Matt Williams explores BBC TV's most successful comedy sitcom
The most popular situation comedy in British television history, Steptoe and Son is almost as popular today as it was in its heyday in the 60s and 70s. From its humble beginnings as a BBC television Comedy Playhouse - one of sixteen episodes written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson - Steptoe and Son went on to become one of the most successful television comedy programmes ever made.
In the 1960s Steptoe and Son commanded audiences in excess of 28 million, ran for 8 seasons (from 1962 to 1974; with two, 45 minute Christmas Specials and two spin-off films), with 57 episodes (27 recorded in black and white, 30 in colour), 51 separately recorded radio episodes (from '66 to '76) and guest performances from seasoned veterans such as Leonard Rossiter, Joanna Lumley and Patricia Routledge. It even spawned a successful US spin-off series, Sanford and Son.
For a series that nowadays exists mainly as black and white episodes (of the colour episodes, only 17 still exist in colour, the remaining 13 being good quality black and white), Steptoe and Son remains hugely popular. The repeat run on BBC1 in 1988, for example, broke all previous viewing records; and the repeat of the episode entitled 'Live Now P.A.Y.E. Later' achieved the best rating for a repeat of the show in its history, viewed by no less than 13.2 million people. As a further illustration of its popularity, on General Election day in 1964, the episode, 'The Lead Man Cometh' was moved by the BBC to a later time slot to ensure that more people went out to vote!
The premise was simple but highly effective: a 60-something father (Albert, played by Wilfrid Brambell) lives at home with his 30-something son (Harold, played by Harry H Corbett). Rag and bone men, they own a 'totting' business, buying up scrap metal and goods nobody wants and selling them at a profit. Whilst Harold goes out on the round, collecting junk, Albert stays at home, ostensibly to oversee the business details - though in reality to take it easy or visit the cinema.
Perhaps the main reason for the show's success is the tightly plotted, subtly satirical writing of Galton and Simpson. With rare exceptions, today's television comedy is populated with cardboard-thin characters giving paper-thin performances; people with no discernible past, present or future. You only have to observe the interaction between Harold and Albert to understand - or more importantly, think you understand - their relationship. Their loves, loathes, dreams and ambitions leap off the screen and head straight for our hearts.
Harold and Albert are real people. Unlike many of today's embarrassingly awful TV 'comedies', you need watch only a single episode of Steptoe and Son to sense that these characters have histories. There is about their personalities a sense of everyman, distilled and integrated into the very real performances of its talented actors. Brambell and Corbett weren't hired because they were seasoned comedians - both were straight actors with a lot of experience between them. As it turned out, there hadn't been a better pairing since Laurel and Hardy.
One of the most sobering things about Steptoe and Son is that it always brings you down to earth - with a bang! Whatever your station in life; whatever you've achieved, watching an episode of Steptoe and Son has the power to remind you of your origins - particularly if, like me, you come from a working class background. As with Laurel and Hardy, a single episode can, through the medium of side-splitting comedy, instruct you on the inescapability of life. The need to foster faith and hold onto hope, no matter how bad things get.
By keeping its viewers interested in its squabbling but likeable characters, scriptwriters Simpson and Galton were better able to introduce more serious issues. And what better way than to make your audience laugh? A viewer, doubled up with laughter at Albert's crude behaviour is already in a 'weakened' state making it easier for the writers to examine deeper issues; with subtlety and in context.
At its best, Steptoe and Son chronicles the immutable nature of everyday existence. Without knowing (or accepting) it, Harold is already set in his ways; and despite his many gallant efforts to escape his father's shadow (most poignantly in the pilot episode, 'The Offer', where he's seen vainly trying to pull an impossibly heavy cart out of the yard he's been trapped in his whole life), he almost always ends up admitting defeat.
