Sunday, 27 May 2012

Steptoe and Son - Fifty Years of Magic

Forget the laughter. It was the tears, a trickle of real grief, that announced a new kind of comedy on television half a century ago. One Friday evening in January 1962, an episode of the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse series changed the face of sitcom for ever. Previous shows in the series, by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, had featured comedians such as Eric Sykes and Stanley Baxter. This episode was different: it starred two theatre actors, one a veteran of provincial rep, the other a devotee of the Method School of acting. Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett were cast as father and son, scraping a living from the rubbish people threw out, surviving on cold, tinned food and the dregs of bottles they collected from behind restaurants. They wore rags salvaged from the bags of clothes they picked up on their rounds, traipsing the streets of London with a horse and cart.
Poignant: Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, right, in Steptoe and Son, which marks its 50th anniversary
At the beginning of the Sixties, when Kennedy was U.S. President and the British had ‘never had it so good’, there was no future for the rag ’n’ bone man. And Corbett’s character knew it: he had to escape from the junkyard and his drunken, idle father. But he had nowhere to go. The final, achingly poignant scene has Corbett straining between the shafts of the cart, desperate to drag his possessions away from the ‘rathole’ where he was born. The cart is too heavy to move, and his father refuses to let him borrow the horse. Slowly, Corbett breaks down, screwing up his face and sobbing, then throwing himself face forward on the cart. ‘We couldn’t believe what we were seeing,’ Galton says, 50 years on. ‘I nudged Alan and told him: “Those are genuine tears. He’s really crying!” We were used to comics who would turn their backs and shake their shoulders, boo-hoo-hoo.’ The BBC commissioned a series, Steptoe And Son, based on this pilot. The first run, in the summer of 1962, was so popular the six episodes were immediately repeated. Galton and Simpson were in Spain working on a movie script, when Corbett flew out to see them. ‘It’s incredible,’ he told them. ‘We’ve started a national sensation!’
Writers and Creators of the BBC series Ray Galton and Alan Simpson Writers and Creators of the BBC series Ray Galton and Alan Simpson
[Popular: Writers and Creators of the BBC series Ray Galton, left, and Alan Simpson, right.]

Steptoe And Son laid the rules for all the best sitcoms over the next decades. Its characters were trapped by their own flaws, convinced they were born for better things, but doomed to repeat their mistakes. Harold Steptoe could barely read, yet he longed to be an intellectual, a boulevardier. Instead, he had to look after the one person he despised most, his dad.
One early Steptoe episode shows Harold returning from the rounds to find his father soaking in a tin bath in front of the fire, his dinner balanced on his knees. ‘I got a bird coming round tonight,’ protests the younger man, and Albert smirks: he knows; that’s why he’s doing it.
‘You shouldn’t be eating your dinner in the bath,’ Harold scolds him. ‘Whichever way you look at it, to fish pickled onions out of your bath and put them back in the jar is an act of extreme dirtiness.’ Their antagonism reaches its highest pitch in perhaps the best-loved episode, Divided We Stand, where they build a plywood wall through their house and hurl insults over it. Even then, they can’t escape from each other — a kitchen fire starts, and they end up in hospital beds, side by side. Their fates and their flaws have twisted them together.
Steptoe counts money on the kitchen table in a scene that typifies the grumpiness of the old man
Antagonism: Harold Steptoe, left, had to look after the one person he despised most, his dad
Rag 'n' bone men: Steptoe and son with their horse and cart. The series was an instant hit and shaped comedy for years to come
Count how many times, and in how many ways, that set-up has been mirrored in Britain’s favourite comedies. Dad’s Army’s Captain Mainwaring, desperate for respect but always feeling inferior to his deputy bank manager, the public school-educated Sgt Wilson; Basil Fawlty, loathing the wife who keeps him cringeing under her thumb. Del Boy, forever promising he’ll be a millionaire ‘this time next year’, though he knows he’ll never be anything but a small-time crook and David Brent, who tries to disguise his incompetence with jokes and jargon, and cannot quite grasp why his staff detest him. Sometimes the claustrophobia is real, like Fletch’s prison cell in Porridge or Father Ted’s island priest-hole. Sometimes it is self-imposed, like the Royle family’s living room. And sometimes it’s all in the mind, like Victor Meldrew’s persecution complex.
The set-up of Steptoe and Son has been mirrored in Britain's favourite comedies, including Fawlty Towers, pictured
These situations are tragic, not funny. They are rooted in poverty, crime, age, class, greed and lack of education. So why do we laugh? When TV comedy started, it was modelled on the variety acts of the music halls. Galton and Simpson were 21-year-old novice gag-writers, friends who had spent their teens in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis, when they were hired by BBC radio to script comedy hours for the Light Programme.

They had a radical ambition, which they shared with comedian Tony Hancock — to create hilarious shows with no stand-up jokes, no punchlines, no silly voices, no guest stars and no sketches . . . just a single storyline with believable characters. All the comedy would be in the situation. They worked with Hancock for seven years — more than 100 radio episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour, 60 TV shows and a movie — before the comedian split from them, years later committing suicide. The BBC’s head of entertainment, Tom Sloan, was determined not to lose his star writers and made them an astonishing proposition. If they agreed to write a series of short comic plays, they could pick any subjects they wanted, hire any actors they liked, be the directors or even the stars if they felt like it.

‘That’s how Comedy Playhouse started,’ Simpson says today. ‘No other TV writers had ever been given such freedom, and I’m sure it could never happen now.’ W hen they han-ded the Playhouse concept over to other comedy writers, two years later, the series became a launchpad for great sitcoms, including Last Of The Summer Wine, The Liver Birds and Are You Being Served?
Partner: Tony Hancock worked with Alan Simpson and Ray Galton
Its most controversial success was Till Death Us Do Part. The star was a bigoted, foul-mouthed, bullying racist called Alf Garnett, who became one of TV’s most perversely popular characters. Alan Simpson believes personalities such as Alf, or Albert Steptoe, spring from the same collective British consciousness that supplied the best-loved names in literature: ‘Dickens knew how to write characters with deep human failings who were unforgettably comic: Uriah Heep, Fagin, Mrs Gamp, Scrooge.’

Classical sources or not, the new wave of radical Sixties sitcom upset a lot of people. Mary Whitehouse, the self-appointed guardian of public morals, sued Till Death’s writer, Johnny Speight (he had called her a fascist). Steptoe went one better — questions were asked in the Commons after the B-word was broadcast in an episode about a piano. Harold and Albert are summoned to a penthouse to collect a baby grand. It’s too wide and heavy to remove. In the end, Harold declares: ‘What goes up can bleedin’ well stay up!’ Dr Donald Johnson, Tory MP for Carlisle, complained about this offensive ‘expletive’ and asked for the government to take action to ensure it was never broadcast again.

The Speaker, Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, ruled that no explanation could be forthcoming because it would involve ‘unparliamentary language’. Compare that to today, where the grossness of the language is the sum total of much that passes for comedy. Old Man Steptoe’s non-stop rants offended some because they highlighted how deeply injustice still ran in post-war Britain. Watch Inbetweeners or Benidorm and you’ll hunt in vain for a political point. The brand of intelligent comedy they pioneered is rare now, but Ray Galton, 81, and Alan Simpson, 82, are still around. They meet every Monday to drink coffee and swap stories. ‘We complement each other,’ Alan says. ‘He helps me up stairs, and I tell him what day it is.’ Ray grins, and puffs on his roll-up. ‘That’s fine, but he still thinks George V is on the throne.’ They both chuckle. Clearly, comedy writers might grow old but they never grow up.

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