Two television legends were born in the first week of January 1962. Those watching on BBC1 would have seen the first episode of the anti-Dixon of Dock Green as Z Cars began a remarkable seventeen year run. Barlow, Watt, Lynch, Fancy and all the rest first flickered into life that week. The police didn’t like it, the public adored it.
Three days later an unassuming episode of Comedy Playhouse aired, introducing us to the father-and-son totters from Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd’s Bush. It was inevitable that a series would follow. It did, and Steptoe and Son leapt into the affection of the nation right from the start. It never left.
Working from scripts by the peerless Galton and Simpson were Wilfred Brambell as the elderly, devious, scheming, ferret-like father Albert. Actors’ Actor Harry H Corbett – the man who other actors would deliberately make time to watch if a new play was on according to Galton and Simpson – took on the part of the younger Steptoe. Forever aspiring to grandeur, given to pomposity and desperate to get away from the smothering clutches of a father who wouldn’t let him leave, Harold was a gift to Corbett and he grabbed it.
However much he might have grew to hate the part in later years, objecting to the way he became typecast, it is impossible to imagine anyone other than Corbett playing the part. Ditto Brambell as Albert. A tiny, dapper little man of impeccable dress off-set he’d disappear into the dressing room and reappear with false teeth and raggedy clothes, transformed into the half-man half-ferret that the nation grew to adore.
Many years after both the actors passed away Ray Galton and John Antrobus produced a stage show which brought the saga to a close. Murder at Oil-Drum Lane featured two uncanny impersonations by Jake Nightingale and Harry Dickman. To be fair, they couldn’t do anything else. It’s hard to think of two performances which are more tightly locked into the British Psyche than Corbett and Brambell.
Said show made a tour of “the provinces” after a triumphant West End run. Your correspondent recalls one rainy Tuesday night in Glasgow when a packed house gasped as one as a spectral Albert walked through the wall of the stage set and through the wall on the other side. Pepper’s Ghost has never been more spectacularly evoked.
Steptoe’s always been a favourite. I was brought up on it (along with Hancock, Dad’s Army, Only Fools and Horses and a plethora of other giants – which might explain my occasional rather hard-line verdict on some of the more recent sitcoms bashed out by the BBC). Even more than Hancock’s Half Hour, this is Galton and Simpson at their absolute best. The quality level is so astonishingly high – I can’t actually think of a substandard episode. There might be the odd repetition of a plot-line, and neither of the film adaptations quite carry it off but in terms of the original series it’s as good as British comedy gets. It may have become slightly broader as it went on, but that’s not really a criticism. It works as a way to keep the series fresh for both the writers and the actors, and if it means that some of that beautiful melancholy gets jettisoned in favour of watching Colin Gordon getting magnificently pissed, that’s a small price to pay.
So many wonderful moments. Harold desperately trying to push the cart in the very first episode. The ludicrous plumbing antics in Those Magnificent Men and Their Heating Machines. Albert’s birthday descending into unimaginable embarrassment in 65 Today. Harold’s furious defence of Albert in Oh What A Beautiful Mourning. The loony moment in The Siege of Steptoe Street where to prove his old man’s mad to some debt collectors, Harold yanks Albert into the yard, plonks a tricornered hat on the old man and makes him sing “Le Marsellaise”. The perfectly plotted (and riotously funny) Divided We Stand. Two’s Company, with Harold bringing an older woman home on a date only to discover that Albert has a dark secret. The remarkable ending to Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard where Harold’s deceased Mum puts in an unexpected appearance. Best of all, the aching, desperate sadness underpinning the whole series – two men bound together by circumstance, both loaded with hatred but yet, unable to let go because deep down, they really do love each other. Dammit, it’s wonderful.
You’d think that the fiftieth anniversary of two the BBC’s most beloved series would be something that might be marked in some way. A commemorative evening of programmes, perhaps. A nice write-up in the Radio Times. Sadly, there seems to be nothing. Z-Cars hasn’t even been mentioned. Steptoe and Son managed to sneak in through a particularly oblique back door, though. Saturday the 7th of January saw an evening of repeats on BBC2 celebrating the remarkable career of John Howard Davies.