Albert on the other hand is settled in his ways, the passage of years having resigned him to his lot. Ironically, it is the constant valiant efforts of his son as he struggles to make a life away from the business that is the cause of Albert's - and thus the audience's - amusement. Both characters are locked into their private dilemmas: Harold's doomed efforts to escape his father's influence; Albert's increasingly pathetic attempts to maintain a stranglehold on his ambitious son. From episode one, the audience is made aware it's witnessing a Catch 22 situation - a scenario examined with various degrees of solemnity and hilarity throughout all 57 episodes.
If Harold supplies the pathos, then it is without doubt Albert who is responsible for the series' laugh-out-loud moments.
With his scrawny, weather-beaten looks, Brambell had often been typecast as misers or vagrants (for example, in BBC's Quatermass II), so it wasn't surprising that he should be cast as old man Steptoe. After playing a down-and-out in a TV play called No Fixed Abode by Clive Exton, the actor was considered perfect for the role of the scheming, bad mannered 'dirty old man' (in reality, a suave and cultured individual, the antithesis of his onscreen character).
Though forever moaning about declining moral standards, Albert's own habits leave a lot to be desired. He considers personal hygiene an unnecessary chore, and is forever cursing and making coarse remarks like 'She had big bristols'!
Episodes often begin with Albert carrying out a simple but outrageously funny task, such as eating his dinner whilst taking a bath; pressing edges into pie dough with a pair of false teeth; or hobbling boots in bed! The audience is invited to observe his daily rituals; to view his scrunched-up expressions; guilty participants in his vile habits. It's this 'insider' knowledge that empowers us. Like all great comedy, we know that someone - almost certainly Harold - is bound to suffer at the old man's expense.
Take 'Loathe Story'. In this hilarious episode, the audience witnesses the disappearance of a few errant, greasy old man's hairs into the cucumber sandwiches, regally laid out (the French bread cut lengthways!) in preparation for Harold's posh girlfriend and proposed mother-in-law. We know they're there - and more importantly, why fleas are suddenly hopping around the dinner table. But guess who's ignorant of this fact? Or, in 'Robbery with Violence', where the audience are let in on a 'secret': the 'real' cause of the supposed break-in and theft of Harold's precious antique collection in (in reality, a typical blunder on the old man's part).
Countless funny incidents, numerous memorable remarks. Cigarettes composed of bus tickets and horse manure; decades old false teeth slipped back onto shrunken gums; lumpy porridge devoured with gusto. The most cutting insults, the most hurtful remarks: all delivered with a strength that bellies the feeble body from which they ensue.
Regular viewers, used to Albert's vulgar behaviour, are conditioned to respond in a certain way. He doesn't even have to speak: his contorted expressions and much loved mannerisms act like triggers to the subconscious. As soon as we see his character on screen, we're waiting for something funny to happen.
We Brits love to laugh at characters we perceive to be misguided or ignorant. Consider the abiding popularity of Alf Garnet in Till Death Do Us Part and In Sickness and in Health. Such characters mouth words we ourselves wouldn't dare speak - even though we may sometimes think them. The gut reaction to the typical Albert-like comment, 'I don't want no wog doctors' is to laugh, ostensibly because we're shocked; in reality because crudity for its own sake can be highly amusing. And maybe, just maybe, because we've had a similar thoughts of our own…
Today's sorry bunch of comedies fail for many reasons, primarily because they have to abide by the doctrine of political correctness (the phrase didn't even exist back in the 60s and 70s) - with the result that scriptwriters are afraid of offending people. Ironic really since almost all comedy is derived at the expense of others.
Deep down we know Albert is a decent, caring person - even if he is occasionally lazy and vulgar. His world-weary outlook on life (often exaggerated, as in his repeated tales of war heroism, starring himself in the main role) has endowed him with a innate ability to see people as they really are. Take 'The Three Feathers'. Harold picks up what he thinks is an antique commode off the rounds - and despite this father's warnings, is duped into selling it at a 'profit' (the whole thing is a scam). Or 'Any Old Iron', where Albert sees instantly what Harold has missed: that the antique dealer who calls around the yard is more interested in taking advantage of Harold than he is his antique knowledge!
