For all its faults, YouTube can reunite the late-night trawler with old friends and often throw up a few unexpected surprises in the process. Of late, I’ve found myself watching episodes of ‘Steptoe and Son’, both black & white editions from the 60s and the colour incarnation from the 70s – the latter being more familiar, though no less refreshing for all that. Forty and fifty years removed from the original transmissions, it’s easy to forget what a radical series ‘Steptoe and Son’ really was and how every classic British sitcom since owes it a massive debt. The groundbreaking plaudits tend to be dished out to ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, contemporaneous with Shepherd Bush’s most renowned rag & bone business, yet only able to step through a door that had been broken down by the warring father and son three years earlier. Alf Garnett, hailed as a hero by those he was intended to parody (as happened with Ali G decades later), took what a comedy character could get away with on TV in the 60s to a level the extremities of which negate repeat screenings in our more squeamish age; but Johnny Speight couldn’t have done so without Galton & Simpson creating a favourable climate for his grotesque invention.
The writing double act that changed the face of comedy on television had just come out of several successful years penning Tony Hancock’s most memorable scripts and it had only been the paranoid insecurities of Britain’s biggest comedian that brought the hugely popular partnership to an end. Keen to keep the pair that had generated the one programme to have beaten ITV in the ratings in the late 50s, the Beeb offered Ray Galton and Alan Simpson the opportunity to showcase their talents via a series of self-contained one-off comedies under the banner of ‘Comedy Playhouse’. Never intending to embark upon another sitcom after the unhappy ending of their contract with Hancock, Galton & Simpson were reluctant to acquiesce when the BBC insisted one of the ‘Comedy Playhouse’ episodes (entitled ‘The Offer’) showed definite promise as a series in its own right.
The rough outline of two rag and bone men engaged in an argument had leapt out from Galton & Simpson’s respective typewriters when they hit upon the intriguing idea of the characters being an elderly embittered father and his frustrated son. Eager to avoid the pitfalls of a professional gag man again, they sought out trained actors to portray the two leads rather than looking at the stand-up circuit. Wilfrid Brambell, an experienced Irish veteran of stage and screen (albeit in small supporting roles) was paired with Harry H Corbett, a promising thespian with heavyweight ambitions encouraged by revolutionary theatre producer Joan Littlewood in what both presumed would be a brief interlude between treading the boards. But the unprecedented masterstroke in casting actors as opposed to comedians gave ‘The Offer’ a dramatic depth TV comedy had never seen before. What viewers saw when this particular instalment of ‘Comedy Playhouse’ aired wasn’t derived from music hall – as the majority of television light entertainment was in the early 60s – but appeared to have more in common with ‘Look Back in Anger’. It wasn’t slick, shiny and showbiz, but grim, grotty and real.
It took some persuasion on the part of the BBC to convince Galton & Simpson, as well as Brambell and Corbett, that this single stand-alone play had the potential to be extended into a series, but all parties eventually agreed. ‘Steptoe and Son’ proper debuted on BBC TV in the summer of 1962 and was an overnight smash. Picking up the social realism baton from ‘Coronation Street’, ‘Steptoe and Son’ was the first product of the BBC’s television renaissance under Director General Hugh Carleton Greene, blazing the trail for ‘Z-Cars’, ‘The Wednesday Play’, ‘Doctor Who’, ‘Softly Softly’ and ‘Till Death…’. Brambell’s portrayal of Albert Steptoe imported the uncouth habits of a potty-mouthed dirty old man of a kind that could be found in any working-class British neighbourhood into the nation’s living rooms, clashing with the constantly thwarted aesthetic aspirations of Harold, the son who yearned to belong to the generation poised to make the 60s swing yet had missed the boat both by being born too early and being saddled with a mean-minded father who employed emotional blackmail to prevent him flying the nest.
The comedic and dramatic sat side-by-side in ‘Steptoe and Son’ as laugh-out-loud moments shared the screen with genuine and often heartbreaking pathos. Emanating from an era when TV was more informed by theatre than cinema, a ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode can often consist of a ‘two-hander’ between the lead actors, something that requires a level of writing and acting that few can sustain for thirty minutes; but both Galton & Simpson and Brambell & Corbett could do it. Sat atop the ratings, the programme’s phenomenal popularity even played its part in Labour’s 1964 General Election victory when Harold Wilson persuaded Hugh Greene to delay the transmission of the scheduled episode on election night until after the polls had closed.
So successful was ‘Steptoe and Son’ that it even survived Brambell’s arrest for importuning in a public convenience (he was homosexual during the period when prison was still a possibility) and Corbett’s deep desire to return to serious stage roles for fear of typecasting. After four series, both stars had the chance to spread their wings from 1965 onwards, yet the shadow of the parts that had turned them into instant household names proved hard to shake off when it came to the roles both were offered and ‘Steptoe and Son’ returned just as BBC1 was getting to grips with colour broadcasting in 1970. Three more series and two Christmas specials, not forgetting a couple of cinematic outings, followed over the next four years until the premises on Oil Drum Lane finally closed its doors at the end of 1974. A radio version, a live show and regular repeat screenings kept Albert and Harold in the public eye, however, and the pair even reprised their roles for the odd TV commercial. Neither could escape the characters.
Harry H Corbett died aged just 52 in 1982; Wilfrid Brambell passed away at the age of 72 three years later. But their premature exits from the screen didn’t affect the televisual immortality bestowed upon them; both will be eternally associated with their peerless portrayals of the dirty old man and his luckless son while ever an audience wants to watch a comedy that isn’t either pure slapstick or a spoof documentary. And as legacies go, that’s a pretty good one to put your name to. Moreover, for all its once-shocking colloquial lingo, ‘Steptoe and Son’ is refreshingly expletive-free. If only ‘family entertainment’ today could scale the heights that were achieved half-a-century ago. But there’s always YouTube…
© The Editor