Think of a much beloved British sitcom and it’s likely that John Howard Davies had a hand in it somewhere. The Goodies, Python, Fawlty Towers, The Good Life… you’ll find his name attached to some of the finest comedy material you could hope for. He passed away in August 2011 and it was with a certain amount of surprise that I stumbled across this little evening of repeats. An episode of The Good Life was first, with the legendary Fawlty Towers episode Gourmet Night later on before finishing with a repeat of the Comedy Connections documentary on Python. Sandwiched in among that lot Steptoe was represented by the Davies-directed episode The Desperate Hours.
This particular show has always been a favourite. I loved it as merely one of a succession of cracking episodes from a cracking series. Hailing from the penultimate series of Steptoe – ten years after the first – it shows no sign of weariness or boredom. If there is any, it’s folded into the reactions of the characters themselves to their situations, which is surely the way to do it. Having watched it again on Saturday night I suspect it may just have become my single favourite half-hour of sitcom.
The truly great episodes of any sitcom can usually be boiled down into a pithy summary which renders them instantly memorable. Hancock reads a thriller, only to discover the last page is missing. Del is horrified when Rodney brings home a new girlfriend – and it’s a policewoman. Godfrey is branded a coward and shunned by his fellow platoon members, until his real past is revealed. You know the sort of thing. The Desperate Hours can be summed up – and indeed was, by The Guinness Book of Cult TV – as two prisoners (Leonard Rossiter and JG Devlin) escape from the Scrubs only to find themselves breaking into the one house in London that has less going for it than they do.
That is what happens, yes. As with all the greatest sitcom though, there’s a lot more going on. You can read it as a delicate little polemic on poverty. By introducing two new characters who follow a different path but are nonetheless virtually in identical situations to the two regulars it really hammers home the horror (sorry), the hopelessness of endlessly co-dependent relationships. It also shows how loving those relationships can be, even if those involved would never admit it.
It showcases Corbett and Rossiter – two of the finest actors of their generation – working in perfect unison and driving each other’s performances to greater and greater heights. Not to be outdone, Brambell and Devlin (who would go on to cult approval as the wrinkled retainer in Sir Henry at Rawlinson End) team up to take on the two boys, each having some wonderful lines that really stick in the memory. Steptoe and Scrotum. There’s a show that could have flown. Let us not forget either, that the very title and plot reference the 1955 Bogart-starring, William Wyler-directed movie where several convicts break into and terrorise an innocent household.
It starts as it means to go on with the Steptoes in desperate straits. It’s the dead of winter. There’s no money, only one tiny heater, and the meter keeps running out. Harold’s mucking about with the radio and intercepts the go-to-guy in 70s comedy if you want a newsreader announcement, Corbett Woodall. Two dangerous criminals are on the loose having hopped it from the scrubs (500 meters down the road, apparently). Tommy Vance then announces a record by Harold MacMillan and His Guitar Five, which proves too much for either Steptoe.
After a show-stopping sequence in which Harold goes a tiny bit demented with the cold and gets a little too wrapped up in his impersonation of a plantation owner in the days of the British Raj, the meter runs out. The door goes. Albert goes to answer it and Harold attempts to stuff the meter with Pfennigs. The camera closes in on Harold’s mutterings in the dark. He finally finds something to fit the meter, the lights go on and turning round he finds his Dad at the mercy of two dangerous, hardened criminals from the scrubs.
Although not really similar this scene reminds me of the killer-at-the-window sequence from Only Fools and Horses – Friday the 14th. Just for a moment, everything darkens slightly, and the familiar characters seem ready to be drawn into something altogether different and menacing. Admittedly the reveal in OFAH is accompanied by a fantastic reaction – someone in the studio audience actually screams – whereas here it’s played out in virtual silence. Just for a moment, you think that Rossiter is actually going to brain Brambell with that iron bar.
Johnny (the younger) and Frank (the elder) are clearly desperate, needing all the help they can get to continue their breakaway (things didn’t start well, with Frank catching his trousers on the barbed wire at the prison walls and Johnny going back to disentangle him).
Most of the best Steptoe episodes jump moods several times over half an hour. Right from the pilot episode, you’ll find one-liners snuggling up next to moments where Corbett and Brambell really play on the heartstrings. There’s a lot of both here, plus some remarkable high-strung, edge-of-hysteria playing from Rossiter (a stock in trade, and there was never anyone better). Before too long our characters have paired off, with Harold and Johnny bemoaning the uselessness of their older partners, Albert and Frank pouring scorn on the younger two for their lack of gratitude and respect for the old.
