The thin line between comedy and tragedy; that’s what classic sitcom Steptoe and Son always represented to me.
As far as British situation comedy is concerned, you won’t get much bigger or better than this tale of rag and bone men. It ran for eight series between 1962 and 1974, had massive viewing figures and made stars of Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell. The
often fraught, toxic relationship between Harold Steptoe and his father Albert never fails to raise a laugh. "You dir—–ty old man!" the son will often cry in utter revulsion at his father antics, including bathing in the living room. Y’see pater is uncouth, unkept and unrefined while poor Harold, with his delusions of grandeur, had ambitions and dreams beyond the claustrophobic confines of his wily old dad and the messy scrapyard. The show starts in the 1960s but there’s no Swinging for Harold because the old man thwarts him at every turn. Deep down we know that he’ll never leave his father and get out of the junkyard. The real tragedy is that Harold knows it too thus the despair and desperation jumps out of every single frame.
In a twist of fate that should redefine the concept of life imitating art, BBC Four’s excellent dramatisation The Curse Of Steptoe scratched beneath the surface to bring us the pain of the pair that brought us the laughter. Starring Jason Isaacs as Harry H Corbett and Phil Davis as Wilfrid Brambell, both turn in absolutely superb performances as the chalk and cheese actors.
The story begins as Harry H Corbett, winning rave reviews for his serious stage work, is dubbed Britain’s Marlon Brando. Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson are, therefore, astonished when he agrees to appear in their one-off comedy about a father and son who are rag and bone men. However, Corbett viewed it as a postmodern drama: "It’s not a sitcom, it’s more like Beckett," he says. When it’s a huge success, they pen a series. And then another. And another. And another…Before long, the two actors are both typecast – forever cemented as "’Arrrold!" and "You dir—–ty old man!" Harry H Corbett’s dazzling stage career is ruined, while closet homosexual and heavy drinker Wilfrid Brambell found his secret private life hitting the headlines in the worst possible way.
The sad truth is they created a monster from which there was no escape. Watching Steptoe and Son now, and hearing Harold moan about being trapped, is like a punch in the face. It truly adds to the poignancy, as if there wasn’t enough already. "Actors – they’re all poofs!" old man Steptoe sneers as his son prepares for a new career, his latest attempt to escape. The irony is painful given Brambell’s sexuality, but the writers aren’t finished: they pen Harold practicing Marlon Brando’s "I coulda been a contender" speech from On The Waterfront. It’s enough to make you weep.
Today I am mostly lovin’ – House is back! My TV life has meaning again. And Hugh Laurie? Phwoar!
Today I am mostly hatin’ – Broadcasters plan more TV commercial breaks. Yes, you read that right…
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