Steptoe and Son

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Harry H. Corbett


Harry was born in Burma, India on 28 February 1925, the son of a British Army Officer. Following the death of his mother he was sent home to Manchester, where he was raised by an aunt.

He served in the Royal Marines during the Second World War, and it was only after he was discharged that he decided to take up an acting career. He followed the path of many other aspiring actors touring in repertory companies learning his trade. His reputation as an actor began to grow and he was invited to join the famous Theatre Workshop Company in Manchester working under Joan Littlewood. In the mid 1950’s he added the "H" to his name to distinguish himself from the creator of another famous TV star Sooty.!!


If ever asked what the “H” stood for he would reply "H’anything"! However to his friends within the business he was affectionately known simply as “H”.

In 1958 he started to land good film roles and his reputation as an actor grew. Alan Simpson recalls that Harry had a reputation as the actors, actor and often referred to him as the English, Marlon Brando. There must have been a degree of irony for Harry in latter years that at the time he was approached to take on the role of Harold Steptoe, he was performing in the lead role of a Shakespeare tragedy. A subject we will come back to later.

Such was Harry's standing in the acting profession that in 1962 he was awarded the "Actor of the Year Award".

In January 1962 Harry made his first appearance as the downtrodden Harold Steptoe. Harry the serious method actor was getting his first taste of TV comedy drama. Apparently after rehearsing the role Harry and Wilfrid were taken into the studio. The first thing Harry noticed were rows of seats facing the set. “What are those for”? he asked, only to be informed they were for the audience.” The audience” he said in surprise “I shall have to rethink my whole performance”.

Harry found the Steptoe idea exciting as it combined comedy with social reality. In a TV interview Harry said "I had met Galton and Simpson and told them how much I admired their work, and I really did, and I said to them if they ever felt I could work with them then...well, I never envisaged in a thousand years going into light entertainment. I looked at what was on television and the only thing making any, I don't know, social comment was the Hancocks, the Eric Sykes, this kind of half hour comedy programme, you see. And ooh, I did envy them. Anyway, they remembered this conversation, clearly, and this thing about the rag and bone men thumped through the door. I read it, and immediately wired back - 'delicious, delighted, can't wait to work on it".

None of the actors, nor to be fair Galton and Simpson could have known what was to follow. For the first time jobbing actors were to achieve the same fame and exposure as top of the bill comedians. They were national figures recognised everywhere they went, the difference being that where Tony Hancock was recognised as Tony Hancock. Harry was now in the eyes of the public, Harold Steptoe.

While at first the fame and regular work must have been welcome Harry soon found that his other acting opportunities were becoming limited. Again it must be remembered that peoples attitude to television was completely different in the 1960’s to now. While nowadays it is fully possible for David Jason to play Del Boy Trotter one week and be seen as Inspector Frost the next, the public in the days of Steptoe were less comfortable with such contrasts.

Harry found that any additional work he was offered tended to be bawdy comedy roles, loose parodies of his now alter ego, Harold Steptoe. He did try his hand at Shakespeare again, but this time all the audience could see and hear was Harold Steptoe trying to make a go of it. It just didn't work.

This dosn't mean that Harry's skills and talents were not recognised. In 1972 he was awarded an OBE for his services to entertainment.

Harry still maintained his professional standards and his performances in Steptoe still allowed us to see glimpses of the quality actor that lay beneath. For many people Harry’s acting highlight in Steptoe came when Leonard Rossiter was cast as an escaped convict in the episode “The Desperate Hours”. The story is more morose than many of the other tales and shows that both Rossiter and Corbett are prisoners trying to escape from the current situation. Both actors seemed to feed of each other and at times the distinctions between comedy and drama are lost.

When the series ended Harry tried to find work away form the comedy arena, but he was nevertheless offered a series of cameo roles in many 1970’s soft porn romps. He still secured the odd TV role and also featured in the 1977 cult movie Jabberwocky. His last feature film was Silver Dream Racer made in 1980.

Harry’s final TV appearance was for ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. It was screened two months after his death. At the age of just 57  Harry suffered a second heart attack on 21 March 1982. Wilfrid interviewed live on TV broke down in tears.

Harry was buried in Penhurst, East Sussex.



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