25 August 2002 | Sonatine97
Classic Comedy That Hid A Terrible Truth
Steptoe & Son (SS), was a national institution back in the 60s & 70s. There were huge TV audiences all clamouring to watch the latest episode in the lives of two lonely but dependent rag & bone men in Sheperds Bush, London.
So big were the audience figures at around 7pm at night that even the-then Prime Minster, Harold Wilson, had to postpone a General Election campaign because it clashed with this hugely popular show.
Harold is the middle aged son, frustrated with his boring job as a "totter" and being constantly tied down by his irritating and manipulating father.
Harold is a dreamer, a person who sees himself as an intellectual, a poet, an classical actor, a gentleman, a ladies man and sucessful businessman....and yet this is just his little dream, the kind of dream we all wish for. But in Harold's mind only his father is really holding him back from making those dreams a reality.
Albert, on the other hand, has seen it all. He is a bitter old man who was brought up in a poor family and life was tough, especially having to suffer going through two world wars. He also realises that he never made a success of his life in a business sense. After decades of being a rag & bone man he is still no richer than his own father was.
But to add to this bitterness, he is also scared of being left totally alone in an uncaring modern world. He no longer has a wife, no daughters, hardly any family at all to fall back on. The only person he can really trust & depend on is his son, Harold. And Albert will do anything to ruin Harold's chances of either bettering his own life elsewhere or making sure he never leaves him to fend for himself.
And so for the next 12 years British audiences peeked into the daily lives & scrabbles of this odd couple with Harold trying to escape to a better world and Albert making sure he doesn't.
The scripts remained consistantly good throughout this era of new comedy. Boundaries of acceptable taste during this time were pushed ever further and the onset of moderately bad language from these two gents became common place.
Some purists saw it as vulgar, crude and the thin end of the cultural wedge, while the majority felt it was nothing more than how life in the real world is portrayed, and that is probably one reason why it was so successful, because we could all empathise with the two characters as they struggle for their own particular hopes & dreams.
It should be added that in real life both lead actors, Wilfred Brambell & Harry H Corbett slowly began to hate each other just as much as the characters they portrayed in the show. Brambell was very much a refined gentleman in real life and usually was very dismissive of the poor and working class (which is the great paradox of his own character).
At the same time Harry H Corbett felt he had become for-ever typecast with this Harold Steptoe millstone. He was desperate to do serious acting or to return to the theatre, but the roles he recieved were little more than Harold Steptoe by any other name. And as a consequence Harry would never get the chance to try new challenges and would always be associated and thought of as Harold.
So there was lots of real bitterness in the latter years of the show, in fact some of the episodes were too close to the bone for some. There was an episode, for example, where Harold was given the starring role in an amateur play and for once he had high hopes of breaking away from the shackles of his present employer, only for the ever sceptical Albert to tell him that he will never be a real actor because he has no talent, no class, no skill, nothing at all in fact. You could almost sense the real hostility behind those masks when Albert confronted Harold.
But for all that, SS on its own, is still a much loved show and often repeated and still remains as fresh & funny as ever. The less said about the two movie spinoffs the better.