Harry H. Corbett

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This article is about the English actor Harry H. Corbett. For the English puppeteer, see Harry Corbett.
Harry H. Corbett OBE[1]
Harry-h-corbett.jpg
Publicity photo of Corbett in the 1970s.
Born Harry Corbett
(1925-02-28)28 February 1925
Rangoon, British Burma
Died 21 March 1982(1982-03-21) (aged 57)
Hastings, East Sussex, England, UK
Nationality British
Ethnicity White British
Occupation Actor
Years active 1945–82
Notable work(s) See below
Television Steptoe and Son
Spouse(s) Sheila Steafel (m. 195864) (divorced)
Maureen Blott (?–1982)
(his death)
Children Susannah Corbett
Jonathan Corbett

Harry H. Corbett, OBE[1] (28 February 1925 – 21 March 1982) was an English actor.

Corbett was best known for his starring role in the popular and long-running BBC Television sitcom Steptoe and Son in the 1960s and 1970s. Corbett was regarded as one of Britain's first Method actors and early in his career he was dubbed "the English Marlon Brando" by some sections of the British press.

Early life[edit]

Corbett was born in Rangoon, Burma, where his father, George, was serving as a company quartermaster sergeant in the South Staffordshire Regiment of the British Army, stationed at a cantonment as part of the Colonial defence forces. Corbett was sent to Britain after his mother Mary died of dysentery when he was 18 months old. He was then brought up by his aunt, Annie Williams, in Earl Street, Ardwick, Manchester and later on a new council estate in Wythenshawe. He attended Ross Place and Benchill Primary Schools; although he passed the scholarship exam for entry to Chorlton Grammar School, he was not able to take up his place there and instead attended Sharston Secondary School.[2]

Corbett enlisted in the Royal Marines during the Second World War, and served in the Home Fleet on the heavy cruiser HMS Devonshire. After VJ-Day in 1945 he was posted to the Far East, where he was involved in quelling unrest in New Guinea and reportedly killed two Japanese soldiers there whilst engaged in hand to hand fighting. He was then posted to Tonga, but deserted and remained in Australia before handing himself in to the Military Police. His military service left him with a damaged bladder following an infection and a red mark on his eye caused by a thorn which was not treated until late in his life.[2]

On returning to civilian life, Corbett trained as a radiographer before taking up acting as a career, initially in repertory. In the early 1950s, he added the initial "H" to avoid confusion with the television entertainer Harry Corbett, known for his act with the glove-puppet Sooty. He joked that "H" stood for "hennyfink" – a Cockney pronunciation of "anything". In 1956 he appeared on stage in The Family Reunion at the Phoenix Theatre in London.

From 1958 he began to appear regularly in films, coming to public attention as a serious, intense performer in contrast to his later reputation in sitcom. He appeared in television dramas such as The Adventures of Robin Hood (as four different characters in different episodes between 1957 and 1960) and Police Surgeon (1960). He also worked and studied Stanislavski's system at Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, London.

Steptoe and Son[edit]

Scriptwriters Galton and Simpson, who had been successful with Hancock's Half Hour, changed Corbett's life. In 1962, at their request Corbett appeared in "The Offer", an episode of the BBC's anthology series of one-off comedy plays, Comedy Playhouse, written by Galton and Simpson. He played Harold Steptoe, a rag-and-bone man living with his irascible widower father Albert (Wilfrid Brambell), in a junkyard with only their horse for company. Corbett was at the time working at the Bristol Old Vic where he appeared as Macbeth.

The programme was a success and a full series followed, continuing, with breaks, until 1974, when the Christmas special became the final episode. Although the popularity of Steptoe and Son made Corbett a star, it ended his serious acting as he became irreversibly associated with Steptoe in the public eye. Before the series began Corbett had played Shakespeare's Richard II to great acclaim; however, when he played Hamlet in 1970 he felt both critics and audiences alike were not taking him seriously, because they could only see him as Harold Steptoe. Corbett found himself only receiving offers for bawdy comedies or loose parodies of his alter-ego Harold.[3] Production of the sitcom was in the last few years stressful as Brambell was an alcoholic often ill-prepared for rehearsals, forgetting his lines or movements.[4] A tour of a Steptoe and Son stage show in Australia in 1977 proved a disaster due to Brambell's drinking.[4] During the tour the pair appeared in character in an advert for Ajax Soap powder.

The TV episodes were remade for Radio, often with the original cast − it is these that were made available on tape and CD. After the Steptoe and Son series officially finished, Corbett played the character again on radio (in a newly written sketch in 1978) as well as in a television commercial for Kenco coffee. The two men re-united in January 1981 for one final performance as Steptoe and Son in a further commercial for Kenco.[5]

The Curse of Steptoe, a BBC TV play about Corbett and Brambell, was broadcast on 19 March 2008 on the British digital channel BBC Four, featuring Jason Isaacs as Corbett. The first broadcast gained the channel its highest audience figures to that date, based on overnight returns.[6]

Other work[edit]

Steptoe and Son led Corbett to comedy films: as James Ryder in Ladies Who Do (1963); with Ronnie Barker in The Bargee (1964), written by Galton and Simpson; Carry On Screaming! (1966); the "Lust" segment of The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins (1971), and Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky (1977). There were two Steptoe and Son films: Steptoe and Son (1972) and Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973). He also had the leading role in two other television series, Mr. Aitch (written especially for him, 1967) and Grundy (1980).

