Steptoe and Son

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When Steptoe Met Son

Broadcast : 20 August 2002, Channel 4 Television  

The “When Steptoe Met Son” documentary is produced here in full. It is easily available via other better known websites and formats on the internet such as You Tube and therefore we feel it is fair and reasonable to accept that the copyright owner is happy for the programme to be distributed in this fashion.

WARNING : Those closest to Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell have dismissed the main claims of this programme as unsubstantiated. The show is reproduced here to allow those who haven’t seen it a chance to understand the issues for themselves.

The documentary When Steptoe Met Son was the catalyst for the apparently now accepted fact that Harry and Willy hated each other. Of course they were both long dead when these claims were made and so had no chance to speak for themselves. Since the broadcast I have had the opportunity to speak to Harry’s daughter the actress and author Susannah Corbett about these claims. Susannah explained that in the same way that people don’t socialise with everybody they work with, so it was with Harry and Willy. Two people not socialising out of work is hardly grounds for making a claim of mutual hatred.  
Read the Radio Times Article About the Show

To my mind this has to be a very valid point given the number of people they did both work with during their careers it would be impossible for them to be friends with them all.

Film-maker David Barrie who is responsible for the documentary claims that he had no idea that he would discover these apparent facts, - he was just making a film about Steptoe and Son. He claimed “the truth was stranger than I could have imagined”.

What follows is an assessment of the programme. Is it, as Mr Barrie no doubt claims, a piece of impartial investigative journalism, or is it, as those closest to the stars state nothing more that a calculated attempt to ruin the memories of two of Britain’s most loved TV stars.

The film is based on three main claims, which are made very clear at the very start of the documentary.

Indeed the documentary opens with a very controversial statement. Less than 15 seconds in to the programme and the first claim is made “on and off the screen Steptoe was a dirty old man”. The images associated with this voice over and the immediate interview afterwards makes it clear that this is a statement about Willy.

It then goes on to discuss the Son (Harry), implying that he was trapped by the character and the show. The second main theme

Soon after the most controversial and final claim is made that Brambell and Corbett were “Two comics who ended up hating one another”. This statement itself contains a glaring inaccuracy. Both men would regard themselves, and were regarded in the profession, as dramatic actors. It was the fact the they were actors and not comedians that made Ray and Alan approach them for the role of Steptoe and Son. That they found themselves in a comedy part doesn’t make them comedians.

Credit has to be given to the programme makers for informing us of the focus of the documentary so quickly. Mr Barrie and his team now have the best part of 40 minutes to make the case. The question is ….. do they?

At the start of the documentary all of the “evidence claiming “hatred” comes from the Australian tour. The promoter of the tour Kevin O’Neil quickly states that they hated each other. He paints a picture of Wilfird being awkward to work with, which he may have been, but that wasn’t necessarily because he had a problem with Harry. In fact the evidence presented by O’Neil and others was that Willy had a few problems with everything.

Alan Simpson and Ray Galton appear early in the film, but they don’t talk about any ill feeling between the two actors. At no point in the documentary do they discuss any alleged animosity between Harry and Wilfrid.

Given the apparent hatred is the main thrust of the show, nobody would have understood the relationship between Harry and Willy better than Ray and Alan. It is therefore strange that the direct question wasn’t put to them. If they were asked and refuted Mr Barrie’s claims, why wasn’t this shown ? If they refused to answer such questions at all, then at least we would have been able to see their discomfort at the questions and therefore draw our own inference from their silence. But this never happens. Why not ?

While Ray and Alan freely discuss the differences in Brambell and Corbett's professional approach and that this could cause them both frustration, they never once suggest any long term acrimony between the two actors. In fact after broadcast Ray and Alan made it quite clear that the hatred claim was nonsense. Ray Galton explains “We used to go to rehearsals three times a week, and we certainly would have noticed it”.

