I learned today that Alan Simpson, co-writer of Hancock’s Half Hour with Ray Galton, died a couple of weeks ago.
Hancock’s Half Hour was one of the earliest sitcoms and is one of my favourite comedy programs. I continue to listen to it, despite knowing many of the events at 23 Railway Cuttings and around East Cheam by heart. Perhaps it shows my love of old(er) things: The show started on radio over 60 years ago, and finished on TV more than 50 years ago.
Given that, perhaps it’s a little surprising that both writers were still alive at the end of 2016. Many of the actors died long ago, and with the passing of Alan Simpson it looks like only one of the major actors is still alive (Alan Simpson had a regular slot in the first series, listening to improbable monologues from Tony Hancock).
In the last few years the BBC have been doing remakes of the Hancock’s Half Hour radio episodes that were broadcast but not recorded. They have the same characters, but (obviously) not the same voices. One of the things I think those episodes showed was the quality of the original scripts. Once I got used to the fact that it wasn’t Tony Hancock, Sid James, or Bill Kerr speaking, there was still plenty to enjoy. And that was due to the work of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. The original performers were gifted, but they also had great scripts to work from.
Curiously, Alan Simpson must have died when I was in the process of writing about the deaths of celebrities in 2016. And many of my reflections in that piece apply to him: At 87, I can’t say that his life has been cut short. Particularly given he first met Ray Galton when they were both recovering from tuberculosis way back in 1948. It was a disease which he was expected to die from, and many did die from it. I’m certainly glad that both of them survived and thrived.
But his death marks another link to the past that has been lost. In fact, the news of his death affected me more than the news of any of the celebrities who died in 2016 (and no, I don’t think that makes 2017 a terrible year).
Quoting Hancock’s Half Hour is a good way to react to the death of someone involved in the program. In The Bequest, Hancock’s Great Uncle Ebadiah has died, and he has just entered the lawyer’s office to talk about the bequest:
Hancock: Why did it have to be him? Why was he taken from us? Why did he have to go now? Why? Come on, tell me, why, why?
Lawyer: He was 108.
Hancock: Well, there you are, I thought he was here to stay.
Unless you are closely associated with someone and see a gradual decline, I think their death is almost always unexpected. If they are young, we see and mourn the lost potential. But if they are old, we think “Why now? Couldn’t they have lasted another few years?”. Like disease, death does not usually wait for a convenient time.
Hancock’s Half Hour was (and is) humorous. “Just comedy”, some might say. But there are plenty of examples where its words have lodged in my memory and helped me deal with the real world (like the quote above). And that is a priceless gift.
So yes, rest in peace, Alan Simpson (not that I really know the meaning of that old expression). I will not forget your works, any more than I forget the works of Dickens, Beethoven, and a host of other past greats.