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The Alan Simpson interview

Thousands of people who grew up in the 1950s and 60s will fondly remember the radio and TV shows of the late great comedian Tony Hancock. I  spent an evening talking to legendary scriptwriter Alan Simpson, who, along with Ray Galton, wrote the words for Hancock, about a project to re-create some of the radio shows that have been lost over time.
I’VE always been a fan of Hancock and also of Steptoe and Son, another of the hit TV shows penned by Galton and Simpson, so I jumped at the chance to spend some time talking with Hampton resident Alan Simpson about his creations.
My first question concerned the recent project to re-record some of the radio shows that had been lost. I asked Alan how that situation came about.
Alan Simpson: "Well, we need to put it into context - we made 101 radio shows and 60 television shows - so more than 160 shows in total. Some of the early TV shows were not recorded – they went out live so they were never on tape at all.
"Also, back in the early 1950s when we started the radio show, people didn’t realise that the tapes that were made had a shelf life.
"No one at the BBC thought that years later people would be buying records of the Hancock shows. Tapes were worth a fortune and they reused them because they couldn’t afford to keep buying new ones in. So some of the old radio shows were simply recorded over although Ray and I still had the original scripts for them.”
Ed: "So who came up with the idea of re-creating the shows?”
Alan Simpson: "The actor Neil Pearson collects old scripts and he approached us with the idea of picking some of the missing shows and re-recording them with a different cast. Ray and I thought that was a fascinating idea.”
Ed: "How did you decide which ones to re-record?”
Alan Simpson: "The beauty of the Hancock shows is that they simply don’t date. The character of Hancock doesn’t date - the character has been around since time immemorial. There were Hancock characters in the Stone Age. The ones who thought they were good at wall painting and who didn’t want to go out hunting - they’d rather stay at home painting. Also loads of Hancocks in Dickens, Shakespeare etc - the character has been around for ages – he’s indigenous to the human race.”
Ed: "Kevin McNally plays the Hancock part - what do you think of his performances?”
Alan Simpson: "Absolutely brilliant - every time I hear his voice, it’s uncanny – it really could be Hancock come back to life. It’s not just a question of impersonating Tony – he’s got every nuance of his performance. The timing is perfect and he’s got every little vocal mannerism that Hancock used. He’s nailed it perfectly. "
Ed: "When I listened to one of the shows the only thing that didn’t really fit in was the reference to pounds, shillings and pence - apart from that it really could have been all about the world today.”
Alan Simpson: "Yes, that’s true - you will notice little things like that from time to time. You’ll hear political references to Harold MacMillan, Harold Wilson, Anthony Eden etc -. It doesn’t matter - we didn’t bother to change the pounds, shillings and pence.”
Ed:  "You’ve re-recorded five shows – are there plans to re-create any more of the 20 lost radio shows?”
Alan Simpson: "The plan is to do another five shows – if we can get it together. Kevin McNally is filming in America at the moment so he won’t be available until the middle of next year. But the first shows we re-recorded were so successful that we’d like to do more. We’ve been delighted with the reaction of the public to the shows we have re-created."
Ed: "How did Kenneth Williams get involved with Hancock?”
Alan Simpson: "Dennis Main Wilson, the producer, found Ken. We’d always said we didn’t want any silly voices in the show, Dennis said he’d seen this great character actor appearing in a George Bernard Shaw production and signed him up. He first appeared as a jockey when Hancock and Sid James buy a racehorse, which has got three good legs and a wooden leg. Sid says: ‘Here it comes now’ and you hear clip. clop, clip, bonk; clip, clop, clip bonk…. And Sid says: ‘ I’d like to introduce you to the jockey’ at which point Kenneth Williams went ‘Good evenin’ in a very silly voice which got a tremendous laugh and that was the idea of not using silly voices straight out of the window!”
Ed: "What makes you laugh now?”
Alan Simpson: "A lot of stuff.  I’m not a great believer in the ‘golden age of comedy.’All through history there have been very fine comedians – WC Fields, Groucho Marx, Will Hay, Arthur Askey - every age has its top comedians. The only thing those early guys lacked was the technology of TV and radio.
"Of the modern comedians Hugh Dennis, Ben Miller and Lee Mack are very funny men. Lee Mack is as good a gag man as I’ve come across. Others I enjoy include David Mitchell and Robert Webb.”
Ed: "Onto your other great love – Hampton football club. You’ve been president since 1967 – 47 years – and not missed many matches in that time.?”
Alan Simpson: "I probably missed more this season than any previous one because I don’t go to as many away games. I have difficulty getting up and down stairs these days. I have to ration myself. The last couple of years have not been good to us. It’s very expensive to run successful sides these days. Relegation to the Ryman Premier from the Conference South was a big blow but I’m keeping my fingers crossed we’ll start rebuilding next year.”
Ed: "What’s the longterm plan?”
Alan Simpson: "It must be to get back into the Conference South as a first step. Easier said than done - being relegated is easy - getting promoted is much more difficult. We were getting some amazing crowds playing teams like Eastbourne and Hayes and Yeading in the play-offs - 3,500 in the ground and the police had to shut the gates. No one had anticipated the level of interest and we had 600 or 800 people locked out of the ground in Station Road. You have to get that support because at the end of the day its all about finance. Take the ground - since 1967 it’s been improved dramatically It’s a Conference standard ground and it’s a shame not to see that level of football being played here.”
Ed: "Just finally Alan, what’s your favourite show that you’ve written?”
Alan Simpson: Difficult to say - the Blood Donor must come into consideration. Only problem with the Blood Donor was that Tony was reading it all off cue cards. He was involved in a car accident when his wife was driving and he got concussion. He hadn’t learned his lines so the BBC had a choice - postpone the show or putting it onto teleprompter. He thought that was marvellous - never having to learn lines and that was probably the worst thing he ever did. The script itself was brilliant.
"In terms of favourite lines, I guess that comes from a Hancock show when he is begging a jury in court to show mercy and says: ‘Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain...?’
"Still makes me chuckle now.”

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What's On...

Events, shows, concerts, sporting occassions - month by month in your area -
What's On
Sept 16-17
Open House London Free Admission Kempton Waterworks, Snakey Lane, Hanworth Visit the Museum for free and marvel at the spectacular 1000-ton engines in this beautiful Art Deco building. Doors open at 10:30am (please note: engine not in steam!) (www.kemptonsteam.org)
Sept 30
Glow in the Park Kempton Park Dance, jog, run or walk your way around a 5km course. Glow zones and music will keep you grooving round the route. Don't forget to wear all your glow kit (www.kempton.co.uk)
Oct 1-7
The Turn of the Screw Hampton Hill Theatre, 90 High Street, Hampton Hill A ghost story by Henry James (www.teddingtontheatreclub.org.uk)
Nov 4 (tbc)
Roundtable Fireworks Kempton Park Fun for all the family (www.kemptonfireworks.org.uk)