Steptoe and Son

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Steptoe and Son
PicSteptoeAndSon.jpg
Corbett (left) and Brambell (right) as Harold and Albert.
Format Sitcom
Created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
Starring Harry H. Corbett
Wilfrid Brambell
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 8
No. of episodes 57 (List of episodes)
Production
Running time 30–45 minutes
Broadcast
Original channel BBC 1
Original airing 4 January 1962 –
26 December 1974
Chronology
Related shows Steptoe and Son (1972)
Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973)
When Steptoe Met Son (2002)
The Curse of Steptoe (2008)

Steptoe and Son is a British sitcom written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson about a father-and-son rag-and-bone business. They live on Oil Drum Lane, a fictional street in Shepherd's Bush, London. Four series were broadcast by the BBC from 1962 to 1965, followed by a second run from 1970 to 1974. Its theme tune, "Old Ned", was composed by Ron Grainer.[1] The series was voted 15th in a 2004 BBC poll to find Britain's Best Sitcom.[2] It was remade in the US as Sanford and Son, in Sweden as Albert & Herbert and in the Netherlands as Stiefbeen en zoon. In 1972 a movie adaptation of the series, Steptoe and Son, was released in cinemas, with a second Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1973.

The series focussed on the inter-generational conflict of father and son. Albert Steptoe, a "dirty old man", is an old rag-and-bone man, set in his grimy and grasping ways. By contrast his 37-year-old son Harold is filled with social aspirations, not to say pretensions. The show contained elements of drama and tragedy, as Harold was continually prevented from achieving his ambitions. To this end the show was unusual at the time for casting actors rather than comedians in its lead roles, although both actors were drawn into more comedic roles as a consequence.

Background[edit]

The show had its roots in a 1962 episode of Galton & Simpson's Comedy Playhouse.[3] Galton and Simpson's association with comedian Tony Hancock, for whom they had written Hancock's Half Hour, had ended and they had agreed to a proposal from the BBC to write a series of ten comedy shows. The fourth in the series, "The Offer", was born both out of writer's block and budgetary constraints.[4] Earlier shows in the series had cost more than expected, so the writers decided to write a two-hander set in one room. The idea of two brothers was considered but father and son worked best. Ronald Fraser was second choice for Harold, which would have produced a totally different character.

Galton and Simpson were not aiming to make a pilot for a series, having worked for seven years with Hancock. However, Tom Sloan, the BBC's Head of Comedy, told them during rehearsals that "The Offer" was a definite series pilot: he saw that the Steptoe idea had potential, as did the audience of that edition of Comedy Playhouse. Galton and Simpson were reportedly overwhelmed by this reaction, and the first of what became eight series was commissioned, the first four of which were transmitted between 1962 and 1965. The last four series were broadcast between 1970 and 1974, now in colour. At the peak of the series' popularity, it commanded viewing figures of some 28 million per episode. In addition, the early 1970s saw two feature films, two 46-minute Christmas specials. In 2005, the play Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, written by Ray Galton and John Antrobus, brought the storyline to a close.

The series was one of the first UK situation comedy programmes to employ actors rather than comedians in the principal roles. Galton and Simpson had decided that they wanted to try to write for performers who "didn't count their laughs".

The series' title music, "Old Ned", won its composer Ron Grainer his second successive Ivor Novello award.[1] The series had no standard set of opening titles but the opening sequences would often feature the Steptoes' horse, Hercules. "Steptoe and Son" is the Steptoes' trading name, but as established in the first episode, the "Son" is not Harold but Albert. The name dates from when he and his mother—Mrs. Steptoe—worked the rounds. The first series has the pair as very rough looking and often dirty and in ragged clothes but they quickly "tidied up" for later series.