Interestingly, Galton and Simpson, aware that nobody is invulnerable, allow Albert to be duped on several occasions. At which point it's down to Harold to point out the error of his father's ways. For example, in 'The Bonds That Bind Us', where Albert's 'gold digger' fiancé is exposed as the money-grabbing young woman she really is. Or in 'Cuckoo in the Nest' where Albert's supposed illegitimate son arrives from Australia, quickly ingratiating his way into the business - to Harold's evident disgust and fear of being replaced in his father's affections.
With his wife long dead and home alone every day, Albert will stop at nothing to prevent Harold from enjoying himself - if it doesn't involve him. Numerous episodes examine this basic human failing. In 'The Holiday', Albert feigns one of his legendary heart problems in an attempt to prevent Harold from travelling abroad. In 'The Bird' he pulls off every trick in the book to ensure Harold doesn't desert him in the evenings, even going as far as to invite him and his new girlfriend around to tea - then turning the clock back after Harold has slammed the door in her face thinking she was an hour late!
One of the series' most powerful draws is its unspoken rule that both father and son need each other equally. Deny it they might, but they're not kidding anyone, least of all themselves. Albert's attempts to keep Harold at home, amusing as they are, are the result of a genuine human need: the desire for companionship.
Albert is also a past master at making Harold feel sorry for him. As well as imagined heart problems ('The Party - Christmas Special'/Steptoe and Son - the Movie), he can, almost effortlessly, make his son feel guilty ('I'll go down to the cemetery to sit with your mother'), resulting in his abandoning him carefully laid plans in order to stay at home with his father.
In 'Upstairs Downstairs, Upstairs Downstairs' Albert is laid up in bed with a back problem. Soon Harold is soon marching up and down stairs, cooking his meals, fetching new library books, even carrying him to the outside toilet! Albert's back quickly recovers - it's just that he neglects to tell Harold…
In 'The Colour Problem', Albert decides he would rather leave home than live with a son who'd buy himself a new car before buying his poor old father a colour television. The next evening Albert is found wandering the streets, suffering from amnesia. When Harold arrives at the hospital, Albert purports not to recognise him. Guilt-ridden and anxious to make amends, Harold sells his car and purchases a new colour TV. But when they return home, the old man's ruse is revealed and - too late - Harold realises he's been duped once more.
Exaggerated these incidents may be. Nevertheless it's easy to recognise aspects of ourselves in both men. Can you honestly say you've never embellished an illness?; or made someone feel guilty for your own ends? It's the acknowledgement that human beings are far from perfect; that we all affect deviousness and cruelty when it suits our ends that makes Steptoe and Son such powerful viewing.
In the long run, most of us want a quiet, trouble-free life surrounded by people we can predict. In this regard, Albert is no different. Give him a chicken madras dinner, a few days in Bognor or a few pints down the Skinner's Arms and he's happy. Sound like anyone you know?
Physically the weaker of the two, Albert is nonetheless emotionally stronger than his son. Whilst Albert is resigned and content (if not always happy), Harold remains the dreamer, hoping to break free of his self-imposed bonds.
But as we all know, the funniest situations often arise from the most tragic circumstances.
Harold is an idealist. His father, a realist. Harold daydreams about what he can never have whilst Albert's feet are planted firmly on the ground. He believes in what he can see, or afford - which makes him cautious, shrewd and business-like. Harold, on the other hand, cannot - will not - accept his station in life.
When, for example, Harold takes his father out to the West End for his sixty-fifth birthday ('Sixty-five Today'), both men hastily realise the divide that separates them. While Harold believes that taking in a Shakespeare play and eating out at a Chinese restaurant will please his father, Albert, on the other hand, is content to spend a night down the Skinner's Arms, a pint in his fist, familiar food on his plate. Once again, it's Albert's honesty that wins through; when the two separate in disgust, Harold's plans abandoned, we realise just how little they actually have in common - and ironically, how much they need each other. When Albert accidentally drops his new leather gloves (a birthday present from Harold), one feels a sense of forgone conclusion. 'Some things never change' the gesture seems to suggest - a simple but telling moment.
