After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated by him (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) they found themselves at something of a loose end.
The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished. Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son. When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often crudely dubbed as “kitchen sink” drama. It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television. Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.
The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot. Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck. One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour which generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James.
Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was. Brothers maybe? Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.
Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962 – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom. However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.
Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business. Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home. He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.
In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind a forge a new future for himself. Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms. Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself. As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself! That’s no way to run a business.”
The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it. And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better. Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off. But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.
His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it. His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home. And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle. “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits! Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it! They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”
Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave. Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail. He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself. Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move. Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?
This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell. As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could hear a pin drop in the audience. Corbett wasn’t attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, he was simply acting to the script. This was another notable thing about Steptoe and Son, as before this sitcoms had tended to star comedians and were vehicles especially written for their talents, such as Hancock’s Half Hour. Steptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, which is an important distinction.
When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.
The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.
Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour. There’s no winners or losers here. Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other. We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character). But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.
The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one. Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.