The BBC recently announced plans for ‘The Galton and Simpson Bursary for Comedy Writing’. The winning applicant(s) will have a sample script ‘developed for broadcast consideration, with advice and input from leading industry practitioners, and receive a bursary of £5,500’.
This is good news. It remains to be seen, however, if it is also a good thing.
It certainly sounds good. Galton and Simpson were two of the greatest sitcom writers that Britain, and the BBC, has ever produced, and this new bursary, that makes use of their illustrious names, is aimed, it is said, ‘at helping a new comedy writer or writing partnership to build their career’.
So far, so good. There is, however, one pertinent critical question to pose at this stage: does the BBC genuinely know what, precisely, it is trying to achieve when it talks about ‘building’ a writing career?
One slightly worrying sign, in this sense, is that the initial announcement – a strangely rambling document written with a cat-like degree of distractedness – arrived with rather more than its fair share of vague and patronising corporate waffle, which included the revelation that the bursary is actually going to be a ‘collaboration’ (the essential details of which are so far unspecified) between the BBC and the Mental Health Foundation, ‘since research has again and again demonstrated that creativity can help mental well-being by providing a channel of release and self-expression’.
That assertion, aside from winning, ridiculously easily, the annual Sybil Fawlty Prize for the Bleeding Obvious, also smacks of either alarming naiveté or depressing hypocrisy, seeing as the winners of this bursary will surely soon see their own creativity, like that of most other writers currently working within this fiercely competitive and intensely-pressured industry, subjected to all kinds of potentially suffocating constraints, compromises and frustrations that are most definitely not designed to enhance their ‘mental well-being’.
Having been fortunate enough to have known Galton and Simpson, and interviewed them at length on several occasions, I think I have a fairly good idea as to what they would have said about the treatment of their own creativity. They would have said that, for creativity to serve effectively and consistently as ‘a channel of release and self-expression,’ it requires the proper context in which to function – and that context needs to be one in which one’s creativity is genuinely encouraged, appreciated and respected, rather than merely tamed and trained to meet the immediate needs of other, less creative, people further up the decision-making chain.
Creativity, as any freelance writer will confirm, is no ‘channel of release and self-expression’ if there are no commissions, and no money in the bank, and there are daily demands and dark threats landing on the door mat and filling up your inbox. Creativity, in those objectively depressing circumstances (which are becoming all-too common in these virus-blighted times), is not much help to the maintenance, let alone the improvement, of one’s ‘mental well-being’. To imply otherwise, whilst virtue-signalling via the latest vogueish vernacular, is just insultingly glib and insensitive.
Creativity is not even that helpful, in a ‘mental health sense,’ if one does indeed have a commission, but the circumstances of that commission entail its subjugation to plans and powers far beyond one’s own control. If you end up being processed as a sausage then you’re just a sausage, even if the butcher sticks a ‘quality sausage’ sign through your skin.
This, I would argue, is the core concern, at this early stage, about the Galton and Simpson Bursary. If it genuinely wants to find, support and develop writers, eventually, anywhere close to the level of the skill and scope and stature of Galton and Simpson, then it needs to change, quite radically, the way that the BBC, like other broadcasters, has treated the vast majority of its comedy writers over the past few decades.
If, however, it simply wants to sprinkle some stardust on a short-term hunt for more of the same sort of meat to go straight into the mincer, then it is being more than a little cynical in the presentation of its project.
One way, as an outsider, to begin to clarify this issue is to highlight the kind of culture in which Galton and Simpson were able to use their own creativity so effectively – not only for the benefit of themselves (and their mental well-being) but also for that of the BBC and Britain’s broadest audience of comedy lovers. This was a special culture characterised by three essential and interconnected elements: trust, time and tolerance.
First of all, Galton and Simpson benefitted immeasurably from trust. They were different, and they were hired to draw on that difference.
They were two young men from tough working class backgrounds who – having spent more than a year stuck together in a sanatorium, devouring everything they could find in the library while recovering from tuberculosis – arrived at the BBC far better-read, and with a wider, richer and more unusual range of influences, than most of their more privileged contemporaries. ‘The BBC got to know us,’ said Alan Simpson. ‘They got a sense of us. And then they let us know that they were intrigued by us’.
Then they were given time. Their bosses did not attempt to shape, manoeuvre and manipulate them. They simply had them write for as many shows and performers as they could, in order to see how they coped and where their skills might best be served. ‘They just watched and waited,’ said Ray Galton. ‘They stood back and saw where we went and how we did. And they left us to work out our own strengths and our own style’.
Then their plans were treated with tolerance. Once they were deemed ready to work on their own project, the BBC believed in them enough to let them do the opposite of what most executives expected or, indeed, wanted. ‘That was remarkable,’ said Alan Simpson, ‘because at that stage they could easily have said, “All right, you’ve shown you can write for all these people, so here’s something for you – keep doing more of the same with this star or this show”. But instead they listened to what we wanted to do’.
