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Obituary: Alan Simpson

Alan Simpson (right) with Ray Galton and Liz Fraser. Photo: Doug McKenzie Alan Simpson (right) with Ray Galton and Liz Fraser. Photo: Doug McKenzie

Together with Ray Galton, Alan Simpson helped define the tone of television comedy for 20 years with the hugely popular Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

Their theatre work proved more problematic – an adaptation of Andre Obey’s Noah (first staged in 1935 with John Gielgud), with music by Leslie Bricusse, was planned as a vehicle for Tony Hancock but never came to fruition.

More successful was a 1966 revue Way Out in Piccadilly starring Frankie Howerd and Cilla Black at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre and 1968’s The Wind in the Sassafras Trees, a farce set in the American Wild West, again starring Howerd, at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

The piece transferred to Broadway, where it was retitled as Rockefeller and the Red Indians, but ran for only four performances. It was revived at the Haymarket Theatre, Basingstoke, in 1987 with Harry Worth as the eponymous pioneer.

In 2005, Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, written by Galton and John Antrobus (Simpson having retired by then) was seen at the York Theatre Royal before transferring to the Comedy Theatre.

Simpson had first met Galton at a sanatorium in 1948 while both were in their teens and being treated for tuberculosis. Discovering a shared love of comedy, they began writing together and made their breakthrough into radio in 1951 contributing jokes (and subsequently entire episodes) to Derek Roy’s Happy-Go-Lucky.

In 1954, they teamed up with comedian Hancock, then a rising star, to write his first solo vehicle. Hancock’s Half Hour made Simpson and Galton’s names and, after three years on radio, transferred to television in 1956. By the time the programme ended in 1961, the pair had written 160 episodes in all, together with the film The Rebel.

After a successful pilot episode in Comedy Playhouse, Steptoe and Son originally ran from 1962-65 before returning in 1970 for four more series. It spawned two films and was adapted for American television as Sanford and Son.

Their later credits included three series for ITV and 1972’s Clochemerle, about the efforts of a rural French town to erect a public urinal, Casanova ’73 with Leslie Phillips (1973) and a one-off revival of Steptoe and Son in 2016, when the pair were awarded BAFTA fellowships.

Together with Galton, comedian Howerd and fellow writers Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan, Simpson formed Associated London Scripts in 1956, eventually selling it to the Robert Stigwood Organisation in 1967.

Alan Francis Simpson was born on November 27, 1929, and died on February 8, aged 87.