, you can’t imagine any show as bleak as Steptoe being commissioned today: two men sitting in a room arguing, forever. For this reason, and maybe others, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson haven’t received their due.
The comedy archivist Christ-opher Stevens corrects this with The Masters of Sitcom (Michael O’Mara Books, £20), a lovingly compiled and annotated selection of some of their best scripts. Staggeringly prolific in their youth (they wrote more than 150 Half Hours for Hancock) they stopped working together in 1979, but are still good friends (aged 81) and still finishing each other’s sentences.
Stevens has worked from their own printed copies of the scripts rather than the recorded versions, and concentrated on their earlier years, seeking to unearth material we haven’t seen or heard before. He has chosen well. Many of these snippets are wildly, inventively funny, delighting in the words themselves as well as the absurd images they throw up. And as their writing becomes darker and more rigorously naturalistic, you simply marvel that, at its height,
24 million people watched Steptoe & Son. ‘You dirty old man …’