With the caveat that Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais’s ‘Porridge’ runs a very close second, it’s my humble opinion that Ray Simpson and Alan Galton’s ‘Steptoe and Son’ is the greatest sitcom in the history of British television. And the remarkable thing is that very often it isn’t funny at all. Very often, it’s cruel and embittered and almost painfully sad. Pathos and bathos have seldom been so enmeshed on the small screen.
Simpson and Galton never intended on writing a series, let alone eight seasons, two Christmas specials and two feature films. The vulgar, obstinate, determinedly working class Albert Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell) and his loquacious, socially aspirant son Harold (Harry H. Corbett) were created for an episode of the BBC’s ‘Comedy Playhouse’ entitled The Offer. They had spent most of the 1950s working with the brilliant but prickly Tony Hancock on ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ – the snob/pleb banter between Hancock and Sid James is something of a precursor to the Harold/Albert relationship – and weren’t looking to re-immerse themselves into sitcom writing. Tom Sloan, Head of Comedy at the BBC, had other ideas, and commissioned a series. Said series was produced in short order. The Offer was broadcast on British TV on 5 January 1962, with The Bird – the first episode of ‘Steptoe and Son’ series one proper – debuting on 14 June 1962.
The Offer, unlike many pilots which labour to establish character and setting, and whose aesthetics are often deviated from as resultant series find their own dynamic, presents the world of ‘Steptoe and Son’ fully formed. “You’ve held me back”, “you dirty old man”, the grubby expanse of the Steptoes’ yard, the abject poverty, Albert’s phlegmy low-class ruminations, Harold’s wordy wannabe middle class snobbery, the horse Hercules (beloved of Albert and hated by Harold), the antagonism/mutual dependency of the father-son relationship – it’s all there, perfectly encapsulated, in 30 minutes of grainy black and white.
Harold as a man of aspirations juxtaposed with set-in-his-ways Albert informs the five episodes of series one. In The Bird, Harold’s aspirations are romantic. A night on the town and the company of a young woman (the “bird” of the title) are what Harold sees as his reward for another thankless day at the rag ‘n’ bone trade. Albert protests that he’ll be lonely; tries to play the emotional blackmail card to keep his son at home. His maudlin soliloquy takes in his wife’s death and what he feels Harold owes him for the sacrifices made. “I had your education to think about,” he wheedles. “Not for long, though,” Harold shoots back; “I was on the cart at 12. Gawd, on the cart at twelve, in the army at 18 and back on the cart at 22. It’s all I’ve had.” Harold’s 37; a proximity to 40 that he harps on repeatedly. Albert’s eventual sabotage of Harold’s nascent relationship with the barely-seen but obviously middle class Roxanne (Valerie Bell) probably only presupposes what Harold would have achieved by himself in the long run, but it’s a nasty punchline to an episode already dripping in venom.
The Piano trades in slapstick humour more akin to Laurel and Hardy (indeed, the basic set up of a piano which requires removal from a penthouse suite unserviced by an elevator is immediately redolent of many a silent comedy) and is notable for relocating the action away from Oil Drum Lane (the fictional Shepherd’s Bush address of their yard). It also provides an insight into Harold’s contrariness. Hailed by a rich man (Brian Oulton) to remove the aforementioned piano – an unwelcome reminder of his ex-wife – Harold’s first impulse is to offer him the V-sign. Later, enticed up to the plush apartment with the promise of a grand piano that’s his to sell as long as he handles its removal – Harold the snob-in-waiting is revealed as acutely uncomfortable in the presence of the genuine article. Later still, though – returning with Albert to assist in shifting the piano – he becomes the parvenu again and repeatedly berates his father for his lack of culture.
The next two episodes – The Economist and The Diploma – see Harold trying to better himself professionally. A textbook on economics convinces him that bulk buying is a preferable option to the magpie-like acquisition of bits and pieces that characterises the rag ‘n’ bone trade. “Buying what?” Albert demands, contemptuously. “Doesn’t matter,” Harold responds, and therein lies his failure. 4,000 sets of uncollected false teeth come at a knock-down price, but selling them on proves harder than expected. The Economist ends in obvious fashion with Harold resolutely making the same mistake twice, but not before Simpson and Galton throw out some barbed comments about the political/economical climate of the day, particularly in relation to the Common Market. Harold imagines a tunnel beneath the English Channel (this 32 years before the Channel Tunnel actually opened) filled with foreigner rag ‘n’ bone carts. “English junk for the English,” he declares. Although contextualised, the line (with its nationalistic overtones) is one of many reminders of how different attitudes were back in the day.
The Diploma sees Harold studying to become a television engineer, all full of big talk about his capabilities with the new technology but undone in the end by basic incompetence. Simpson and Galton give us a nice parallel, however, with Albert’s return to driving the cart around London touting for business after so many years of forcing Harold to it while he stays inside and drinks tea (or more often gin). For all that Albert criticizes Harold for being “a rotten rag ‘n’ bone man”, he does no better himself. In fact, demonstrably worse. The Diploma isn’t the only ‘Steptoe and Son’ episode that trades on hubris – far from it – but it’s one of the show’s rare outings where the joke is equally on both protagonists.
The series ends with The Holiday, which boasts one extended comic set-piece involving Harold quite literally tearing through a bunch of holiday brochures while trying to decide which foreign resort is the likeliest location to pull birds. He finally settles on St Tropez (which both he and Albert pronounce “Saynt Trow-pezz”) as “they have it all on display there. Lets you see the goods at one glance. I’ve only got a fortnight, after all. Can’t afford to hang about.” Predictably, Albert doesn’t like the idea of Harold going off by himself – and abroad at that – when they could just go to Bognor, the Steptoe holiday destination since time immemorial. The humour flatlines to just plain sadness in the final scenes as Albert resorts to petulant measures to coerce Harold away from his exotic plans. It’s a brutally timed re-encapsulation of something the show, even in its more fanciful late-Sixties to early-Seventies second incarnation, never forget: ‘Steptoe and Son’ was a sitcom that didn’t always consider it necessary to pay lip service to the “com” bit.