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Wednesday 23 February 2022

When Typewriters Made the World a Whole Lot Funnier

Beryl Vertue surrounded by, from left, Eric Sykes, Ray Galton, Spike Milligan and Alan Simpson at 9 Orme Court, Bayswater, London W2.

The death in London this month, at the age of 90, of television producer, media executive and agent Beryl Vertue led to stark reminders of what a funny old world this used to be. And by funny, I do mean rib-tickingly funny, not funny as in the strange ways we live today. Vertue, as one obituary writer put it, “Changed popular culture in half-hour instalments” – all of which were typewritten in the late 1950s and early 1960s on Olympia SM2 and SM3 portables in a sumptuously palatial, expansive office at 9 Orme Court, overlooking Kensington Gardens in Bayswater, London W2.

Simpson, left, and Galton in 2010, with the Olympia SM3 portable typewriter they used at Orme Place. In the middle is comedian Sid James's widow Valerie.

This was the time of classic British comedy shows on radio and TV, such as Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. Vertue later said she understood the power of such television when the British government asked the BBC not to air a show on which she was working – Hancock’s Half Hour – because it might keep people away from polling booths at the 1959 general election. Tony Hancock’s show had successfully moved from radio to TV, and so had Vertue.

Galton and Simpson at Orme Place.

For Vertue her involvement in radio entertainment had been an accident. She’d known the scriptwriter Alan Simpson (1929-2017) from school days, after which he contracted tuberculosis. In hospital Simpson met Ray Galton (1930-2018), who also had TB. While recuperating the pair did spots on the hospital radio system, and then became comedy writing partners for 50 years. They wrote many BBC shows together, including BBC sitcoms Hancock's Half Hour (1954–1961), Steptoe and Son (1962–74) and the first two series of Comedy Playhouse (1961-63).

                                               Galton and Simpson at Orme Place.

Needing someone to type their scripts, in 1955 Simpson called Vertue, but it was another writer who interviewed her for the job – Spike Milligan (1918-2002). He was wearing braces but no shirt and asked her what made her laugh and what tea she preferred. She didn’t want the job, it was on the other side of London. Milligan asked how much she would want to be paid each week. She decided to “price herself out of it” by asking for £10. “That’s £2, 10 (shillings) each,” Milligan said (comedian Eric Sykes was also there). “My whole life was transformed from that day,” Vertue said later.

Simpson and Galton with a Sperry-Remington 101.
The writers' cooperative became known as Associated London Scripts. Johnny Speight (1920-98) joined in at the time he wrote Till Death Us Do Part (1965-75). Another member of the collective was Terry Nation (1930-97), who created the Daleks and Davros for Doctor Who and Blake's 7 in 1978. Many of the writers lacked confidence in dealing with BBC management, so Vertue found herself an “accidental agent”, renewing and renegotiating their contracts as their shows, many of which she produced, became firmly ensconced in English popular culture. She also represented comedians Tony Hancock and Frankie Howerd.

 Pickles helps with the script for The Spy with a Cold Nose, March 1966.
From left, Eric Sykes, Pickles' owner David Corbett, Galton,
Pickles' owner Jean Corbett and Simpson.
Australian businessman Robert Stigwood bought ALS in 1967 and made Vertue deputy chairman. She also became an executive producer for the newly-created Associated London Films. One of the films made by ALF and scripted by Simpson and Galton was The Spy with a Cold Nose,  a spy spoof starring Eric Sykes and featuring Pickles, a black and white collie dog known for finding the stolen soccer World Cup in 1966.

Vertue goes through a script with Galton and Simpson.
Till Death Us Do Part was reworked in the United States as All in the Family, with Carroll O’Connor playing the Alf Garnett role as the bigoted, politically incorrect patriarch. Steptoe and Son was adapted as Sanford and Son. Stigwood and Vertue joined forces to make theatrical productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, as well as the Ken Russell film of The Who’s 1975 rock opera Tommy. In 1979 Vertue formed her own independent television production company Hartswood Films, and in 1992 brought out Men Behaving Badly. Vertue’s two daughters, Sue and Debbie Vertue, joined Hartswood as producers, as did a son-in-law, Steven Moffat, who wrote the series Jekyll and Sherlock.

Simpson, Galton and Vertue.

Beryl Frances Vertue (née Johnson) was born in Croydon, London, on April 8, 1931. After leaving Mitcham county school she began her working life as a typist in a shipping firm. She was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Royal Television Society Programme Awards and the Harvey Lee Award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting at the BPG TV and Radio Awards, both in 2012.

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