Steptoe and Son – Tears Of The Clowns

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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10 Responses to Steptoe and Son – Tears Of The Clowns

  1. Denise says:

    I loved it. My only regret is that it was a little short and therefore I was desparately wanting more. I think we only scratched the surface of the angst of these two men. I know there\’s a saying less is more, but not in this case. The reasons for the emotional state of the two actors was clear but it would have been nice to explore a little more of their personal wranglings with their demons. I have to admit the primary reson for tuning in was to watch my favourite man, Jason Isaacs, but I soon forgot who he was as he really captured what I remembered of Harry H Corbett. Jason is truly one of this country\’s most versatile actors and probably one of our most unsung. I look forward to the day when someone casts him in a role the likes of which go to Hopkins, Hanks, Day Lewis etc. No less credit should go to his co-stars – congratulations to everyone involved. Just a thought – maybe someone should give some thought to telling us more about the fantastic tv writers this country has produced. Is there anyone out there that could do justice to the stories of Galton and Simpson, Jimmy Perry, David Croft, Alan Bennett etc …

  2. glenis says:

    my husband really enjoyed this duo, yjey were two of the best

  3. adrian says:

    Brilliant entertainment for mid week.  Jason Isaacs was the spit of Harry H Corbett toward the end of the shows run.  You learn something new every day.  Looking at Corbett, who\’d have thought he could have been involved in such a tempestuous marriage?
    Eagerly awaiting tonight\’s instalment featuring Tony Hancock and Joan LeMeasurier.

  4. Jenni says:

    I agree with what the previous people have said, they were both superb in the parts. When i read that Jason Isaacs was playing Harry i thought – well i can\’t imagine that !! I was amazed though, at just how accurate he was and how he captured his mannerisms so well as well as the voice. He is an outstanding actor. I knew that Phil Davis would be great as Wilfred Brambell as he is a great character actor and had the right sort of looks – no offence meant !! A superb programme

  5. Shelleyan says:

    In agreement wholeheartedly. This programme was truly a gem. Both actors captured the essence of the partnership between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell. I wasn\’t old enough to read about the scandal involving Brambell, but had a vague idea regarding the matter, and it was a thoroughly engrossing drama all round.
    I\’m particularly looking forward to the Frankie Howerd programme, particularly since reading a review in which Howerd\’s long term partner said that David Walliams captures his character completely.
    Well done BBC4, but it would be good to see this series get a wider airing on terrestrial TV.

  6. Unknown says:


  7. supereve says:

    This was a superb docudrama and both actors were brilliant. we need more of this type of drama on our screens. it might go a bit of the way to thinking maybe our licence fee is worth it. Since this one I have also watched Ken Stott as Hancock and Trevor Eve as Hughie Green, both of which were excellent, especially the Hancock one.  I am now looking forward to seeing this weeks Frankie Howard with David Walliams

  8. claire says:

    Well done BBC 3.  They were all great.  Jason Isaacs performance as Harry H Corbett/Harold Steptoe absolutely breathtaking to watch.  He is a classy actor.  His star will shine.

  9. Steve says:

    I agree with all of the well deserved praise below. This was truly an award winning show.

  10. Kelvin says:

    I watched all the shows faithfully…and think these two characters were absolutely brilliant.  They certainly dont make comedy  like that anymore.

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