That, as Ray Galton would recall, was probably the key moment in their shared career: ‘We said to them that we wanted to write a show that was thirty minutes every week, non-stop, with just one fixed situation, and without a singer or a band coming on to split it up. Which up until then had been practically unthinkable for anyone, let alone for two young spotty-nosed unknowns like us. But the BBC had enough faith in us to say, “Okay, go ahead and try it”. That wouldn’t have happened anywhere else’.
The result was Hancock’s Half Hour. It started in 1954, and it did take time to evolve, but it was given that time. By the fourth series it had really found the start of its finest form, and, on television as well as radio, it would go on to be a national institution until it ended in 1961.
Then Galton and Simpson came to another crucial turning point in their career. Tom Sloan, the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment, could easily have asked them, as a means of moving forward, to come up with another Hancock’s Half Hour. The Corporation urgently needed a successor to such a hugely successful show, and the line of least resistance was another sitcom as close to the last one as possible.
Sloan, however, was content to give them the space in which to find their own way of progressing. As Ray Galton would recall: ‘He suggested that we fulfil a programme title he’d already thought up: Comedy Playhouse. He said he’d got these ten half-hour slots, and that we could do anything we liked with them, anything at all, so long as we used that title – which was a fantastic offer that was just far too good to turn down. So we started out with Comedy Playhouse, and number four in the series turned out to be Steptoe and Son’.
Steptoe and Son was duly commissioned, and over the course of the next few years would showcase some of the most intelligent, sensitive, insightful and distinctive comic writing that television, in any country, has ever witnessed – and it came about without any fawning over focus groups, and no robotic rush to tick all the ‘right’ boxes, no embarrassingly abject forelock-tugging to Westminster’s spectacularly ill-informed cultural ‘special advisors,’ and no knee-jerked and boneheaded manipulation of that stupidly-servile question: ‘What’s the diversity story?’
It did not matter about the writers’ class, ethnicity, gender, age or politics. It just mattered that they were good, and they wanted, and were able, to make as many people as possible laugh.
That, however, was quite another era, and quite another BBC. It was a BBC that was still run in the most part by people who not only knew what the BBC was there to do, but also believed in that purpose passionately, and were prepared to defend it, and its programmes, from those papers and politicians that were prejudiced against it. It was, in short, a BBC that knew what it was doing.
Today we have a different BBC, run largely by people who treat it much like any of the other broadcasting organisations they will probably soon be passing through, and it appears most desperate to placate and please the kind of people who do not even want it to continue to exist. This does not seem like a BBC that is prepared to trust writers, give them time and show them tolerance, let alone promote their mental well-being – but I would love it to prove me wrong.
Of course, this BBC might simply say that such decencies and designs are long a thing of the past, like letter writing, video recorders, Top of the Pops, Spangles and social intimacy, but then again, at the start of this century, before they stumbled on to Strictly, they were claiming that big and broad Saturday night audiences were also a thing of the past. Once you shake off the shackles of deludedly self-serving fatalism (which is a really good thing to do for your mental well-being, by the way), and exercise some intelligence and imagination, it’s amazing how many good and honourable things still turn out to be possible.
Returning to the serious, sensitive and sustained nurturing of new writing talent? It would be really nice to see the BBC try.
If they did so, and got their own frame of reference right, they might actually find, without the need for any clumsy intervention, furtive filtering or craven PR puffery, really good writers who come from different classes, ethnicities, genders, ages and politics, and who can even write things that, without any prompting, answer effortlessly the question: ‘What’s the diversity story?’
To do so, however, what we, as outsiders, need to see from the BBC are deeds rather than just words, with far more long-term commitments and mutually-supportive relationships, and far fewer short-term stunts and silly gimmicks.
As far as the bursary is concerned, therefore, the basic point is this: if the BBC merely wants to honour the achievement of Galton and Simpson, while doing precisely the opposite of what gave Galton and Simpson the freedom to achieve so much, then my advice to them is this: save yourself some hassle and just schedule a few repeats and commission a nice big statue.
If, however, the BBC genuinely wants to honour the legacy of Galton and Simpson, then I would suggest: try to go from a culture of doubt, intolerance and impatience to one of trust, tolerance and time, and show to all budding comedy writers, as well as the first very fortunate beneficiaries of this special bursary, that, belatedly, you now really do understand and appreciate the kind of culture that helped the likes of Hancock’s Half Hour, and Steptoe and Son, become a reality, and you are seriously committed to bringing it back.
That would be the kind of serious, principled and practical gesture that Galton and Simpson would have respected and supported. As for just sticking their name on to a run-of-the-mill recruitment drive, well, they had a phrase reserved for that kind of thing, and they usually gave it to Sid James or old man Steptoe to say: ‘What a load of old cobblers!’
So please, don’t abuse or exploit their memory. They – and all of their potential successors – deserve so much better than that.