Characters[edit]

The father, Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), was born on 26 September 1899 though he always claimed to have been born in 1901. His father was unknown but is believed to have been a local muffin man who died in 1910; the portrait Albert keeps of his father is in fact of William Gladstone. However, information delivered in some episodes suggests Albert's father was also a rag and bone man. For example it is revealed that the "and son" in the business name referred to Albert, when his father had "Steptoe and Son" painted on the yard gate. Albert appears to have joined the army underage at the start of the First World War, and is seen wearing the Mons Star medals to prove it. On one occasion he tells a reporter that he joined the Grenadier Guards, somewhat unlikely given his small stature. Among his claims, he says he was hit by a grenade in 1917 which did not explode. He threw it back to the German trenches with devastating effect, especially on the canteen, sending sausages and sauerkraut flying into the air. He apparently served with the British Expeditionary Force to Archangel, White Russia, in 1919. Steptoe Senior is lazy, stubborn, narrow-minded and foul-mouthed, and has revolting personal habits. Albert is content with his place in the world, utterly unpretentious and downright cynical. He can be extremely vindictive and does everything he can to prevent Harold, his son, from improving himself — especially if it means him leaving home. He is normally unshaven and wears a very old pair of false teeth, discoloured and with teeth missing. His wife died in 1936. He mentions in one episode that he was one of fourteen children.

Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (played by Harry H. Corbett), born 1925 (Corbett's birth date) in the 1960s series (or born 1932 in the 1970s series). However, in the episode Loathe Story he says he was aged ten just before the outbreak of the Second World War, which would indicate a birth year in 1928 or 1929, and in the episode A Star is Born he claims to be the same age as Sean Connery, born August 1930. Harold was educated at Scrubs Lane Elementary School. He too is obstinate, though prone to moments of enthusiasm about an idea. Harold has aspirations. He wants to move up in the world — most of all to escape from the family home and his stifling relationship with his father. This is the subject of the first episode, "The Offer".[5] He likes to see his business as antiques rather than junk. He bitterly regrets leaving the army; his army service took him to Malaya and he achieved the rank of Corporal. He nearly always wears a workman's belt adorned with army cap badges. In the 1960s series he was a veteran of the Korean War, and this was mentioned at least once during the 1970s series. He is a dreamer and idealist. Politically, Harold is a Labour supporter who is appalled that his father is a Conservative Party supporter. He aims to improve his mind and his social circle but always fails, often thanks to Albert's deliberate put-downs or sabotage. Harold's exasperation and disgust at his father's behaviour often results in his repeating the catchphrase "You dirty old man".[6]

Actor / actress Character Duration
Wilfrid Brambell Albert Steptoe 1962–1974
Harry H. Corbett Harold Steptoe 1962–1974
Frank Thornton Various 1962–1973
Carolyn Seymour Zita Steptoe 1972

Situation[edit]

The episodes often revolve around (sometimes violent) disagreements between the two men, Harold's attempts to bed women and momentary interest over things found on his round. As in many of the best examples of British comedy, much of the humour derives from the pathos of the protagonists' situation, especially Harold's continually thwarted (usually by the elder Steptoe) attempts to "better himself" and the unresolvable love/hate relationship that exists between the pair.

Albert almost always comes out on top, and routinely and effortlessly proves himself easily superior to his son whenever they compete, e.g. in their frequent game-playing, such as the Scrabble and badminton games in the 1972 series. Harold takes them desperately seriously and sees them as symbols of his desire to improve himself, but his efforts come to nothing every time. His father's success is partly down to superior talent but is aided by cynical gamesmanship and undermining of his son's confidence. In addition, Albert habitually has better judgement than his son, who blunders into all sorts of con tricks and blind alleys as a result of his unrealistic, straw-clutching ideas. Occasionally the tables are turned, but overall the old man is the winner, albeit in a graceless fashion.

Harold is infuriated by these persistent frustrations and defeats, even going to the extent in "Divided We Stand" (1972) of partitioning the house in two so that he does not have to share with his selfish, uncultured and negative father. Predictably, his plan ends in failure and ultimately he can see no way out. However, for all the bitterness there is an essential bond between the pair. Deep down, Albert seems to love his son and his behaviour is perhaps a selfish but misguided way of holding on to him so he does not have to face life alone. When the crunch comes, Harold sticks by his father. This protective bond is much in evidence in "The Seven Steptoerai" (1974) when they are menaced by a local gangster running a protection racket. Typically though, it is Albert who gets them ingeniously out of a very hazardous predicament.

