Alan Simpson and Ray Galton recall heyday at Elstree Studios

Borehamwood Times: Ray, left, and Alan Ray, left, and Alan

Elstree Studios has produced some of the industry’s most famous films and television series since it opened in 1914. Borehamwood Times reporter Anna Slater dropped in to meet two of its most acclaimed writers.

“It was not all glitz and glamour” explains Alan Simpson. The 82-year-old is the co-writer of films The Rebel, The Bargee, and Up the Chastity Belt, filmed at Elstree Studios in the 60s.

Yesterday was the first time the famous scriptwriter, along with his colleague and best friend Ray Galton, 82, have been back in 50 years.

The duo met at 17, when both were admitted to the same hospital in Surrey with tuberculosis. They discovered they were both keen writers – and downright hilarious – and the rest is history.

Perhaps their most famous creations, Steptoe and Son and Hancock's Half Hour, were written before they came to work in the famous film studios but once they did, they certainly left their mark with a series of blockbuster hits.

The writing team would spend day-in day-out overseeing the production of their movies – or ‘babies’ as they affectionately dub them – right here in the Shenley Road production house.

“In those days there was never a dull moment here,” Alan says, with a hint of nostalgia surfacing in his eyes. “But it could actually be incredibly boring. A single day would have been a successful one if we had shot just a couple minutes of film.”

It might be hard to picture it now, but Elstree was once hailed a British Hollywood as it housed four major movie sets – MGM, ATV, Elstree and BBC.

After a long day of filming, stars from all over the world would be seen in the old Red Lion Pub, now the MacDonald’s in Shenley Road, drinking the day away.

During the shooting of The Rebel at the studios in 1961, Alan remembers having to babysit the star of the show, Tony Hancock, after he had one drink too many.

“He had just been shooting a scene in his pyjamas and was covered in paint. I had to take him back to my house in Hampton that night and he got paint all over the sheets. It is a bizarre but hilarious memory.”

Ray chimes in with a story about George Sanders. For those of you who don’t know who he is (I made the mistake of asking), George Sanders was the co-star in The Rebel – and he is described as eccentric but elegant.

Ray continues: “He always had to have a grand piano on set, it was written into his contract. “After shooting he would retire to the piano and burst into Ivor Novello. He really sparkled when he was by that piano, but the electricians hated it.”

Just then, Ray and Alan look at each other, giggle and burst into song: “Someday, my heart will awake...” - an Ivor Novello classic, I am told.

Since his time at Elstree, Alan has been enjoying his retirement in Hampton, while Ray continues to ply his trade in the industry he loves.

He says he could never find it in his heart to retire and has recently been working on films and plays – including a stage adaptation of Steptoe and Son, currently on tour. 

“We were happy here at Elstree”, Ray says. “The atmosphere was just amazing and that hasn’t really changed”.

Ray and Alan were speaking at the filming of an interview by TV and film historian Paul Burton and commissioned by Elstree Studios for the official studio archive and website. A version of this film is due to be added to the British Film Institute's archive.

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