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Wednesday 6 June 2012, 13:51
Harry H.Corbett (left) and Wilfrid Brambell playing the lead roles of Steptoe and Son.
The dysfunctional family is a constant dramatic theme, from Greek classical theatre (where usually they end up dead) to Ayckbourn's comic assemblies in the family home and garden. TV took up the family drama with an idiosyncratic twist when it launched the father/son duo of Steptoe & Son half a century ago.
It began as a one off drama called 'The Offer', piloted in the launch pad for many great BBC comedies that was Comedy Playhouse. Written by Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, the duo was fresh from their triumph of Hancock's Half Hour. Never one to repeat themselves, they were sitting in a Shepherds Bush 'caff' eavesdropping on the conversation of local rag and bone men, and decided that there was the topic for their next comedy TV show. Apparently, they never quite expected the overwhelming hit they got.
Harry H. Corbett
The show is unusual in many ways. I remember watching it as a child of the 60s, and never being quite sure if I should laugh or cry. That uncertainty is part of its deliberate comic effect, I realise now.
Unusually, Steptoe & Son cast actors not comedians in its lead roles, eschewed gags and slapstick for gritty realism, and used real earthy language - almost to the limits of the BBC watershed - rather than comic hyperbole. 'You dirty old man' became the recognised catchphrase of the series, but it felt like real dirt not TV make up.
It's also of its time and eternal. Poor Harold's constant attempts to better himself -via literary erudition, classical music, amateur theatre - are always belittled by a sneer from father Albert who puts him right back in his 1950s working class. One episode, I remember, has father and son held hostage by a desperate prisoner on the run (Leonard Rossiter actually!). So desperate is Harold to escape his father that he begs the prisoner 'Take me with you'.
Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell on set filming Steptoe and Son.
But no, they are bound together. That's the nature of their personal hell (other people, or in this case, family ties). Plus the show was so relentlessly popular - lasting on and off till 1974, spawning two feature films and a radio version, as well as various international versions (Albert & Herbert in Swedish) - that the two actors found it difficult to get back to the world of 'serious' drama they had come from.
Ironically, Wilfrid Brambell who played the old father actually outlived his on air son Harry H Corbett by three years, even though Brambell was 13 years older. Even at the end, there was no liberation for poor Harold.
Robert Seatter, Head of BBC History
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Wednesday 6 June 2012, 12:38
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