The Royal Variety Performance of 1963 has become one of the most famous in the history of the series.
On the bill that year were The Beatles and John Lennon's "Rattle your Jewelry" comment has become a moment of TV history in its own right. What made it an extra special show was the surprise appearance of Steptoe and Son.
The show was broadcast on 10th November (on ITV) and must have had the nation screaming with laughter and wondering just how they got away with it. While by today’s standards the humor may be considered very tame, in 1963 to make fun of the Queen and her family was still something that could be considered a very dangerous thing to do. The Steptoe team produced a sketch which while having a laugh at the Royal Family, managed to do it in a way that was warm, endearing and above all very funny.
The sketch opens with Albert and Harold totting on The Mall. It soon becomes apparent that Albert has wasted no time in going to Buckingham Palace to see if he can get a bit of business, "They have junk, just like everybody else"!
Albert starts to unload his sack and produces a series of items that have Royal connections. When Harold asks how he got these items, Albert informs him that a little boy (we assume Prince Charles) gave them to him. Albert gave him "a little windmill on a stick" in exchange. The roars of laughter from the audience show just how much they enjoyed the sketch and how popular Steptoe had become with the British public in just a short space of time.
The sketch ends when it is apparent that Albert has one or two items more than he should have in his sack.
Even though the sketch lasts little more than 10 minutes, in true Galton and Simpson style they manage to put in a contemporary political comment as well as some references to topical subjects of the day. They also manage to give us an insight into what is now a lost business, Albert’s references to leaving a sack and a calling card and giving Balloon's and other rewards in return for junk are things I can vaguely remember.
The sketch was released on the PYE record label, but has been long deleted. Copies do come up for sale from time to time on eBay. I have decided to make an audio version available below.
It was not clear if a video recording of the sketch still existed. It would have made an excellent extra to one of the DVD series releases. Evidence has come to light that suggests the sketch is not lost, but is sitting on a shelf somewhere gathering dust. In the autumn of 2006 an ITV digital station ran a series entitled "The Best of the Royal Variety Performance", at least one of these shows featured an excerpt from the Steptoe performance. Perhaps one day the BBC can agree to put it as an extra on a future Steptoe DVD release. It would be a fitting apology for all those wonderful episodes they erased.
If you choose to listen to the recording below, there are a couple of topical comments that many not be apparent to listeners some 40 years after the original performance. Therefore to increase your enjoyment and help put things into context the following may be of interest :
Late Opening of Parliament
In 1963 the political establishment in the UK had been rocked to its foundations. The conservatives had been in power for over 10 years, with Harold MacMillan as Prime Minister. In March of 63 the news broke that cabinet minister John Profumo had been sharing a mistress with a Senor Naval attaché at the Russian Embassy. Besides the obvious scandal this caused at the time, there was a concern that "pillow talk" may have compromised British security.
The scandal was constantly featured in the newspapers, and a critical report by Lord Denning put considerable pressure on an already unpopular government. In October at the Tory party conference, MacMillian announced he was in ill health (possibly a convenient excuse) and would have to resign immediately. This not only caused problems in the Conservative party but the nation was left without a leader.
Eventually Macmillan was succeeded by Alec Douglas-Home, however in-order to take a seat in the House of Commons he had to renounce his peerage. He was eventually appointed as leader of the Conservative party in November 1963. All of this activity must have naturally put much of the political process on hold, hence Harold's well received comment.
Harold uses the traditional cockney method of giving something a name by using the real name of somebody connected with that item. In the early 1960's Cyril Lord was as famous for his carpet business as Richard Branson is as famous for Virgin today. His advertising slogan was "Here is luxury you can afford from Cyril Lord".