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Steptoe and Son (1962-74)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Steptoe and Son (1962-74)
BBC, 07/06/1962-10/10/1974
plus 4 specials (black and white; colour from series 6) 54 x 30 minutes in 8 series
ProducersDuncan Wood
 John Howard Davies
 Croft David
 Douglas Argent
ScriptAlan Simpson
 Ray Galton

Cast: Wilfred Brambell (Albert Steptoe); Harry H. Corbett (Harold Steptoe)

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Harold Steptoe lives with his father Albert in Shepherd's Bush, West London, where they run a rag and bone business. Harold dreams of a better life, but is continually thwarted by his cunning, unwashed old Dad.

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Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-74) is among the most famous and influential programmes in the history of British television. Its popularity was such that, in the mid-1960s, half the UK population were regular viewers; in 1966, Harold Wilson pressured the BBC to move a transmission that he feared would affect the Labour election turnout.

The series established a template for the British sitcom in its purest form. Each episode follows the same pattern: Harold (Harry H. Corbett) and Albert (Wilfrid Brambell) are unhappy together in their humble surroundings; a threat to their situation develops - usually Harold meeting a woman or pursuing some kind of artistic pipe dream - before this is thwarted and we return to the status quo. There are no other regular characters and the bulk of the action takes place in their dingy home and yard.

As critics noted very early in the show's run, Steptoe and Son breaks down the boundaries of comedy and tragedy - as the best of British sitcoms have often done since. The family bond is presented as a psychological prison. Albert is a comic monster, constantly undermining Harold to maintain control. The pain is compounded by the awful irony that, despite his decency and aspirations, Harold is a good deal less intelligent than his father.

The comedy comes from our knowledge and understanding of the characters and also from writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's skill with words, which creates a heightened version of everyday London speech. For all the tragedy, we laugh at Harold's foolish lack of self-awareness; Albert's squalor and constant cries of 'Aaaaarold!', and the insults they exchange. Many episodes also passed pointed comment on the state of the nation, satirising attitudes to sex, race and, especially, class.

Steptoe and Son broke new ground in television in general, and comedy in particular. It defined the mass national TV audience - a 'must see' event uniting the country in their living rooms. It set the pattern for a multitude of sitcoms that followed and dared to cast 'straight' actors rather than comics. Corbett and Brambell set new standards in TV acting and their performances added real depth to the characters. Viewed today the show may sometimes seem old-fashioned in presentation, with its static set and theatrical air, but its comedy of failure, embarrassment and disappointment makes it as influential and relevant as when it was first broadcast.

Phil Wickham

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Video Clips
Complete episode: 'My old man's a Tory' (29:39)
Production stills
Brambell, Wilfrid (1912-1985)
Corbett, Harry H. (1925-1982)
Davies, John Howard (1939-2011)
Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)
Grainer, Ron (1924-1981)
Wood, Duncan (1925-1997)
The Sitcom Family