Steptoe and Son

London, Junk and Family Relations
In its heyday, which was the 1960s, the British comedy series Steptoe and Son was a ground-breaking tour de force, watched religiously by Brits and devoted fans in several other parts of the world as well. The show followed the exploits of two aging 'rag and bone' men - junk dealers who sparr and bicker amid the detritus of their lives. Harold; Steptoe the younger, is irrevocably tied to a kind of paternal umbilical cord - a cord that stretches dangerously thin at times but never actually breaks.

Unlike many of the gag and slapstick sitcoms which preceded it, Steptoe burrowed down to the nittty-gritty of life at the bottom of the British class system and explored it with a wry, incisive humour. The plots were character-driven, rather than strictly farce orientated and the language, tone and general ambiance of the series was punchier than most shows of the period.

Harold and Dad (Harry H Corbett and Wiflred Brambell)
Galton and Simpson
The men behind the humour, acclaimed scriptwriters Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, had already earnt comedy accolades as Tony Hancock' writers and when Hancock decided to go his own, ill-fated solo way, they launched into new projects. Steptoe and Son was originally conceived as a one-off television Comedy Playhouse play called The Offer - one of a series written by the comedy duo and worked so well, potential as a TV sit com beckoned.

Eldery Aflred Steptoe is played by Wilfred Brambell and his fortyish son by Harry H Corbett. Significantly, Corbett and Bramble were straight actors, not comedians, however this only seemed to lend a more authentic tone to the scenarios and there were greater depths to the scripts than just a plsy for laughs. At a time when strong winds were shifting the social climate, Steptoe represented an old England juxtaposed with the themes of the new. In the rag and bone, ramshackle home of the Steptoe's, there were intergenerational whiffs of conflict, scepticism, control, fear of abandonement,  complacency, aspiration and crushing disappointment.

Aspirational Harold has pretensions of sensitivity and sees himself as a man of culture, only tragically thwarted by his circumstances and the burden of his irascible father. The wiley Steptoe, who is several degrees sharper than his son, is a canny old sod and somehow always manages to get the better of the hapless Harold, who is always on the verge of breaking free but never quite manages it. A master at playing the 'helpless old guy' to a frustrated Harold, Steptoe's devious, self-satisfied  expression, which hinged on a knowing and very mischievous smile that hit both mouth and eyes, became a trademark of the show.

Beneath the humour there is a sadness to Harold - a pathos and the part is given a moving twist by Corbett, who is a perfect foil for Brambell's terrifically mesmerising performance as Steptoe. We know that, despite his best exertions, Harold cannot escape. So ingrained were these two in their roles, it was  later to prove  difficult for the actors to breakaway from their Steptoe and Son molds. To the hoards of TV viewers who enjoyed the show in the 60s, they were Steptoe and Son.

Watch  Series one, Episode one...