Tragic also is Harold's supposed superiority over his father. Despite innumerable attempts to prove himself 'better' than his father, more often than not he ends up making a fool of himself. In 'The Diploma', Harold, confident of his ability to pass a diploma and become a television repair man, is predictably outwitted when Albert puts the wires in the right holes, making the homemade TV spring into life. He even goes as far as to offer to buy the course materials off Harold, shattering his dream of betterment and replacing it with the reality of the horse and cart.
In 'Steptoe A La Carte' Harold falls in love with a French au pair girl. After introducing her to his father - whilst doing his utmost to impress her by learning French - Harold's hopes of love and marriage are delivered a double-whammy by wily old Albert. After discovering his father speaks fluent French - thereby making a mockery of his own meagre efforts - he quickly realises that the object of his affections is in fact Albert's granddaughter (from an affair he had in the First World War), making Harold her blood relative!
In episode after episode, Harold is portrayed as someone predestined to fail. Like the characters of Rosencranz and Guildenstern in Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Harold, despite his best intentions, is shown to be fighting a losing battle.
In many ways, Harold is a Hamlet of his day, driven and dreaming yet unable to fulfil his ambitions. Meanwhile, Albert, the pragmatist, is always at hand to bring the dreamer back to earth; and though he may not appreciate it, to prevent him from emotionally or financially embarrassing himself.
Neither can or will admit it, they need each other - never better illustrated than in 'Desperate Hours' when despite their inherent differences, it takes a pair of escaped convicts to make them realise they cannot function apart. Or in 'Divided We Stand' where Harold is even prepared to partition their home in an attempt to escape his father!
In the long run, we should never forget that Steptoe and Son was a very funny, and occasionally silly, comedy. Father and son barricading themselves behind locked doors in 'The Siege of Steptoe Street'; an hilarious trip to the mobile surgery for a TB check in 'TB Or Not TB'; a farcical house viewing (Albert: 'A black bog!') in 'Without Prejudice'. These (and many like them) are the stuff of comedy legend - the reason why, decades later, viewers still crease with laughter at the pair's antics.
Steptoe and Son was by no means perfect. Script inconsistencies and repeated storylines abounded, alongside occasionally over enthusiastic performances. Yet this never distracted from one's overall enjoyment. Indeed, when Wilfrid Brambell stumbles his lines or pauses, momentarily lost for words, it makes him seem somehow more vulnerable - and hence, human.
We Brits love a loser and in Steptoe and Son you have two for the price of one. Poverty stricken and uneducated they may be. Nevertheless it's because, not despite of, these characters' social and cultural background that the programme has remained popular. Viewers identify with these people. They don't live in some unattainable mansion or laud it up with their high and mighty ways. They scrape along. They bicker and fight and complain - but they survive.
Not everybody finds amusement in an old man showering and washing his clothes at the same time (as in 'A Winter's Tale'). Moreover, Steptoe and Son was uniquely British comedy, reliant on British traditions and slang, rendering it almost incomprehensible to European and American audiences - though it was successfully translated into several foreign languages, Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, Portuguese etc. all of whom are convinced it is unique to their own country.
By instituting uncomplicated but telling satire, Galton and Simpson were able to capture all the happiness, hardship and strife of existence. The combination of strong scripts, skilful acting, identifiable characters and familiar situations lent Steptoe and Son a strong sense of déjà vu. Moreover, it reminds us of our humanity - and that the best way to overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem is, quite simply, to laugh.
With thanks to Tessa Le Bars, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson for editorial assistance with this piece. Check out the Steptoe & Son site.
Matt's Mind|Matt's Music|The Modern Guitarist
Contact me: Mail