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Thursday 19 January 2012

The Masters of Sitcom - Review

My first memories of the work of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton came in the form of a video rental my dad brought home to please my mum. I hadn’t a clue who Tony Hancock was and couldn’t understand the excitement. My mum and her cousins on the circus were huge fans of the Tony Hancock records and radio shows. They knew many of the scripts off by heart and would often fall into scenes at the drop of a hat. The only connection I made with the video was when Sid James popped up in “The Missing Page”. Terrestrial TV in the 1980s ensured that its children grew up on the entire “Carry On” collection. However, even then, I noticed that there was something about Hancock that seemed better than the very broad and brash strokes of the seaside postcard humour that these later films exhibited. Later I was introduced to “Steptoe and Son” on TV and couldn’t help but be drawn to its on-going comedy drama. Again, it seemed remarkable how it could pick such a depressing setting and even creepiness and yet make it so funny. Fast forward a few years and we had just moved into our cottage on the farm. It was the night of the terrible and under-anticipated hurricane. Mum had bought the first set of BBC released audio recordings of “Hancock’s Half Hour” and we had a battery powered tape recorder to listen to them on. Since then the Hancock radio work especially has been a source of comfort to me. It has accompanied me on long car journeys, recovering in hospital (appropriately listening to “The Hospital Visit” episode for the first time) and it has got me through some tough emotional times too.

Therefore it was of little surprise that “The Masters of Sitcom: From Hancock to Steptoe” was a real joy to read. It’s not an in depth analysis of the subject matter or even a “warts ‘n all” biography. It’s an affectionate yet honest tribute to Britain’s best loved comedy writing duo. By the time I could enjoy real comedy Alan Simpson and Ray Galton had long since ended their fruitful business relationship. They have remained lifelong friends, but their golden, silver and bronze eras had long since passed. They got out when they were on top, leaving a prolific and highly influential legacy few could come close to equalling. In this book, author Christopher Stevens, an expert on Galton and Simpson’s era of comedy, presents a collection of excerpts from the duo’s archives, including work that no longer exists in its broadcast form. Galton and Simpson made their names in a profession that was virtually destined for unsung heroism. It was rare for producers or for comic actors to want the general public to know that there was a creative genius behind artistes like Frankie Howard and Tony Hancock. The writing duo seemed to fit in well with this anonymity, as to this day Stevens found them to be incredibly modest and self-depreciating about their massive contribution to entertainment.
On that note I think there is a lot to be said about Stevens’ understated approach to writing. The book could easily have been a throwaway piece of nostalgia – the low pictures/high text ratio equivalent of a coffee table book. However, the subject matter and the material contained is so engrossing and downright entertaining only fool would want to part with it. This is enhanced by Stevens’ knowledge. He puts his case that without Galton and Simpson situation comedy would look nothing like it does today. He further argues that many of today’s sit-com icons are clear extensions of Hancock or Steptoe. The evidence he produces is pretty compelling, and it carefully shows the way the writing duo’s style evolved, providing the writers that would follow them with a rich pool of ideas.

Stevens' decision to just give surface details in his biographical sketches of the various people mentioned in the book was a prudent decision. It's not a short volume and it is clear the author doesn't want too much distraction from the actual comedy itself. This is not to say this book should be taken as an academic study of the anatomy of situation comedy or even Galton and Simpson's work; this is clearly not its intention. However, where needed, Stevens is willing to talk candidly about certain aspects of people's lives. Hancock's breakdown during his time working on the radio series, which led to him fleeing to Europe without warning and for Harry Secombe to takeover is not brushed over. Likewise, Stevens disagrees with the commonly held belief that Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell really had a bad relationship off screen.

The book takes a slightly unusual if simplistic format. Stevens has interviewed Galton and Simpson a lot, and briefly describes his experiences with them. He has also interviewed a few other people connected to their work. However, for the most part he lets the voices do the work. We find out about the two writers’ backgrounds and how they both ended up recovering in hospital together for a year, which ended up forging an almost telepathic writing collaboration. Inspired by American comedy, which they felt was decades ahead of the British, the duo had an uncannily similar idea about how What emerged were two people who prided themselves as being craftsman rather than artists, but were nonetheless passionate about their work. Here and there their strong political and (non)religious views popped up, but it never took over the pieces in the way so many other comedy franchises of today have done. Stevens also shows how many of their own experiences and people from their own lives have ended up in the material, which seems to make it all the more heartfelt. The book’s selection criteria for what excerpts to use is quite novel. It follows a chronological path, but Stevens is mindful not to just include the famous scripts. Knowing that his core reader will be the firm fan or collector, he has given precedence to scripts of work that has been erased forever by the BBC or never materialized. This means we get the wonderful pairing of Frankie Howard with Tony Hancock – which we will never hear again – and the time when Harry Secombe filled in for Hancock for three episodes, resulting in their eventual meeting. However, even if you are a casual fan of their work I am confident this not put you off. The writing is light yet informative and the material showcased is true comedy genius. It’s a wonderful book to just relax into and to recall a golden age of British situation comedy. Don't forget to check out Jamie Clubb's main blog
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