Steptoe and Son began life as a one-off play entitled 'The Offer' from the BBC's highly regarded Comedy Playhouse series. The central characters were the repulsive mitten wearing 'dirty old man' Albert Steptoe, (a wonderfully faultless performance by Dublin born actor Wilfrid Brambell), and his 38-year old son Harold, (equally well played by Harry H. Corbett), two rag- and-bone men who lived in Shepherds Bush.
In common with most of the truly great character driven comedies the simple premise of the series, as developed in Galton and Simpson's masterful scripts, brilliantly tightrope-walked the narrow line separating laughter from tragedy. Something that had never been attempted in television situation comedy before. Breaking new ground, the core of this success lay in the delicately delineated dynamics of the central characters complexly antagonistic relationship. It was in the presentation of Harold's pretentiously overblown -ultimately doomed- dreams of escaping his resolutely low brow father to better himself, only to find both himself and his ambitions constantly undone by the senior Steptoe's devious and cold-blooded manipulation of the younger man's innate decency, which helped ensure that the series frequently attained the heights of genuine tragi-comedy.
The most obvious basic truth of the series, apparent to the viewers if not the Steptoe's themselves, was their sadly obvious co-dependence. The older Albert and the younger Harold were two sides of the same coin, neither whole without the other, no matter how much they affected an air of mutual dislike. It was this essential truth, coupled with consistently excellent scripts and performances from two actors who quite obviously understood the subtle subtext of the concept, which ensured a continuity of comedic quality rarely surpassed in television to this day. The series ran from 1962 to 1974 and there were two feature films, 'Steptoe and Son' (1972), and 'Steptoe and Son Ride Again' (1973).
The series was a resounding success in the UK and became the benchmark by which all subsequent sitcoms were measured by. It's success was spun off into radio adaptations and recordings by Pye records and specially written sketches were made for the BBC's end of year Christmas shows as well as a Royal Command Performance where Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell appeared on the same bill as The Beatles.
The Writing team of Galton and Simspson had been responsible for the classic Hancock's Half Hour scripts which included 'The Blood Donor'and 'The Radio Ham', and in 1999 the were awarded in the Queen's New Years Honours List. Wilfrid Brambell appeared in The Beatles first feature film 'A Hard Day's Night,' in which he played the role of Paul McCartney's grandfather, and in purposeful contrast to his TV character was referred to throughout as 'very clean.'
Corbett's untimely and premature death excluded the chance of further series, however all of the originals (including the early black and white recordings), continue to be shown on television and are available on DVD. The series was re-made in the USA as Sanford and Son and other foreign language versions of it were made around the world.
Steptoe and Son might well have been rag and bone men, but the comedic legacy they palmed off on us, the viewers, was priceless beyond their wildest imaginings.
Published on February 4th, 2019. Written by Laurence Marcus & Steve Hulse (1999) "You dirty old man!" for Television Heaven.