Wilfrid Brambell

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Wilfrid Brambell
Brambell in 1966 (photo by Duffy)
Henry Wilfrid Brambell

(1912-03-22)22 March 1912
Dublin, Ireland
Died18 January 1985(1985-01-18) (aged 72)
London, England
Years active1930–1985
Mary Hall
(m. 1948; div. 1955)

Henry Wilfrid Brambell (22 March 1912 – 18 January 1985) was an Irish television and film actor, best remembered for playing the grubby rag-and-bone man Albert Steptoe alongside Harry H. Corbett in the long-running BBC television sitcom Steptoe and Son (1962–1965, 1970–1974). He achieved international recognition in 1964 for his appearance alongside the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, playing the fictional grandfather of Paul McCartney.

Early life[edit]

Brambell was born on 22 March 1912 in Dublin, the youngest of three sons born to Henry Lytton Brambell (1870–1937), a cashier at the Guinness Brewery, and his wife, Edith Marks (1879–1965), a former opera singer. His two older brothers were Frederick Edward Brambell (1905–1980) and James Christopher Marks "Jim" Brambell (1907–1992).

Brambell's first experience as an actor was as a child, entertaining the wounded troops during the First World War. After 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 the Second World War, he joined the British military forces entertainment organisation ENSA.

Acting career[edit]

Brambell had roles in film and television from 1947, his first being an uncredited appearance in Odd Man Out as a tram passenger. 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).

He played Jacob, an immigrant from eastern Europe selling newspapers in Paris, in an episode of Maigret entitled "A Man of Quality", first broadcast on 12 December 1960.

All of these roles earned Brambell a reputation for playing old men, despite being aged in his 40s. He appeared in the short film series Scotland Yard in the episode, "The Grand Junction Case". He appeared as Bill Gaye in the 1962 Maurice Chevalier/Hayley Mills picture, In Search of the Castaways. He was heard on the original London cast recording of the long-running West End stage musical The Canterbury Tales in which he starred at London's Phoenix Theatre.

He also released two 45-rpm singles, "Second Hand"/"Rag Time Ragabone Man", that played on his Steptoe and Son character, followed in 1971 by "Time Marches On", his tribute to the Beatles.

Brambell was 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 was broadcast on the BBC Light Programme on Christmas Eve. Brambell's booming baritone voice surprised many listeners: he played the role straight, true to the Dickens original. In 1971, he starred in the premiere of Eric Chappell's play, The Banana Box, in which he played Rooksby. [2] This was adapted for television under the name Rising Damp, with the character of Rooksby renamed Rigsby and played by Leonard Rossiter. Brambell also played Bert Thomson, an Irish widower, in the film Holiday on the Buses; the character in question started a close friendship with Stan Butler's mother, Mabel.

Steptoe and Son and A Hard Day's Night[edit]

It was Brambell's 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, a man who, when the series began, was said to be in his sixties, even though Brambell was only aged 50 in 1962 (thirteen years older than Harry H. Corbett, who played his son Harold). The series began as a pilot on the BBC's Comedy Playhouse, and its success led to the commissioning of a full series. It ran from 1962 to 1974, including a five-year hiatus. 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 while 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 titled Sanford and Son, some episodes of which were almost exact remakes of the original British scripts.[citation needed]

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, he was indeed nothing like his Steptoe persona, being dapper and well-spoken. He notably spoke with a distinct received pronunciation accent, in strong contrast to both his Cockney Steptoe accent and his native Irish accent, which he would use where the role dictated. In 1965, Brambell told the BBC that he did not want to do another series of Steptoe and Son, and in September that year, he travelled to New York City to appear in the Broadway musical Kelly at the Broadhurst Theatre. It closed after a single performance.[3]

Later career[edit]

After the final series of Steptoe and Son concluded in 1974 Brambell had some guest roles in films and on television. He and Corbett also undertook a tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1977, in a stage production based on Steptoe and Son. He achieved recognition in many films.

In 1982 he appeared in Terence Davies's film Death and Transfiguration, playing a dying elderly man who finally comes to terms with his homosexuality.[4] His performance in this short film, a segment of The Terence Davies Trilogy (1983), won him critical acclaim.[5] Brambell appears throughout the full 24-minute piece, but he does not speak a single word.

Personal life[edit]

In 1982, Brambell appeared on BBC News paying tribute to Corbett, after the latter's death from a heart attack.

In 2002, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary film, When Steptoe Met Son, about the off-screen life of Brambell and his relationship with Corbett. The film claimed that the two men detested each other and were barely on speaking terms after the Australian tour. The claimed rift was supposedly caused in part by Brambell's alcoholism and supposedly evidenced by the pair leaving the country on separate planes. The claim was disputed by the writers of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who rejected any hatred or conflict.[6] Corbett's nephew released a statement in which he said 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, with it being generally accepted that the relationship between the two actors was under its greatest strain during the tour, though Brambell and Corbett soon settled their differences "fairly amicably", and in the spring of 1978 performed a short BBC radio sketch entitled Scotch on the Rocks.[7][8]

Brambell was married to Mary Josephine Hall (known as "Molly") from 1948 to 1955.[9] They divorced after she gave birth to their lodger's baby in 1955.[10]

In 1962 Brambell was arrested and accused of persistently importuning in a toilet in Shepherd's Bush, but was conditionally discharged.[11][12] Decades after his death it was claimed that Brambell was homosexual[10][13] but Brambell himself asserted "I'm not a homosexual ... The very thought disgusts me."[12]


Brambell died of cancer at his home in Westminster,[14] London, aged 72, on 18 January 1985. He was cremated on 25 January 1985 at Streatham Park Cemetery, where his ashes were scattered. Just six people attended his funeral: his brother, his partner Raymond, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, a BBC representative, and Maureen Corbett, the widow of Harry H. Corbett.[8]


The Curse of Steptoe, a BBC television 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.[15]



  1. ^ The Times Obituary, 19 January 1985
  2. ^ Bass, George; Bass, Interviews by George (25 January 2021). "How we made: Rising Damp". The Guardian.
  3. ^ "Kelly – Broadway Musical – Original". IBDb.com. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  4. ^ "Death and Transfiguration". IMDb. 8 April 1984. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  5. ^ Terence Davies interview on the Extras of the DVD release. Davies claims that Brambell's performance won festival awards and achieved high critical acclaim
  6. ^ "Scriptwriters Reject the 'Curse of Comedy', The Times, Published online 8 March 2008. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
  7. ^ "An Important Message from the Corbett Family". steptoe-and-son.com. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 7 February 2011.
  8. ^ a b Comedy Chronicles – Strained Relationships: Wilfrid Brambell & Harry H Corbett McCann, Graham. www.comedy.co.uk, 23 August 2020. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  9. ^ "Search Results for England-and-Wales-Marriages-1837-2008". Findmypast.co.uk. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  10. ^ a b Barrie, David (19 August 2002). "The dirty truth". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 October 2014.
  11. ^ "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 Shepherd's Bush Green on 6 November
  12. ^ a b Teeman, Tim. "The Curse of Steptoe". The Times. Brambell was arrested for importuning. "I'm not a homosexual ... The very thought disgusts me", he declared.
  13. ^ "Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender History Month UK". Lgbthistorymonth. Archived from the original on 16 February 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
  14. ^ "Deaths England and Wales 1984–2006". Findmypast.com. Archived from the original on 28 February 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  15. ^ Tryhorn, Chris. "Multichannel ratings – March 19: BBC4 breaks ratings record". The Observer. Retrieved 24 May 2015.

Further reading[edit]

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

External links[edit]