Actors[edit]

A 2002 Channel 4 television documentary, When Steptoe Met Son, told the story of how Brambell and Corbett were like chalk and cheese—similar to their on-screen characters. Corbett felt he had a promising career as a serious actor, but was trapped by his role as Harold and forced to keep returning to the series after typecasting limited his choice of work. Brambell was in reality homosexual when sodomy was illegal in the UK. The documentary went on to describe an ill-fated final tour of Australia, and claimed that the actors' relationship broke down for good, a fact disputed by Corbett's family[7] and writers Galton and Simpson.[8][9]

Both of the main actors used voices considerably different from their own. Wilfrid Brambell—despite being Irish—spoke with a prestige Received Pronunciation English accent. Brambell was aged 49 when he accepted the role of Albert, only 13 years older than Corbett. For his portrayal, he acquired a second set of "rotten" dentures to accentuate his character's poor attitude to hygiene.

Humour[edit]

During its production in the 1960s and 1970s, Steptoe and Son marked itself out as radical compared to most UK sitcoms. This was an age when the predominant sources of laughter in British comedy were farce, coincidence, slapstick and innuendo. However Steptoe and Son brought greater social realism. Its characters were not only working class but demonstrably poor. The earthy language and slang used were in marked contrast to the refined voices heard on most television of the time: e.g., in "Back in Fashion", Harold warns Albert that when the models arrive, "if you feels like a d'Oyly Carte (rhyming slang for 'fart'), you goes outside." Social issues and debates were routinely portrayed, woven into the humour. The programme did not abandon the more traditional sources of comedy but used them in small doses. The characters, and their intense and difficult relationship, displayed deeper qualities of writing and performance than comedy fans were used to.

Episodes[edit]

Steptoe and Son is rare among 1960s BBC television programmes in that every episode has survived, despite the mass wiping of BBC archive holdings between 1972 and 1978. However, all the installments from the first 1970 series and all but two from the second that were originally made in colour only survive in the form of black and white domestic videotape recordings. Myth has it that the episodes were recorded off-air by Galton and Simpson themselves, but in fact they were copies made from the master tapes for them by an engineer at the BBC using a Shibaden SV-700 half-inch reel-to-reel b/w video recorder—a forerunner of the video cassette recorder. In 2008 the first reel of a b/w telerecording of the series 5 episode "A Winter's Tale" (lasting approx 15 minutes) was returned to the BBC; this is the only telerecording of a colour Steptoe and Son episode known to still exist.

The original 2" Quad videotapes of all the episodes of the original 1962–1965 series were wiped in the late 1960s. However, these episodes mostly survive on film transfers of the original videotapes as 16 mm black and white telerecordings. The exception being 'My Old Man's a Tory' which only exists as an optical transfer made from a domestic 405 line reel to reel videotape obtained from Galton and Simpson.

The BBC has released ten DVDs of the series—each of the eight series, and two compilations entitled "The Very Best of Steptoe and Son" volumes 1 and 2. Two Christmas specials are also available on DVD, as are two feature films: Steptoe and Son, and Steptoe and Son Ride Again. A boxed set of Series 1–8 and the two Christmas specials was released on Region 2 DVD by 2entertain on 29 October 2007.

Also 52 episodes were remade for BBC radio, initially on The Light Programme in 1966/67 and later Radio 2 from 1971-1976.

Sketch appearances[edit]

  • In 1962, Brambell and Corbett appeared as Steptoe and Son in a short sketch written by Galton and Simpson on the BBC's annual Christmas Night with the Stars programme, broadcast on 25 December 1962. There are no known copies.
  • In 1963, they appeared on the ITV Royal Variety Performance in a sketch written by Galton and Simpson featuring Steptoe and Son totting outside Buckingham Palace, the telerecording of the live show, broadcast on 10 November 1963, still exists. The audio of the sketch was also released on a 7 inch single.
  • In 1966, they appeared on the BBC series The Ken Dodd Show in another live on stage sketch written by Galton and Simpson featuring Steptoe and Son on Blackpool beach, with Ken Dodd in the last two minutes as a strange golf professional, a telerecording of the show, broadcast on 24 July 1966, still exists.
  • In 1967, they appeared in character in a short filmed sequence for the BBC's annual Christmas Night with the Stars programme. The black and white film sequence featuring Steptoe and Son, broadcast on 25 December 1967, still exists.
  • In 1978, they recorded a Radio 2 sketch, referred to by fans as "Scotch on the Rocks", produced especially for a show titled Good Luck Scotland. This was again written by Galton and Simpson and had a basic premise of Albert wishing to go to Argentina to watch the Scottish football team play in the 1978 World Cup as the "Good Luck Scotland" title of the programme referred to Scotland's chances of winning the World Cup that year.

