‘Steptoe and Son' was a BBC TV sitcom series written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. It started in 1962 and ran until 1974. The programme was original for several reasons. Although it was a comedy show, actors were hired to play the two main roles, rather than comedians as had been the norm in other BBC comedies. And the series was basically a two-hander, where many episodes involved just the two principals.
The setting for the series was also unique. Like many sitcoms, it was family-based, but 'Steptoe' was about a father and son who ran a 'rag and bone' business, which involved buying or simply collecting unwanted items mostly from local homes, using a horse and cart to carry the junk back to their scrap yard/ home in Shepherd's Bush, London.
Albert Steptoe (the father) was played by Wilfred Brambell, and Harry H Corbett played his long-suffering son, Harold. It was a combination that proved highly successful, so much so that there couldn't have been many households in the 60s who didn't sit down each week to watch the show. Its popularity was driven by impressive characterisations and the excellent, tightly-written scripts by Galton and Simpson. There were also plenty of opportunities for visual humour as the characters lived in a home which was furnished from the peculiar objects they collected in the course of their work. Their living room was the centre of most of the action, and contained an enormous range of oddities such as a huge stuffed bear and a human skeleton.
Although Brambell and Corbett enjoyed considerable fame from their on-screen roles, their off-screen relationship was not nearly so satisfying. Brambell was an alcoholic and frequently forgot his lines which made recording the show tedious to say the least. When the TV series ended, the two actors found themselves the victims of type-casting, and resorted to taking 'Steptoe and Son' on tour in Australia. Brambell and Corbet came to despise each other and the tour was a flop and a misery. Their relationship was explored in a Channel 4 TV documentary in 2002.
The key feature of the comedy in the original TV series was the antagonism between the two principal characters, a conflict which was exacerbated by their differing aspirations. Albert was frequently described by his son as a 'dirty old man' - a well-worn phrase that became widely adopted in popular language. Albert had personal habits which might not have offended a scavenging urban fox, but for most humans were revolting. Albert sought to keep Harold at home in order to provide for him, but Harold had ambitions and dreams beyond the confines of the scrap business. Following a wave of nostalgia-induced revivals and spin-offs from shows of the 60s, this theatrical reincarnation ‘Steptoe & Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane’, premiered at the Theatre Royal, York, in October 2005, and was written by one of the original writers, Ray Galton, with John Antrobus.
The story starts with Harold (played by Jake Nightingale) arriving at his old home in Oil Drum Lane, which is now in the hands of the National Trust - preserved for the nation as a last example of a 'rag and bone' yard. Harold has been living in Rio and other parts of South America while 'on the run', after killing his father. As Harold arrives, the lady from the National Trust is about to close for the day, but allows Harold to take a look round the house. A little later, thinking Harold has left, she locks up for the night, leaving him alone with the ghost of his father, who has to remain attached to the house until Harold signs a document to show his contrition. The remainder of the show basically consists of re-enactments of key scenes from their lives together.
The famous theme tune which was known in almost every British household during the 60s, is used again here at the beginning of the show and throughout, and Nigel Hook's set is a faithful recreation of that used in the TV series.
I was hesitant about seeing this show because the two original characterisations were so powerful. I couldn't believe that any present-day actors could re-create the characters which have been so indelibly imprinted on my memory. However, to their immense credit, both Jake Nightingale as Harold and Harry Dickman as Albert produce excellent portrayals of the actors and characters they've been asked to mimic. Although it seems unfair to make any distinctions, for me, Nightingale just came closer to capturing the essence of Harry H Corbett. There were several occasions when I closed my eyes and could easily have believed that Corbett was delivering the lines on stage. But Dickman too gets under Brambell's skin, producing mannerisms and business which I've seen dozens of times on TV. But Dickman never managed to include the peculiar and pathetic whining quality in his voice that Brambell used to get his way with Harold. But that aside, both actors acquit themselves admirably, giving us convincing and believable interpretations whilst managing to insert a little of their own personas for good measure.
But I'm afraid that both actors have been let down by the material they have to work with. It simply doesn't reach the same high standard that the original series did. Although I don't know how the writing team went about the job of creating this theatrical version, I wouldn't mind betting that they split it down the middle and wrote one half each. If that were indeed the case it shows, because the two halves are quite different. Frankly, the first half was lacklustre and weak. By the interval, I felt cheated if not rather bored. The second half, which included some familiar scenes from the TV series - such as the one when Harold brings a girl home to find Albert bathing in a tin bath in the living room and eating pickled onions - helped to pick things up, but I'm afraid that the damage had, by that point, already been done.
Of course, transferring the concept to a new medium requires a different approach, but even allowing for this, the writing simply doesn’t do justice to what was a superb, original and compelling series.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "It relies upon silly, farcical outrageousness rather than the inventive black comedy and the psychological sharpness of the original Steptoe." JAMES RAMPTON for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Riveting...As much as anything, Roger Smith's production is a tragedy of unexpressed emotions." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "In the end one is puzzled by the point of it all. Better, I'd suggest, to live off memories of a golden series than to watch this leaden spin-off." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A huge amount to enjoy." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The sketches themselves are uneven."