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Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)


Main image of Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)

The tragi-comic situation of father-and-son junk men in the enormously popular sitcom Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-65; 1970; 1972; 1974), featuring Wilfrid Brambell as the crotchety, cunning father Albert and Harry H. Corbett as the ambitious but emotionally guilty son Harold, created one of the most successful comedy double acts in UK television history. Both were actors rather than comedians, and it is perhaps because of this approach to a role rather than taking on a 'part' that the series maintained such a delicate balance between pathos and farce.

Brambell was a child actor in his hometown Dublin before moving on through the Abbey Theatre, forces' entertainment group ENSA and repertory theatre in England. He was on the London stage in the 1950s and in BBC TV dramas (The Quatermass Experiment, 1953; Nineteen Eighty-Four, tx. 12/12/1954; Quatermass II, 1955).

After various supporting parts in the swashbuckler series The Adventures of Robin Hood (ITV, 1955-59), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (ITV, 1956-57), The Buccaneers (ITV, 1956-57) and The Adventures of William Tell (ITV, 1958-59), along with many other episodic TV dramas, he was cast as the desolate Grandpa in the character-study play No Fixed Abode (for ITV's Television Playhouse, tx. 30/1/1959). It was for this latter performance, arousing affection and sympathy as one of the multifaceted inhabitants of a dosshouse, that he was chosen for the Albert Steptoe role.

While Brambell was by all accounts quite the opposite of his 'dirty old man' Steptoe character - he saw himself as something of a sharp dresser, as his role as Paul McCartney's stiffly presentable grandfather in A Hard Day's Night (d. Richard Lester, 1964) attempts to suggest - his earthy performance in the sitcom became all the more moving when, expressing spitefulness at the expense of his genuine affection for Harold, it was emphasized by the intimacy of the home screen.

For the greater part of his career he seemed to be a dependable character actor, able to tackle anything from Shakespeare to Dickens. Unfortunately, after the Steptoe years, it became a rather sad, downhill journey (accelerated by a disposition to drink), perhaps due to the belief that he was forever typecast if not imprisoned by his relationship to Albert Steptoe.

Tise Vahimagi

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