Adverts[edit]

In 1977 the two actors appeared in character for two television ads for Ajax cleaning products, recorded during their tour of Australia. In 1981 their last ever appearance together was in a UK ad for Kenco Coffee. This led to what proved to be unfounded rumours of a new series for 1981.[citation needed]

Audio[edit]

A number of LPs and EPs featuring TV soundtracks have been released.

Books[edit]

In 2002 BBC Books published Steptoe and Son by Galton, Simpson and Ross[10] which comprehensively covered the television series, the radio series, movies, Royal Variety Shows, commercials and the Sanford & Son spin-off.

Other countries[edit]

Spin-offs[edit]

Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane[edit]

Poster advertising the play

In October 2005, Ray Galton and John Antrobus premiered their play, Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, at the Theatre Royal, York. It then went on tour across the country. It was set in the present day and related the events leading to Harold killing his father and their eventual meeting thirty years later, Albert then appearing as a ghost. By the end, it is clearly established that this is very much a conclusion to the Steptoe saga.

It was not the first time this idea had been considered. When Wilfrid Brambell left the UK after the third series to pursue an eventually unsuccessful Broadway musical career, Galton and Simpson toyed with the concept of 'killing off' Albert in order to continue the show without having to await Brambell's return. The character would have been replaced with Harold's illegitimate son, Arthur (a part thought to be intended for actor David Hemmings). This idea was detested by Corbett, who thought it ridiculous, although the 2008 drama The Curse of Steptoe depicts Corbett as being delighted with the concept, since assuming the role of father would allow Harold's character some development and growth, which he felt was long overdue.[15]

Films[edit]

In 1972 a film version was released of the show proving highly popular. This first film, also called Steptoe and Son - featuring a young Mike Reid and focusing on Harold getting married but still not being able to get away from his father.
Due to popular demand another film, Steptoe and Son Ride Again), was released in 1973 which was also highly popular with fans.

When Steptoe Met Son[edit]

Main article: When Steptoe Met Son

When Steptoe Met Son was a 2002 Channel 4 documentary about the personal lives of Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett, the stars of the longrunning BBC situation comedy, Steptoe and Son. It aired on 20 August 2002.

The programme reveals how Brambell and Corbett were highly dissimilar to their on-screen characters. Corbett felt he had a promising career as a serious actor, but was trapped by his role as Harold and forced to keep returning to the series after typecasting limited his choice of work. Brambell, meanwhile, was a homosexual, something that in the 1960s was still frowned upon and, until the Sexual Offences Act 1967, illegal, and was thus driven underground. The documentary went on to describe an ill-fated final tour of Australia, during which the already strained relationship between Corbett and Brambell finally broke down for good.[16]

The Curse of Steptoe[edit]

Phil Davis and Jason Isaacs recreating the characters in The Curse of Steptoe
Main article: The Curse of Steptoe

The Curse of Steptoe is a television play which was first broadcast on 19 March 2008 on BBC Four as part of a season of dramas about television personalities. It stars Jason Isaacs as Harry H. Corbett and Phil Davis as Wilfrid Brambell. The drama is based upon the actors' on-and-off-screen relationship during the making of the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, and is based on interviews with colleagues, friends and family of the actors, and the Steptoe writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.[17]

The screenplay was written by Brian Fillis, also responsible for the similarly themed 2006 drama Fear of Fanny, which is about television personality Fanny Cradock off-screen. The 66-minute film is directed by Michael Samuels and produced by Ben Bickerton.