The show quickly infers that the breakdown in the relationship is largely down to Willy. The statement is made “Wilfrid Brambell would drive Harry Corbett round the twist”. The picture is slowly being painted that Brambell is the primary cause of the relationship breakdown. It had long been know that Wilfrid was a heavy drinker, this has been discussed by Ray and Alan many times and is again in this film. It is also accepted the Harry would be frustrated by this. While this would have caused tension, it doesn’t prove that they “hated each other”.

Alan Simpson makes it clear that Willy was a loaner and fond of the drink, but they found that normal for Willy and not unusually peculiar. His liking of pretty things and his flamboyant dress style are given unnecessarily sinister weighing in order to try to create the impression of a peculiar man.

Willy’s sexuality and his very public arrest for importuning is featured, including an interview with the arresting officer. I think it is understood that this was (and still is) a common behaviour for homosexual men to find each other. This was particularity so at a time when to be “queer”, as it was known then, was something to be deeply ashamed of. You only have to look at Willy’s reaction to the situation to understand that. Despite a brave attempt by Willy’s agent to play it down, the facts in this case, do speak for themselves …………….but so what ? If this is the basis of brandishing Brambell a “dirty old man” then the world is full of them.

The show then discusses the break-up of Willy’s marriage and his despair at the situation. However this break-up had nothing to do with his own sexuality but rather the fact that his wife had a baby with their lodger. The evidence suggests that Willy was not only distraught at the loss of his marriage, but also at losing a child he thought was his. According to the documentary, he never saw his wife, Molly, again.

At the half way point the show has established that Willy was a drinker and would be a bugger for learning his lines. This was endorsed by Alan Simpson among others, but while it is intimated that Harry would find this frustrating, which seems reasonable, it is still a long way from the total hatred intimated at the start of the documentary.

The show continues to reflect Wilfird’s fondness of the drink, his flamboyant dress sense and lifestyle and his intolerance of people who appeared to be insincere. He once told somebody who at first patronised him and then confused him with Wilfrid Pickles to “Fuck Off” …….. Fair enough ……No ?

The focus moves to Corbett’s life and career. Alan Simpson again tells how Harry was know as “the English Marlon Brando”. Harry’s career and standing in the acting profession are discussed. The contrast in both Corbett and Brambell’s approach to acting is also highlighted. The case is made that off screen they were two very different people, who had completely different groups of friends and lifestyles.

The comment is made several times throughout the documentary that “they didn’t socialise”, (something everybody agrees with) but, with the exception of Steptoe, it appears they had nothing in common. This again is a long way from a claim of hatred.

The claim that Harry became tied to the role of Harold Steptoe was discussed and this allegation does appear to have the ring of truth. In fact the Harry H. Corbett page on this website also makes this point. One only has to compare the type of roles he was offered before Steptoe and the post Steptoe work to see the validity of this point. Harry was offered countless comedy / light entertainment type roles, but the big dramatic pieces were never to be his again.

There can be little doubt that in the same way that Albert always held Harold back and limited his opportunities, so was Harold restricting Harry. For such a talented and ambitious man as Corbett it was undoubtedly sad and frustrating.

The most moving interview in the programme is the interview with John Junkin, writer and comedian. As a close friend of Harry’s he was aware of how the role had consumed his career. At one point Junkin is on the verge of breaking down.

So far with three quarters of the programme gone, only one of the three key claims appears proven, namely that Harry was trapped by the character and the show. The people who endorsed this were close friends and Harry’s own CV stands as testament to this fact, which was widely known in any case.

The documentary discuses the Steptoe series ending on British television and an Australian promoter getting the idea of bringing them down under to tour. It is from this tour that the greatest claims about mutual hatred are made.

It has to be said that most of the claims came from people who got to know both actors at the very end of Steptoe and are in the main these are personal assessments. This website has discussed on numerous occasions the problems facing TV stars in the early 60’s and 70’s and the audience attitude towards them at that time. In reality we project our own wishes and desires for the characters we love onto the people who play those characters. Because we loved being in Albert and Harold’s company, we assume that it will be nice to be in Harry and Wilfrid’s company, when it isn’t, rather than question our own belief system, we look for other reasons. It’s not our problem, its theirs, they must have hated each other.

