Movie versions of British sitcoms generally did well at the box office in the 1970s, and the two Steptoe outings were no exception
Review by Brian Slade
The practice of releasing movie versions of successful British sitcoms was in its prime during the 1970s, so who better to venture onto the big screen than everybody’s favourite dirty old man and his resentful but loyal son in the form of Steptoe and Son.
Two movies were made when the pairing were in their second phase, the television show having taken a break between 1965 and 1970. Released in 1972, the first of the films instantly hit upon the characteristics of Albert and Harold who by then were firmly ensconced into the British public’s affections. In the first, simply titled Steptoe and Son, a suited and booted Harold is exiting the law courts with his scruffy father in tow after the dissolvement of Harold’s marriage. On the journey back in their rag and bone cart, Harold bemoans that the marriage failed because of Albert’s refusal to allow his son a happy independent life free from the shackles of caring for his father. Albert himself is in full dirty old man mode, picking up horse manure left by their steed in the street during the court hearing, scooping it by hand into a bucket. The movie then flashes back to ‘the day everything starting to go wrong.’
For a rare evening out, Harold allows Albert to join him at the local football social club. It’s not something of interest to the old man, until he hears that there is a stag night at the club, coming as it does with the obligatory stripper, at which point he happily plants himself in the kitchen sink for a rare bath. Once down the club, Harold is smitten when he runs into Zita (Carolyn Seymour) in a quiet moment at the bar while the rest are listening to the comedian (played by Mike Reid). Zita is the next part of the entertainment and she finds Harold in the middle of her stripper routine, leaving him a note to meet her after the show. The pair hit it off instantly…Harold is fumbling for the right thing to say and is exceedingly nervous, while Zita has all the right moves. Albert is confined to the other end of the bar, before making a move on the only other person in the bar – drag act Arthur, played by future Dame Hilda Bracket, Patrick Fyffe.
Harold is on cloud nine after he and Zita hit it off, while Albert is also impressed with his son’s achievements, that is until Harold announces that after one night of knowing her, he and Zita are engaged to be married. As he tries to make his son see sense, Albert implores, ‘I’m only thinking of you…what’s going to happen to me?’ The well-trodden path of Albert cramping Harold’s lifestyle is taken to the extreme as Steptoe senior joins his son and his new bride on their honeymoon, where he continues to get in the way. A bout of food poisoning sees Harold accompany his father home early, leaving Zita in Spain to take up a relationship with a resort rep. What follows is a case of misunderstandings and foolish assumptions as the Steptoe’s begin to care for a child that mysteriously appears on their doorstep, assuming it to be a new generation of Steptoes.
In 1973, Steptoe & Son made their second big screen appearance in Steptoe and Son Ride Again. We find the father and son team on hard times. To make matters worse, Harold accidentally spends three days on the road with the cart and Hercules the horse, exhausting Hercules to the extent that he needs to be retired. It could be the final nail in the coffin for their rag and bone business, especially when Harold gets drunk and strikes a terrible deal with the local thug godfather Frankie Barrow (Henry Woolf). He replaces Hercules not with another horse, but with a greyhound who has a distinct aversion to running and is seemingly visually impaired as well. As Barrow begins to put the screws on the Steptoes for his second payment on the dog, Harold comes up with another money-making scheme – fake his father’s death for the insurance money.
Barrow calls round to claim his money, but despite offering his sympathy, he still wants paying. Given the unfortunate circumstances, Barrow is prepared to wait – at a rate of 10% extra per day! Despite getting the local drunken doctor to sort the death certificate, Harold’s problems are far from over. The neighbourhood is awash with talk about Albert’s demise, and they have realised that times were hard for the Steptoes. As such, they decide to pay for a send-off, scuppering Harold’s hopes of keeping his Dad’s fake death as a simple money-making scam as the locals descend upon the house for a major buffet in honour of Albert. Things continue to get worse when it emerges that Albert had signed over his insurance policy to a beau from his time in the army. In a comical conclusion, Harold concocts a scheme to bring his Dad back to life that involves him falling asleep in his coffin, Harold escaping from hospital and frightening the local vicar to death and then finally making another unusual deal with Barrow.
There’s a number of fun cameos in the second film, including Diana Dors, Yootha Joyce, Miles O’Shea and Frank Thornton as the insurance man forced to conduct his business with Harold while sat on the toilet, which doubles up as a champagne ice bucket. Steptoe and Son Ride Again is a fun outing capturing the struggles that beset the Steptoes throughout the television series nicely.
Movie versions of British sitcoms generally did well at the box office in the 1970s, and the two Steptoe outings were no exception. But unlike some of the others who made their money in spite of weak screenplays, Steptoe and Son’s movies are great additions to the legacy of one of Britain’s favourite comedies.
Published on June 21st, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.