TV comic genius 5: Steptoe and Son

 

(c) BBC

 

In the UK in the early 1970s, all young kids – like me – loved the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son.  We particularly loved the irascible and wily old rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe, played by Wilfred Brambell, who seemed so grotesque that he could have been created by Roald Dahl.  With his skull-like head, contorted features, mangled dentures, slobbering voice, spiteful cackle, stick-thin limbs, revolting habits and total disregard for personal hygiene, how could kids not have found him fascinating?

 

Those youngsters in the playground unlucky enough to be a bit sallow or thin-faced or to have a propensity for scratching themselves were doomed to live out their schooldays branded with the unglamorous nickname ‘Steptoe’.  And when we weren’t tormenting other kids for looking like Albert Steptoe, we tried our best to impersonate him: backs hunched, eyes leering, noses screwed up, teeth bared, voices gargling, “’Aaa-rold!  ’Aaa-rold!”

 

Harold Steptoe – Albert’s son and reluctant partner in the rag-and-bone trade, played by Harry H. Corbett – seemed a more conventional character to us young ’uns and was therefore less interesting.  But we did impersonations of him too, from the moment that frequently arose in the show when Harold would glare at Albert, his expression suggesting someone who’d just had a rhinoceros fart into his face, and contemptuously intone, “You dir-ty old man!”

 

We loved watching Steptoe and Son, which we managed somehow to do despite it being shown past our official bedtimes – after the Nine O’Clock News if I remember correctly.  We loved the yelling matches between Albert and Harold and the occasional slapstick: Harold pouring a bottle of surgical spirit over Albert’s bare arse in the 1974 episode Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs, or Albert trying to take a bath in the kitchen sink in the 1972 movie spin-off, only to have the curtains collapse and his emaciated nakedness revealed to a neighbour-lady outside.  We loved the ramshackle squalor of the Steptoe living room, as junk-filled as their front yard, with its anatomical skeleton, stuffed bear, gramophone, non-working grandfather clock and dusty old boxes containing Albert’s long-lost false teeth.  And we loved the sight-gags about the dung that regularly tumbled out of the Steptoes’ carthorse.

 

(c) BBC

 

For years my favourite Steptoe episode was 1974’s The Seven Steptoerai, which saw Harold and Albert’s livelihood under threat from a protection racket run by loathsome local gangster Frankie Barrow (deliciously played by character actor Henry Woolf).  Improbably, Albert assembles a ‘team’ consisting of his pension-age cronies who take on Barrow’s goons in the Steptoe yard and defeat them in vicious hand-to-hand combat.  The old fellows have somehow become adept at kung-fu fighting through watching lots of Bruce Lee movies at the local fleapit.  In the supporting cast for this episode is the legendary stuntman Vic Armstrong, whom I assume played one of the gangsters.  I love the idea that Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the Indiana Jones movies once had the crap beaten out of him by Old Man Steptoe and his mates.

 

It’s a shock, then, to watch the show on Youtube forty years later and realise how bleak it is.  There’s a tragedy to it that sailed over my head when I was nine years old.  It’s still hilarious at times, but there are also moments when it definitely feels not funny because the depiction of Albert and Harold, and the relationship between them, is so painful.  (The Seven Steptoerai is actually a rare thing in the Steptoe world, a crowd-pleaser.)

 

Tellingly, my better half – who’s American – finds Steptoe and Son difficult to watch.  She admires the writing and acting, but to her the show just seems too depressing to be enjoyable.  It probably didn’t help that the episode with which I tried to introduce her to Steptoe and Son was 1972’s The Desperate Hours.  This has a pair of escaped convicts – a young one played by Leonard Rossiter and an old one played by J.G. Devlin – invade the Steptoe residence and demand food, warmth and shelter.  “First of all,” says Rossiter, “we want some grub.  We’re starving!”  “So are we,” stammers Harold.  It transpires that financially the Steptoes have been going through a bad patch, with the result that their electricity keeps getting cut off, the house is freezing and the only sustenance in the kitchen is some cold lumpy porridge, a rock-hard piece of bread and some ancient cheese.  “You can scrape the green bits off,” says Albert helpfully.

 

Rossiter and Devlin soon realise they were better off in prison – which, predictably, is where they are again at the episode’s end, though not before the Steptoes have cadged off them some cigarettes and some money to stick in the electricity coin-meter.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Harold and Albert are equally imprisoned, in poverty.

 

(c) BBC

 

The Desperate Hours also highlights a different type of imprisonment – a spiritual type – that’s a strong theme throughout Steptoe and Son.  Harold befriends Rossiter’s convict after hearing how his career in crime was hobbled by his partnership with the elderly Devlin.  It was Devlin whose geriatric incompetence got the pair of them caught in the first place.  And it’s likely that his slowness and frailty will get them caught again following their escape.  The convicts’ relationship, Harold realises, parallels his own relationship with his dad; because Harold has spent years trying to better himself and escape from the lowly life of a rag-and-bone man, only to have every attempt thwarted by the exasperating but crafty and manipulative Albert.

