Wilfrid Brambell

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Wilfrid Brambell
Wilfred Brambell.jpg
In 1966 (photo by Duffy)
Born Henry Wilfrid Brambell
(1912-03-22)22 March 1912
Dublin, Ireland
Died 18 January 1985(1985-01-18) (aged 72)
Westminster, London, England, UK
Occupation Actor
Years active 1930–84
Spouse(s) Mary Josephine, m. 1948, divorced 1955

Henry Wilfrid Brambell (22 March 1912 – 18 January 1985) was an Irish-born English film and television actor best known for his role in the British television series Steptoe and Son. He also performed alongside the Beatles in their film A Hard Day's Night, playing Paul McCartney's fictional grandfather.

Early life[edit]

Brambell was born in Dublin. His father worked at a Guinness Brewery and his mother was an opera singer. His first appearance was as a child, entertaining the wounded troops during World War I. On leaving school he worked part-time as a reporter for The Irish Times and part-time as an actor at the Abbey Theatre before becoming a professional actor for the Gate Theatre. He also did repertory at Swansea, Bristol and Chesterfield.[1] In World War II he joined the British military forces entertainment organisation ENSA.

Acting career[edit]

His television career began during the 1950s, when he was cast in small roles in three Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier productions for BBC Television: as a drunk in The Quatermass Experiment (1953), as both an old man in a pub and later a prisoner in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and as a tramp in Quatermass II (1955). All of these roles earned him a reputation for playing old men, though he was only in his forties at the time. Brambell hardly ever stopped working in his 36-year career.

Brambell also appeared as Bill Gaye in the 1962 Maurice Chevalier/Hayley Mills picture, In Search of the Castaways. He was heard in the original soundtrack of The Canterbury Tales, which was one of the quickest selling West End soundtrack albums of all time. He also released two 45-rpm singles, "Second Hand"/"Rag Time Ragabone Man", which played on his Steptoe and Son character, followed in 1971 by "Time Marches On", his tribute to the Beatles, with whom he had worked in 1964 (and met many times). It featured a Beatles-esque guitar riff with Brambell reciting words about the Beatles splitting up. The B-side was "The Decimal Song" which, at the time of Britain adopting decimal currency, was politically charged. He played Paul's fictitious grandfather in the Beatle's epic 1964 film, A Hard Day's Night.

In 1965, he appeared on Broadway in the show Kelly which closed after just one performance.[2]

He featured in many prominent theatre roles. In 1966 he played Ebenezer Scrooge in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. This was adapted for radio the same year and appeared on Radio 2 on Christmas Eve. Brambell's booming baritone voice surprised many listeners: he played the role straight, true to the Dickens original, and not in the stereotype Albert Steptoe character.

In 1971, he starred in the premiere of Eric Chappell's play The Banana Box in which he played Rooksby. This part was later renamed Rigsby for the TV adaptation called Rising Damp which starred Leonard Rossiter.

Steptoe and Son[edit]

It was this ability to play old men that led to his casting in his best remembered role, as Albert Steptoe, the irascible father in Steptoe and Son (his son Harold being played by Harry H. Corbett). This began as a pilot on the BBC's Comedy Playhouse, and its success led to a full series being commissioned, running from 1962 to 1974 (including a five-year break). A constant thread throughout the series was Albert being referred to by Harold as a "dirty old man", for example when he was eating pickled onions whilst taking a bath, and retrieving dropped ones from the bathwater. There were also two feature film spin-offs, a stage show and an American incarnation entitled Sanford and Son, some episodes of which were almost exact remakes of the original British scripts.

The success of Steptoe and Son made Brambell a high profile figure on British television, and earned him the supporting role of Paul McCartney's grandfather in the Beatles' first film, A Hard Day's Night (1964). A running joke is made throughout the film of his character being "a very clean old man", in contrast to his being referred to as a "dirty old man" in Steptoe and Son. In real life however, he was nothing like his Steptoe persona, being dapper and well-spoken. In 1965 Brambell told the BBC that he did not want to do another Steptoe and Son series, and in September of that year he went to New York to appear in the Broadway musical Kelly at the Broadhurst Theatre; however, it closed after just one performance.

In 1971 he was due to play the role of Jeff Simmons, bass guitarist with the Mothers of Invention, in Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels (a bizarre piece of casting, since the real Simmons was young, long-haired and American) but left the production after an argument with Zappa.[citation needed]

Apart from his role as the older Steptoe, Brambell achieved recognition in many films. His performance in The Terence Davies Trilogy won him critical acclaim, far greater than any achieved for Steptoe and Son,[3] yet although appearing throughout the full 24-minute piece, Brambell did not speak a single word.

