Part Three – The 1960’s – An Offer ?
Continuing our look back at some of the the highlights in British Comedy over the last 70 years we reach the 1960’s. In this post you’ll read about two comedians making a return to television, an offer made to two well known writers that turned a load of junk into a runaway success and laid the foundations for some of the BBC’s most classic sitcoms.
Eric Sykes by the 1960’s was better known for his writing than acting but in 1960 he stepped in front of the TV cameras to give us Sykes And A…Eric Sykes went onto become one of Britain’s best loved comic writers and actors with hits such as, big screen short films: Rhubarb and the The Plank.
Tony Hancock had hit the big time in the 1950’s and as the 1960’s began he was still at top with Hancock’s Half Hour. By 1961 Hancock was beginning to have misgivings that he was been seen as part of a double act and so discussions with his writers began. In an interview with us Ray Galton and Alan Simpson told us:” there were discussions between us and Tony. We both felt that perhaps it was becoming a double act in the eyes of the public.”we both agreed to write a final series with Tony on his own. We wrote a series called Citizen James for Sid, but because of Steptoe commitments we were only able to write the one series.” Full interview That final series entitled Hancock produced some of the best loved Hancock episodes including the famous Blood Donor, it would be his last series for the BBC, although he made a brief return in Christmas, 1964 for BBC Radio as a presenter for ‘Ancock’s Anthology, in which Hancock talked, read from Stephen Leacock and A.A. Milne, introduced records and interviewed Stirling Moss.
It was 1961 when Tony Hancock made his big screen debut in The Rebel written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Both Hancock and the writers had wanted to get into film, but despite the success of The Rebel and the best efforts of his two writers to come up with a suitable idea, Hancock couldn’t agree on anything and so exhausted with trying the writers parted company with Hancock. Regretably his career was never the same. He moved to ITV, here he produced three ill-fated series for the network: ‘Hancock’ in 1963, ‘The Blackpool Show’ in 1966 and ‘Hancock’s’ in 1967. A move to Australia in 1968 to film a series there was short lived when in June of that year he committed suicide.
Moving back to ITV, still in 1961. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise return to TV with their series Two Of A Kind. The first series was not so well received but by series two the show became more in line with their successful stage shows that would set the pattern for the future. Two Of A kind ran until 1968 when the BBC came calling. With the advent of colour televsion Eric was keen to do shows in the new medium, unfortunately ATV who produced Two Of A Kind were not. So, when the BBC came calling in 1968 with the offer of colour, The Morecambe And Wise Show was born.
As we left the 1950’s we came accross Kenneth Horne with his successful BBC Radio series Beyond Our Ken, in 1965 he followed this up with much loved classic Round The Horne, this ran until 1968, when Horne suffered a fatal heart attack whilst hosting the annual Guild of Television Producers’ and Directors’ Awards.
Back at the BBC, with Hancock having moved to pastures new Head Of Light Entertainment: Tom Sloan, was determined not to loose his star writers. So in 1961, in what was to become one of the most significant showcases for coming up with new ideas for comedy, he made an offer to Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. It was an offer that had never been made to anyone before and has, despite it’s success, to date never been made since. The offer come up with twelve one off comedies. Alan Simpson recounted the story to us: “Tom Sloan who was head of BBC comedy who offered us the chance to do whatever we liked. Write them, produce them, direct or act in them, anything we liked as long as it was called Comedy Playhouse, his title.” The result was Galton and Simpson’s Comedy Playhouse. Running for two series many people believe that only Steptoe was successful enougth to merit a full series. Not quite Alan Simpson recounted the story to us of how the BBC came to ask for a full series of Steptoe “Tom Sloan, Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC realised the potential in Steptoe and asked us to write a full series. We said NO and they kept on to us for about six months before we finally agreed to do a full series. We agreed conditional upon using straight actors in the parts as they counted the lines not the laughs.”
Steptoe and Son went on to be another mammoth success for the writers running for eight series, six radio series and two feature films.
After the success of Galton and Simpson’s Comedy Playhouse the idea was continued with other writers under the ‘Comedy Playhouse’ banner. Between 1961 when it began with Galton and Simpson until 1975 with other writers, one hundred and twenty episodes were produced of which 27 became a full series, many of Britain’s best loved sitcoms started life on Comedy Playhouse including in this decade Till Death Do Us Part and Up Pompeii.
In 1968 legendary magician and comedian Tommy Cooper makes his TV debut for Lodon Weekend Television
Over on The BBC in 1968, one of Britain’s best loved sitcoms began: Dad’s Army, based on co-writer Jimmy Perry’s experiences in the Local Defence Volunteers. The series is one of the very few to repeat reguarly on BBC as opposed to being licensed out to other channels
As the decade draws to a close another landmark in television occurs. Up until 1969 men dominate the list of successful writers. In 1969 an episode of Comedy Playhouse is broadcast and goes on to become a full series The Liver Birds was written and created by Carla Lane and Myra Taylor two women, unheard of at the time.
Also in 1969, Benny Hill who had his own show on the BBC moved to Thames for ITV.
The battle for the best sitcom was on and it seemed nothing was going to stop it, all subject matter was up for grabs. The BBC had rufffled feathers with Till Death Do Us Part. ITV were not to be outdone and themselves caused such a storm in 1969 with their sitcom Curry and Chips that it was pulled after just one series.
On The Buses became one ITV’s biggest hits arriving on screens in 1969 for six series.
There is no doubt that the 1950’s and 1960’s changed comedy for good. Without Hancock’s Half Hour being the success it was, would we have the sitcom as we know it today? Because of Galton and Simpson’s success Tom Sloan offered them Comedy Playhouse, without Comedy Playhouse we wouldn’t have had some of our best loved sitcoms that are as popular today as they were back in the day.
Next Time: 70 years of British Classic Comedy looks at some of the defining moments of what many comedy fans describe as “comedy’s golden decade” the 1970’s. Whilst the BBC get a little saucy, ITV cause more contraversy with two brilliant sitcoms. We’ll put that out in a couple of weeks.