It really is remarkable the way the script flips between the two – you find yourself rooting for Frank and Johnny in a way you never quite expected when they first appeared. Recognising someone who seems to be in the same pickle as he is, Harold cosies up to Johnny. Within seconds he’s bumming cigarettes off him, desperately trying to stop him eating the goldfish (“he’s magnified, he’s really only this size” – tiny little gesture with thumb and forefinger) and firing off shots at Albert and Frank like there’s no tomorrow. One of the highlights comes when Harold suggests that if Johnny had turned up a few weeks earlier when fortunes were better, might have got on better. Rossiter responds with a scathing “awfully sorry, just couldn’t get away”. Rossiter is at his absolute best here. If you ever wanted to explain to someone just why he’s so beloved, this episode is the perfect primer as it shows him really stretching his range. The man had few equals. One of those few is right alongside him here, and they egg each other on towards greatness.
Meanwhile, Frank’s taken greatly to Albert’s meal of this morning’s cold porridge – the more lumps in it the better – and the two old men form a gentle bond. In a remarkable moment Albert – finally driven too far by more uncaring remarks than he can stand – roars furiously at Johnny before realising he’s facing a convict with an iron bar. Brambell goes from boiling anger to cowardly diffidence in seconds. Usually underrated (mostly by me, I’m afraid – what a fool I can be) next to the pyrotechnics that his younger partner indulges in, Brambell… well, he’s superb.
He also gets a moment that puts a chill right down my back. When he’s at his most defensive, Albert snaps at the younger men, “just you wait until you’re our age”. The tragedy is, neither of them will reach that age. Both Rossiter and Corbett died horribly young. Brambell and Devlin outlasted them by a considerable margin and that moment… well, it hurts. Just think what they could have been doing by now. We were robbed. Comedy was robbed. Drama was robbed. Worst of all, they were robbed. Both had so much to give. Both cut short. Awful.
By the last moments both pairings actually seem to have become friends. Johnny softens up, giving Harold his fags, not to mention a shilling for the meter. Recognising he’ll never be able to cut Frank loose (memorably illustrated by the old man’s desperate pleas not to be left behind, in a way that actually becomes quite upsetting), he gathers the old man up and prepares to go, hoping to be back at the scrubs in time for supper. Both Albert and Frank share one last moment, allowing a little bit of love for their respective boys to show through. At which point, the meter goes again. Harold cadges one last shilling from Johnny.
When the lights go up they’re gone, leaving Harold with the last word – “Ah, well. Better go and lock the cage up for the night.” Four men, two prisons, within 500 yards of each other. None of them will ever escape each other, and by now Harold’s pretty much given up trying. It’s a low-key way to end the episode, but it works. It ties things up, leaves the Steptoes exactly where we found them (although Harold’s richer, by one packet of smokes) and leaves us in no doubt that underneath the bluster, they really are locked together. Forever.
There really aren’t enough superlatives to describe how great this episode is. I fear I may already have used most of them. It’s just… well, just look at that script. Galton and Simpson, writing out of their skin, as they did most weeks, delivering it to the two actors most perfectly suited to realise it. Two great guest stars. It’s crammed with jokes, but it’s not afraid to belt you one in the uncomfortables when it needs to.
Davies realises it perfectly – broad shots when necessary, as in the opening scenes. Camera tight in on faces or in two shots as and when, but roaming about freely, following whoever it needs to in order to make that script really work. Lovely subtle touches – it was only on this last viewing that I realised that there’s rain pouring down outside the back window of the Steptoe living room. Must have been hell to make it work in a studio, but it really does add to the atmosphere. It’s almost subliminal – you sort of take it in, and it makes you realise how foul it actually must be outside. Interested observers will surely be delighted to spot that the life-size stuffed black bear standing in the corner of the living room appears to be playing a trumpet this week.
The whole thing appears to be done in one, maybe two takes. I’m sure it wasn’t, but it flows so smoothly that it feels like a one-act play, delivered straight through. You’ll rarely see a script more perfectly realised. Unless you’re watching something directed by Bob Speirs. Or Ian McNaughton. Or Duncan Wood. Or David Croft. God, we were so lucky to have them. How many hours of great television did they leave us with?
So far as I’m concerned, this is as good as British television gets. It may be merely enough to call it a fine example of sitcom. It is, but it is also so much more. The repeat on Saturday may have been a tribute to John Howard Davies. It also serves as a tribute to a group of creators who gave us the best they had, every week. The best, working with the best, delivering the best. I’ll always be grateful.