Both programmes were considered inaccurate by writers Galton and Simpson[8][9][18] and Corbett's family.[7][19]

Steptoe and Son[edit]

Jack Lane and Michael Simmonds as the iconic duo

In March 2011 the Engine Shed Theatre Company performed three episodes of the iconic series live on stage at The Capitol Theatre, Horsham. Jack Lane played Albert Steptoe and Michael Simmonds played Harold. The three episodes performed by the company were: Men Of Letters, Robbery With Violence and Seance In A Wet Rag And Bone Yard. Engine Shed went on to adapt and perform the two Christmas Specials later that year.[20]

Many of the original TV episodes of Steptoe and Son have now been officially adapted to the stage by the original writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, with David Pibworth and are available for production on www.classiccomedyscripts.co.uk

DVD releases[edit]

  • The first series with all six episodes was released in 2004 followed by the second series in 2005 and the third, fourth and fifth in 2006. Series 6, 7 and 8 were released in 2007 alongside the Christmas specials.
  • The two Steptoe movies were released in 2006.
  • The complete boxed set containing all eight series and two Christmas specials was released in October 2007. In October 2011 the boxset was re released with new packaging.

In Australia, Season 1 was released in 2004, Season 2 and Season 3 in 2006, Season 4 and Season 5 in 2007, Season 6 and Season 7 in 2008 and Season 8 in 2009.

DVD Title Disc # Year Ep. # DVD release Notes
Region 2 Region 4
Complete Series 1 1 1962 6 13 September 2004 10 November 2004 Includes the pilot
Complete Series 2 1 1963 7 8 August 2005 2 March 2006
Complete Series 3 1 1964 7 13 February 2006 6 July 2006
Complete Series 4 2 1965 7 15 May 2006 7 March 2007
Complete Series 5 2 1970 7 24 July 2006 1 August 2007
Complete Series 6 2 1970 8 8 January 2007 5 March 2008
Complete Series 7 2 1972 7 26 March 2007 7 August 2008
Complete Series 8 1 1974 6 14 May 2007 3 March 2009
The Christmas Specials 1 1973–1974 2 29 October 2007 6 November 2008 Includes the 1973 and 1974 specials
Complete Series 18 13 1962–1974 57 29 October 2007 1 October 2009 Includes the pilot and the 1973 and 1974 specials

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Ron Grainer: Biography", www.rongrainer.org.uk, retrieved 20 September 2010 
  2. ^ "Best comedy series", British Film Institute, retrieved 24 September 2007 
  3. ^ Christopher Stevens (30 December 2011). "Steptoe And Son 50th anniversary: How the finest sitcom of them all began | Mail Online". Dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  4. ^ "Steptoe and son". Archived from the original on 26 June 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2009. 
  5. ^ The tragedy of Harold's inability to escape the clutches of his father. Retrieved 25 September 2007
  6. ^ Famous catchphrase, "You dirty old man". Retrieved 25 September 2007
  7. ^ a b steptoe-and-son.com: An important message from the Corbett family
  8. ^ a b "Scriptwriters reject the 'Curse of Comedy', The Times, Published online 8 March 2008. Retrieved 7 February 2011
  9. ^ a b Simon Mayo Programme, BBC Radio 5 Live, 15 January 2009.
  10. ^ Galton, R., Simpson, A. and Ross, R. (2002), Steptoe and Son, London, BBC Books, ISBN 978-0-563-48833-0
  11. ^ Gibson, Owen (10 July 2006), "British comedy remakes that aim to bring a smile to the US", The Guardian, retrieved 29 October 2010 
  12. ^ IMDB: Albert & Herbert
  13. ^ NWT: Han är Fleksnes och Albert & Herberts pappa
  14. ^ "Stiefbeen en Zoon on IMDB". Retrieved 25 January 2009. 
  15. ^ Bilington, Michael (23 February 2006), "Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane", The Guardian, retrieved 29 March 2008 
  16. ^ The Guardian: feature on the Channel 4 documentary
  17. ^ BBC press release (11/11/07)
  18. ^ "The Shame of Steptoe", The Daily Express, Published online 26 July 2007. Retrieved 7 February 2011
  19. ^ "Steptoe Drama Is Slammed", The Daily Express, Published online 25 March 2008. Retrieved 7 February 2011
  20. ^ "A class act". The-resident.co.uk. 17 February 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 

External links[edit]