Magazine article The Spectator

Life Imitates Art

Magazine article The Spectator

Life Imitates Art

Article excerpt

Harry H. Corbett:

The Front Legs of the Cow by Susannah Corbett The History Press, £20, pp. 320, ISBN 9780752476827 The other evening my wife came home to find me watching re-runs of Steptoe and Son. The washing up had not been done, and everything was in a state of bedragglement (including Olga, the family dog).

'How can you bear to watch that stuff?

Steptoe's got a face like a squeezed lemon.

He's perfectly horrible. I'll go further: he's perfectly revolting.'

How could my wife not like Steptoe?

The series had been a hit from the moment it was launched in 1962 and drew audiences of over 20 million. Ray Galton and his cowriter Alan Simpson combined a seaside postcard sauciness with the cockney menace of Harold Pinter (only with shorter pauses). The series is, among other things, a meditation on human decrepitude and the frustrations of a father-son relationship.

Albert Steptoe and his son Harold are rag-and-bone men toiling in the Shepherd's Bush area, who appear to loathe each other. With his foul temper and bad teeth, Albert relentlessly taunts his 37-year-old son for his dream of social self-improvement. ('Saint Tropez? What's wrong with Bognor?') Every time Harold resolves to leave the junkyard for good, his father finds a way to thwart him. As Harold sees it, Albert is a conniving, filthy-minded malingerer ('You dirty old man!'). Yet for all his wish to break free, Harold is doomed to be a nursemaid to his father, unmarried and likely to remain unmarried. What could be more sad?

In spite of the gloom, Steptoe and Son is grimly comic, and comedy hovers round the edges of the parent-child antagonism. The British public loved it. On election day in 1964, the story goes, Harold Wilson was so worried that Steptoe would distract Labour voters from the polling stations that he persuaded the BBC to take it off the box.

(It had not occurred to Wilson that Tories might like the series, too. ) Harry H. Corbett brought his own good humour and charm to his role as the longsuffering son, while Wilfrid Brambell, a former Irish Times reporter, portrayed old man Steptoe's geriatric discontent and malevolence with a ghastly realism. (His performance left its mark on the young Johnny Rotten, apparently, who modelled his strangulated Sex Pistols vocals and gargoyle-like gurnings on those of Albert. ) To the British public, the Corbett-Brambell partnership was one made in heaven.

Off screen , accord ing to the actress Susannah Corbett, the two men did not always get on. …

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