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Steptoe and Son

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Box cover for Steptoe & Son: The Cinema Collection DVD Package.

Steptoe and Son was a British sitcom series which served as the inspiration for the creation of the NBC-TV series Sanford and Son shown on American TV. Written by the comedy writing team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, about two rag and bone men living in Oil Drum Lane, a fictional street in Shepherd's Bush, London. Four series were broadcast by the BBC from 1962 to 1965, followed by a second run from 1970 to 1974. Its theme tune, "Old Ned", was composed by Ron Grainer.[1] The series was voted 15th in a 2004 BBC poll to find Britain's Best Sitcom.[2] It was remade in the US as Sanford and Son, in Sweden as Albert & Herbert and in the Netherlands as Stiefbeen en zoon. In 1972, a movie adaptation of the series, Steptoe and Son, was released in cinemas, with a second Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1973.

The series focussed on the inter-generational conflict of father and son. Albert Steptoe, a "dirty old man", is an old rag and bone man, set in his grimy and grasping ways. By contrast his 37-year-old son Harold is filled with social aspirations, not to say pretensions. The show contained elements of drama and tragedy, as Harold was continually prevented from achieving his ambitions. To this end the show was unusual at the time for casting actors rather than comedians in its lead roles, although both actors were drawn into more comedic roles as a consequence.

BackgroundEdit

The show had its roots in a 1962 episode of Galton & Simpson's Comedy Playhouse.[3] Galton and Simpson's association with British comedian Tony Hancock, for whom they had written Hancock's Half Hour, had ended and they had agreed to a proposal from the BBC to write a series of ten comedy shows. The fourth in the series, "The Offer", was born both out of writer's block and budgetary constraints.[4] Earlier shows in the series had cost more than expected, so the writers decided to write a two-hander set in one room. The idea of two brothers was considered but father and son worked best. Ronald Fraser was second choice for Harold, which would have produced a totally different character.

Galton and Simpson were not aiming to make a pilot for a series, having worked for seven years with Hancock. However, Tom Sloan, the BBC's Head of Comedy, told them during rehearsals that "The Offer" was a definite series pilot: he saw that the Steptoe idea had potential, as did the audience of that edition of Comedy Playhouse. Galton and Simpson were reportedly overwhelmed by this reaction, and the first of what became eight series was commissioned, the first four of which were transmitted between 1962 and 1965. The last four series were broadcast between 1970 and 1974, now in colour. At the peak of the series' popularity, it commanded viewing figures of some 28 million per episode. In addition, the early 1970s saw two feature films, two 46-minute Christmas specials. In 2005, the play Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, written by Ray Galton and John Antrobus, brought the storyline to a close.

The series was one of the first UK situation comedy programmes to employ actors rather than comedians in the principal roles. Galton and Simpson had decided that they wanted to try to write for performers who "didn't count their laughs".

The series' title music, "Old Ned", won its composer Ron Grainer his second successive Ivor Novello award. The series had no standard set of opening titles but the opening sequences would often feature the Steptoes' horse, Hercules. "Steptoe and Son" is the Steptoes' trading name, but as established in the first episode, the "Son" is not Harold but Albert. The name dates from when he and his mother—Mrs. Steptoe—worked the rounds. The first series has the pair as very rough looking and often dirty and in ragged clothes but they quickly "tidied up" for later series.

CharactersEdit

The father, Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), was born on September 26, 1899 though he always claimed to have been born in 1901. His father was unknown but is believed to have been a local muffin man who died in 1910; the portrait Albert keeps of his father is in fact of William Gladstone. He appears to have joined the army underage at the start of World War I, and is seen wearing the Mons Star medals to prove it. He served with the British Expeditionary Force to the Russian city Archangel, White Russia, in 1919. Steptoe Senior is lazy, stubborn, narrow-minded and foul-mouthed, and has revolting personal habits. Albert is content with his place in the world, utterly unpretentious and downright cynical. He can be extremely vindictive and does everything he can to prevent Harold, his son, improving himself — especially if it means him leaving home. He is normally unshaven and wears a very old pair of false teeth, discoloured and with teeth missing. His wife died in 1936. He mentions in one episode that he was one of fourteen children.

Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (played by Harry H. Corbett), was born 1925 (Corbett's birth date) in the 1960s series (or born 1932 in the 1970s series) and educated at Scrubs Lane Elementary School, is also obstinate, though prone to moments of enthusiasm about an idea. Harold has aspirations. He wants to move up in the world — most of all to escape from the family home and his stifling relationship with his father. This is the subject of the first episode, "The Offer".[5] He likes to see his business as antiques rather than junk. He bitterly regrets leaving the army; his army service took him to Malaya and he achieved the rank of Corporal. He nearly always wears a workman's belt adorned with army cap badges. In the 1960s series he was a veteran of the Korean War, and this was mentioned at least once during the 1970s series. He is a dreamer and idealist. Politically, Harold is a (UK) Labour party supporter who is appalled that his father is a Conservative Party supporter. He aims to improve his mind and his social circle but always fails, often thanks to Albert's deliberate put-downs or sabotage. Harold's exasperation and disgust at his father's behaviour often results in his repeating the catchphrase "You dirty old man"[6]

ReferencesEdit

External linksEdit

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