Personal and later life[edit]

After the final series of Steptoe and Son was made in 1974, Brambell had some guest roles in films and on television, but both he and Corbett found themselves heavily typecast as their famous characters. In an attempt to take advantage of this situation, they undertook a tour of Australia in 1977 with a Steptoe and Son stage show. On one occasion, Brambell used bad language and was openly derogatory about New Zealand cathedrals in an interview. Despite this, he did appear on the BBC's television news paying tribute to Corbett after the latter's death from a heart attack in 1982. The following year Brambell appeared in Terence Davies's film Death and Transfiguration, playing a dying elderly man who finally comes to terms with his homosexuality.

In 2002, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary film, entitled When Steptoe Met Son, about the off-screen life of Brambell and his relationship with Harry H. Corbett. The film claimed that the two men detested each other and were barely on speaking terms after the Australia tour; the rift was caused in part by Brambell's alcoholism, and led to the two men leaving the country on separate aircraft. This claim is disputed by the writers of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who were unaware of any hatred or conflict.[4] Harry H. Corbett's nephew from his second marriage also released a statement which claimed that the actors did not hate each other. "We can categorically say they did not fall out. They were together for nearly a year in Australia, went on several sightseeing trips together, and left the tour at the end on different planes because Harry was going on holiday with his family, not because he refused to get on the same plane. They continued to work together after the Australian tour on radio and adverts."[5] However, David Barrie claimed that "they travelled for five months in separate cars and never once shared a dressing room".[6]

Brambell was homosexual[7][8] at a time when it was almost impossible for public figures to be openly gay, not least because male homosexual acts were illegal in the UK until 1967. In 1962 he was arrested in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush for persistently importuning and given a conditional discharge.[9][10] Earlier in his life he had been married, from 1948 to 1955, to Mary "Molly" Josephine, but the relationship ended after she gave birth to the child of their lodger in 1953.[8]

Brambell died of cancer in Westminster,[11] London, aged 72. He was cremated on 25 January 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes were scattered.

In 2012, following the Jimmy Savile sexual abuse scandal, it was alleged that Brambell had abused two boys aged 12 and 13 backstage at the Jersey Opera House in the 1970s. One of the children was from the Haut de la Garenne children's home.[12]


The Curse of Steptoe, a BBC TV play about Brambell and his co-star Harry H. Corbett, was broadcast on 19 March 2008 on digital BBC channel BBC Four, featuring Phil Davis as Brambell. The first broadcast gained the channel its highest audience figures to date, based on overnight returns.[13]



  1. ^ The Times Obituary, 19 January 1965
  2. ^ The Times Obituary, 19 January 1985
  3. ^ Terence Davies interview on the Extras of the DVD release. Davies claims Brambell's performance won festival awards and achieved high critical acclaim
  4. ^ "Scriptwriters reject the 'Curse of Comedy', The Times, Published online 8 March 2008. Retrieved on 7 February 2011
  5. ^ "An important message from the Corbett family". steptoe-and-son.com. Retrieved 7 February 2011. [dead link]
  6. ^ [David Barrie, "The dirty truth", The Guardian, 19 August 2002]. Accessed 20 October 2014
  7. ^ "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month UK". Lgbthistorymonth. Retrieved 29 November 2009. 
  8. ^ a b Barrie, David. "The dirty truth". The Observer. 
  9. ^ "News in Brief: Conditional discharge for television actor". The Times (UK). p. 17. Wilfred Brambell ... was conditionally discharged for a year and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs at West London Magistrates' Court yesterday for persistently importuning for an immoral purpose at Shepherds Bush Green on 6 November 
  10. ^ Teeman, Tim. "The Curse of Steptoe". The Times. Brambell was arrested for importuning. "I'm not a homosexual,” he declared. "The very thought disgusts me." 
  11. ^ Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006
  12. ^ Rayner, Gordon; Fairweather, Eileen. "Jimmy Savile: Steptoe and Son actor Wilfrid Brambell 'abused boys in Jersey' claims whistleblower". The Telegraph. One of the alleged victims was a resident at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children's home which was at the centre of a high-profile police investigation into historical child abuse on the island in 2008. He claimed to have been taken to the island's main theatre, the Opera House, as a "treat" before being taken backstage to meet Brambell, who he accuses of molesting him in a back room. 
  13. ^ Tryhorn, Chris. "Multichannel ratings – March 19: BBC4 breaks ratings record". The Observer. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brambell, (Henry) Wilfrid (1912–1985), David Parkinson, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

External links[edit]