 

It’s more complicated than that, though.  Harold’s aspirations for better things aren’t always noble.  Sometimes they’re fueled by pure snobbery.  In another 1972 episode, Porn Yesterday, Harold finds an antique What the Butler Saw machine during his rounds and is horrified to learn that one of the naked performers cavorting on the naughty film-reel inside is his own father – during hard times in the 1920s, Albert was forced to eke a living acting in vintage porn movies.  One of Harold’s first thoughts is that if this revelation gets out in the local community, it’ll scupper his chances of joining the golf club.

 

And Harold can be callous.  In an earlier episode, 1964’s Home Fit for Heroes, he joins a yacht-crew who intend to voyage around the world for two years and he has no qualms about abandoning Albert to a miserable existence in an old folks’ home.  The plan falls through eventually, but not because Harold suffers a crisis-of-conscience about his father.  It’s because the bright young things crewing the yacht change their mind about having Harold on board.  They decide – irony! – he’s too old to travel with them.

 

Meanwhile, the reason for Albert’s deviousness towards Harold isn’t that he’s a bastard who wants to keep his son in a life of penury.  It’s that he knows, deep down, that if Harold leaves him he’ll die a sad and lonely old man.  In Home Fit for Heroes there’s a scene where Harold bids Albert farewell at the old folks’ home.  Then the camera lingers on Albert, sitting silently and alone on the bed of his bare new room.  And it lingers… and lingers… and lingers.  That’s another disconcerting example of Steptoe and Son ceasing to be funny.

 

(c) BBC

 

Steptoe and Son was the brainchild of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writing partnership who’d previously penned radio and TV scripts for the celebrated Tony Hancock.  It was born out of an episode called The Offer that Galton and Simpson wrote for the anthology series Comedy Playhouse and, subsequently, it ran for eight seasons: four black-and-white ones broadcast from 1962 to 1965 and four colour ones broadcast from 1970 to 1974, with Galton and Simpson providing all the scripts.  There were also two movie versions, Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1975, but they weren’t up to much (though the second one at least featured the welcome return of the delightfully scummy Frankie Barrow).  Meanwhile, American TV producer Norman Lear borrowed the premise for the African-American sitcom Sanford and Son, which ran from 1972 to 1977 and was set in the Watts district of Los Angeles.  Among the writers contributing scripts to Sanford and Son, incidentally, was the late, lamented Gary Shandling.

 

In recent years, the comic excellence of Steptoe and Son has been overshadowed by speculation about what went on behind the scenes.  It’s been claimed that the relationship between stars Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett was as antagonistic as the relationship between their characters.  Brambell was a gay man at a time in Britain when being a practising homosexual could land you in prison and, supposedly, his paranoia about this led to him drinking too much and regularly fluffing his lines – much to the anger of Corbett, a serious method-actor who’d once been touted as Britain’s answer to Marlon Brando.  That Corbett’s career as the British Brando never materialised, due to him being typecast as Harold Steptoe, allegedly embittered him further about the show and about Brambell.  In 2008, this unhappy narrative became the basis for a BBC Four play called The Curse of Steptoe, starring Jason Isaacs as Corbett, Phil Davis as Brambell, Burn Gorman as Galton and Rory Kinnear as Simpson.

 

By 2008, both Corbett and Brambell were long dead and couldn’t give their side of the story.  But Galton and Simpson were still around – and are still around – and made no bones about how they thought The Curse of Steptoe’s version of events was rubbish.  The two actors, they argued, had “worked beautifully together.”  My own suspicion is that the stuff about Corbett and Brambell being at each other’s throats was indeed a myth.  Partly it was fuelled by people’s tendency to confuse what they see onscreen with what they assume is the case off it.  And partly it was because Galton and Simpson’s careers were already associated with one tragedy – after breaking with them in 1961, Tony Hancock lost his comedic magic touch, saw his career decline, succumbed to alcoholism and died of an overdose in 1968 – which I suppose made it tempting to cook up another tragedy to associate with them.  Hence, The Curse of Steptoe.

 

Steptoe and Son is for my money the best situation comedy that British telly ever produced.  As I said, Galton and Simpson are still with us – both now a venerable 86 – and in May this year they were awarded a Fellowship by the British Academy of Film and Television Awards, which was long overdue.  Harold and Albert, meanwhile, bowed out with a 1974 Christmas special wherein Harold, for once, manages to rid himself of Albert.  Temporarily, at least – tricking the old codger into going off on holiday so that he can spend some quality time at home with a (hitherto-unmentioned) girlfriend.  And I think that was an appropriate time to bid adios to the duo.

 

I’d really prefer not to know what happened to Albert, Harold and their rag-and-bone business during the cutthroat Thatcherite 1980s.

 

(c) BBC