He had a supporting role in the David Essex film Silver Dream Racer in 1980 and also appeared in the controversial film Hardcore in 1977.

Corbett also released a number of 45 rpm records, most of which were novelty songs based upon the rag-and-bone character, including "Harry You Love Her" and "Junk Shop". He recorded a number of sea shanties and folk songs. In 1973 he also recorded an album titled Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles which was a "showcase of accents", with songs from Corbett in a range of accents including Liverpudlian, Brummie and Mancunian. Including the album, he released over 30 songs.

Labour Party connections and honour[edit]

Corbett was a Labour Party campaigner,[7] appeared in a party political broadcast,[8] and was a guest of Prime Minister Harold Wilson.[4] Harold Steptoe had been Labour Party secretary for Shepherd's Bush West in the sixth series episode, "Tea for Two". In 1969 Corbett appeared as Harold Steptoe in a Labour Party Political Broadcast, where Bob Mellish had to defend Harold Steptoe's accusation that all parties are the same. This was not in any way affiliated with Galton and Simpson who wrote Steptoe.

As Prime Minister, Wilson wished to have Corbett appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), but the middle initial "H" was lost in the process and the award went to the Sooty puppeteer, Harry Corbett, instead.[9][10] Both were eventually included in the same New Year's Honours list on 1 January 1976.[11]

Later life[edit]

A heavy smoker all his adult life,[12] Corbett had his first heart attack in 1979. He appeared in pantomime at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, within two days of leaving hospital. He was then badly hurt in a car accident. He appeared shortly afterwards in the BBC detective series Shoestring, his facial injuries obvious. Other work included a Thames Television/ITV comedy series Grundy and the film Silver Dream Racer with David Essex, both in 1980. In Grundy Corbett plays an old man discovering the permissive society after a lifetime of clean living.[13] The series was a flop and was soon cancelled. Corbett's final role was an episode of the Anglia Television/ITV series Tales of the Unexpected, "The Moles". It featured a man who planned to tunnel into a bank, only to find the bank was closed due to industrial action and there was no money in the vaults. Filmed shortly before his death, it was transmitted two months afterwards, in May 1982.

Personal life[edit]

Corbett married twice, first to the actress Sheila Steafel, and then to Maureen Blott, who bore him two children, one of whom, Susannah Corbett, is an actress best known for the role of Ellie Pascoe in the BBC's television adaptations of Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe detective novels. She has also written a biography of her father, Harry H. Corbett: The Front Legs of the Cow which was published in March 2012.

Death[edit]

Harry H. Corbett died of a heart attack in March 1982 in Hastings, East Sussex. He was 57. He is buried in the churchyard at Penhurst, East Sussex. He is commemorated in the name of the Corbett Theatre at the East 15 Acting School at Loughton, which was founded by Margaret Bury and Jean Newlove, two members of Theatre Workshop, where Corbett worked.

Filmography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Dave Cosgrove (presenter); Maureen Corbett (interviewee); Alan Simpson; Ray Galton; Steve O'Brien (writer, director). The Maureen Corbett (Wife of Harry) Interview (RealPlayer). Steptoe-and-Son.com – The new OFFICIAL 2009 Steptoe & Son Appreciation Society. Event occurs at 21:00. Retrieved 14 May 2009. "the OBE which he was very pleased to receive" 
  2. ^ a b Corbett, S. (2012). Harry H. Corbett - The Front Legs of the Cow. The History Press, Stroud, Glos. ISBN 978-0-7524-7682-7
  3. ^ http://www.thisisannouncements.co.uk/5848606
  4. ^ a b c Barrie, David (19 August 2002). "The dirty truth: The tortured world of Steptoe and Son". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 March 2008. 
  5. ^ UK television adverts 1955–1985
  6. ^ Chris Tryhorn "BBC4 breaks ratings record", The Guardian, 19 March 2008
  7. ^ Misc | Homepage – This Is Local London
  8. ^ BFI | Film & TV Database | HARRY H. CORBETT, SHIRLEY WILLIAMS AND BOB MELLISH (1969)
  9. ^ Brandreth, Gyles (20 February 2009). "The Honours Game". The Telegraph. Retrieved 18 April 2009. 
  10. ^ Sin to Win: Seven Deadly Steps to Success, Marc Lewis ISBN 1-84112-311-0
  11. ^ Supplement to the London Gazette, 1 January 1976
  12. ^ "Steptoe and daughter: interview with Susannah Corbett | Sussex Life". Sussex.greatbritishlife.co.uk. 2012-08-07. Retrieved 2013-02-17. 
  13. ^ The Times, 14 July 1980

External links[edit]