What seems to be true is that they didn’t like one another. Not in the sense that they hated each other, but rather they were not people who would naturally be friends. By the time they got to Australia their habits and personalities were formed and they simply went about their business as individuals, coming together as work required. They both must have been fed up with their roles especially appearing in what was not a very good show, which they had to repeat night after night. Surely the last thing either of them wanted to do was to perpetuate the whole thing any longer than the needed to.

That they were both frustrated with the situation was apparent when Wilfird let rip on live New Zealand breakfast TV. "I hate your fucking cathedrals. I hate your fucking town. It's the lowest place I've been in all my life." It is stated because of this Harry refused to get on the same plane as Wilfrid for the return flight, however the Corbett family have claimed this was nothing more than Harry’s need to take a different flight to connect with a family holiday.

Ultimately the people giving most of the evidence of hatred are the people who knew them least, the team behind the Australian tour. They would have had their own pre-conceived ideas of how Harry and Willy would be, and would naturally be disappointed that things weren’t how they imagined. It has to be accepted that both actors were totally fed up, going through the motions, basically doing it for the money. They may equally have been fed up with each other, but that still doesn’t mean they hated each other.

I feel the best evidence for them not hating each other comes from the Corbett family. The documentary goes a long way to lay the blame at Wilfrid’s door. When two people are genuinely at variance, one thing they always individually look for is some independent proof that they were right. The Corbett family could have said that the documentary vindicated Harry and that he was an innocent victim of Willy’s behaviour. After all they would have nothing to lose and they could have upheld and justified Harry’s position. In reality they did nothing of the sort and refute the claims made by the broadcast.

Perhaps most bizarrely the producers of the show didn’t even bother to ask any member of the Corbett family their opinion. Again …. why not ?

Harry’s family could have easily colluded with the shows assessments and painted a picture that put Harry in the best possible light and left Wilfrid’s reputation in tatters. This they did not do. Their reward for refusing to agree to a story that wasn’t true, was to have others explore this subject again. This ultimately led to the Curse of Steptoe film which, besides making the same hatred allegations, went on to create a totally false and misleading picture of Harry’s second wife Maurine Blott

Coming back to this documentaries three main claims :

Firstly that Wilfrid was a dirty old man. The documentary never quite makes it clear what evidence it is relying on to substantiate this claim, or what they mean by “dirty”. Given the focus on Wilfird’s homosexuality, one can only assume that the writer believes homosexuality to be dirty. For the broader minded majority there is no evidence at all to substantiate this point.

That Harry’s career suffered professionally as a result of Steptoe is undoubtedly true, but this has long been common knowledge.

Regarding the most controversial and damaging claim that they “both hated each other”. While there is undoubtedly evidence of difference between the men, frustration at various circumstances, and professional disagreements, with the exception of a couple of assessments from people who knew them least, there is no evidence whatsoever of a mutual hatred.

Having picked up the possible scent of a story, I feel the producers have let their desire for a scoop override their need to verify the allegations. This programme is undoubtedly poorly researched, and in the main testimony is sought from either the more salacious characters (Roger the Lodger) in their lives, or the people who knew them least.

Proof of the lack of research can be taken from the shows inference that after the Australian tour of 1977, they never worked together again “the relationship was over”. However a simple trawl of the internet would have prevented Mr Barrie making this erroneous claim. In May 1978 they were working back together again as Steptoe and Son, in a special programme called “Scotch on the Rocks” made to celebrate Scottish football team making it to the 1978 World Cup.

Just under 4 years later Harry H. Corbett died. Steptoe and Son had endured an almost 5 year gap between the 4th and 5th series and it was highly possible the actors would have recreated the roles again. There is certainly still an appetite for the show as the recent production of Murder at Oil Drum Lane clearly proved.

Ultimately the statement “they died hating the site of one another” is to my mind clearly not proved.

Others watching this documentary may draw a different conclusion to mine, and I would welcome their comments. The only thing I would ask is that you provide evidence to substantiate your claims. This Mr Barrie failed to do in the vast majority of his documentary.



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