The TV sitcom, Steptoe and Son, was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s, with the humour revolving around a father and son who ran a rag-and-bone business. It has been voted the 15th best sitcom of all time in a BBC viewers’ poll.
More than half a century after its launch, Steptoe and Son remains a legendary British comedy, with its timeless humour transferring to the modern generation with ease.
Scriptwriters Alan Simpson and Ray Galton, who had been friends since 1948, achieved fame thanks to their association with comedian Tony Hancock. They were involved in several radio variety series in their early years, but their big break came in November 1954, with the launch of Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio.
Hancock’s subsequent television series featuring their scripts ran from 1956 to 1961 and assured their status as sought-after scriptwriters. During 1961 and 1962, they wrote ten one-off Comedy Playhouse plays for the BBC. One of the 30-minute plays was called The Offer.
It is believed they were suffering “writer’s block” when they looked out of the window and saw a rag-and-bone man collecting householders’ junk. This inspired them to write The Offer about a father and son who ran a rag-and-bone business.
The play was the most popular in the Comedy Playhouse run and was the only one to spawn its own TV series afterwards. The BBC liked the idea, because it was cheap to film, with most of the action being set in one room.
Initially, Galton and Simpson weren’t keen to do a full series, as they were enjoying writing about different topics for one-off comedy plays, but BBC bosses persuaded them to write a sitcom and Steptoe and Son was the result. It was first broadcast on 4th January 1962.
Plot and characters
The two main characters, Harold Steptoe and his father, Albert, live in a squalid house in West London, which is literally filled with junk they have collected, with the intention of selling it on. English actor and comedian Harry H Corbett was 37 when he successfully auditioned for the role of Harold.
Like the character played by Hancock in his television series, Harold Steptoe was a pretentious, would-be intellectual, who had a somewhat fatalistic outlook on life. As well as being a black comedy, Steptoe and Son was a socially realistic drama with its portrayal of living in poverty in the 1960s.
Harold is described as 37 years old and a former serviceman. After leaving the army, he has lived with his widowed father. Albert is rather selfish and guilt-trips Harold into staying and driving the horse and cart, while collecting items to sell for the rag-and-bone business.
Albert is a senior citizen, a first world war veteran and the son of a rag-and-bone man. He was one of 14 children and had been widowed for 26 years at the start of the series. He was satisfied with his life and was stubborn, foul-mouthed and narrow-minded.
Harold thought of himself as above the rag-and-bone business and felt his intellectual side was stifled by the squalor of his everyday life. He was trapped by his circumstances and was continually dissatisfied with his lot.
Albert was played by Irish comedian and actor Henry Wilfrid Brambell, who used his middle name Wilfrid as his stage name. He was only 50 when he was cast in the role. However, the character was portrayed as much older and came across as a finicky and rather seedy old man – a brilliant piece of character acting by Brambell.
He even had to wear a set of “rotten” dentures, as Albert had a poor attitude to personal hygiene. As the two actors playing father and son were only 13 years apart, Brambell was made to look much older.
The two characters had a love-hate relationship and often argued, but as father and son, they cared about each other’s well-being. Although they didn’t always have a happy relationship, they depended on each other in many ways.
Although other family members popped up from time to time, the series was essentially a vehicle that exhibited the two lead characters’ comic abilities. Like a lot of today’s sitcoms, it had poignant moments, as well as comedy.
Most of the plots revolve around Harold and Albert’s attempts to make a fast buck. In one episode, a photographer and his agent ask Harold if they can use his yard as the background for a gritty urban photo shoot. Harold agrees and dons a velvet smoking jacket and sunglasses when the models arrive, to try and look more suave.
However, they think he’s blind and start getting undressed in front of him as they prepare for the photo shoot. On finding out he can see, they start calling him a pervert! Needless to say, Harold’s suggestion that he can pose with the models also doesn’t go down too well.
In another episode, Harold decides to re-decorate their house. However, Albert doesn’t like any of the colour schemes that his son suggests. To teach him a lesson, Harold puts a partition in the living room and they each have their own half. He then goes a step too far by adding a coin-operated turnstile in the hall.
His scheme backfires when the house catches fire and father and son need to escape. Unfortunately, the firemen get stuck in the hall when they don’t have any change to operate the turnstile!
Like many shows, Steptoe and Son had a number of unintentional comic moments, which would be likely to appear on a “bloopers” compilation programme today.
In one episode, Albert and Harold were fighting over who would have control of the television, as they both wanted to watch different channels. However, a close-up shot of the TV as they argued showed it was a box with an empty shell and nothing inside!
In another scene, Harold and Albert are arguing, when Harold tips a jug of orange juice over his dad’s dead. A shot of Albert’s forehead shows that an existing cut has mysteriously disappeared. The make-up department had apparently forgotten to put it on before filming! However, these blips only endeared Steptoe and Son to viewers even more.
In total, there were eight series of Steptoe and Son, comprising 57 episodes. The original run ended on 26th December 1974. All of the series were released on DVD between 2004 and 2009.
It was also the basis for an American series called Sanford and Son and a Swedish series, Albert and Herbert, both of which had the same format. Steptoe and Son will surely go down in history as one of the all-time British comedy greats.
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