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Corbett, Harry H. (1925-1982)


Main image of Corbett, Harry H. (1925-1982)

Harry H. Corbett was a serious stage actor before landing his career defining role as Harold Steptoe in Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's hit sitcom Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-1974). He added the 'H' to his name to avoid confusion with Harry Corbett, the children's entertainer who created the glove puppet Sooty.

Born on 28 February 1925 in Rangoon, Burma, the son of an army officer, Corbett joined the Chorlton Repertory Company after the World War II. He graduated to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in the 1950s, taking on roles ranging from Shakespeare to Ibsen. He also made several television appearances, particularly in ITV's Armchair Theatre, often cast as a tough guy.

In 1962, Corbett appeared in The Offer (tx. 5/1/1962), a BBC Comedy Playhouse episode about a couple of rag and bone men. This pilot eventually became the long running sit-com Steptoe and Son. Writers Galton and Simpson, who had worked with comedian Tony Hancock, were looking to cast established stage or film actors, rather than comedians. This proved an inspired decision. Alongside Corbett, actor Wilfrid Brambell played his conniving father Albert. The unlikely pairing soon attracted huge audiences - often over twenty million viewers.

Corbett's new success as a comic actor led to a variety of film roles including Ladies Who Do (d. C.M. Pennington-Richards, 1963), The Bargee (d. Duncan Wood, 1964) and Rattle of a Simple Man (d. Muriel Box, 1964). Ironically, his desire to lose the Harold Steptoe mantle mirrored the character's own desire to escape from the claustrophobic confines of the rag and bone yard. When the fourth series ended in 1965 Corbett hoped that he could move on.

Two further film roles followed: The Sandwich Man (d. Robert Hartford-Davis, 1966) and Carry On Screaming (d. Gerald Thomas, 1966). On television Corbett starred in a tailor-made sitcom called Mr Aitch (ITV, 1967) written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, and The Best Things in Life (ITV, 1969-70), but neither was successful. Corbett also starred in Never Talk to Strangers (ITV, 1969), a single-episode Galton and Simpson comedy.

However, due to popular demand Steptoe and Son made a triumphant return in 1970, this time in colour. There were also two feature films: Steptoe and Son (d. Cliff Owen, 1972), and Steptoe and Son Ride Again (d. Peter Sykes, 1973).

When the show came to an end in 1974 Corbett again tried a variety of comedy roles such as Johnny Speight's one-off For Richer, For Poorer (BBC, tx. 25/6/1975), and sitcoms Potter (BBC, 1979-83) and Grundy (ITV, 1980). His later films included Percy's Progress (d. Ralph Thomas, 1974), Jabberwocky (d. Terry Gilliam, 1977) and Silver Dream Racer (David Wickes, 1980).

Corbett was awarded the OBE in 1976 for his services to showbusiness. He died in 1982 at the age of 57, after suffering a massive heart attack. In 2002 Channel 4 screened a documentary, When Steptoe Met Son (tx. 20/8/2002), about the deterioration of Corbett's relationship with the alcoholic Brambell during their 1977 Steptoe and Son tour of Australia.

Eddie Dyja

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