Thursday, March 20, 2008

Curses

Jason Isaacs as Lucius MalfoyShock horror no Torchwood review today as I didn’t watch it. Karen and I elected to watch the Curse Of Steptoe instead leaving the dubious joys of Torchwood for Catch Up TV later tonight.

My memories of Steptoe And Son are hazy and incomplete. I wasn’t old enough at the time to fully appreciate its grand humour and its even grander sense of tragedy but some of the classic moments nevertheless impinged on my childhood memory and remain with me still. The scene with Albert sitting in the sink washing himself, his knees up around his ears, trying to find the soap is particularly vivid for some reason.

And I certainly wasn’t old enough to appreciate the impressive acting abilities of Harry H Corbett and it’s only now, looking back at the show, that I can’t help but wonder if it was all a waste of his talents – as fine a sitcom as Steptoe And Son undoubtedly is.

This was certainly the central premise to the BBC’s Curse Of Steptoe. If you missed it, well, you missed out big time. Two of the UK’s finest actors – Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis – made Harry Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell live again. Phil Davis is one of Karen’s favourite actors and Jason Isaacs is one of mine – mostly it has to be said because of his portrayal as Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films. Isaacs is something of a chameleon. One of those actors who does little to change his physical appearance in a role and yet manages to look totally unlike himself every single time.

Last night all trace of the cold and haughty, carefully pronounced eloquence of Lucius Malfoy was gone... and was instead replaced by the broad, nasally tones of Harry H Corbett. It was a remarkable transformation.

The story of life behind the Steptoe scenes was a sad one – success tinged with failure or at least the haunting notion of unfulfilled potential; Corbett and Brambell both finding themselves hopelessly typecast and unable to shake off the dour gloom of Steptoe’s yard. All of Corbett’s much vaunted acting prowess thrown away on series after series of what was at the end of the day merely broad comedy for the masses. Gritty social commentary yes but as one of Harry’s theatre chummies intimated, hardly Shakespeare, hardly the pinnacle of what he was truly capable of.

Suddenly the scene with Harold sobbing at the futility of his situation – knowing he’ll never get out of the rag & bone trade and escape the depressing pall of his dad’s yard – takes on an immensely poignant overtone.

As I said, all this passed me by as a kid but now the tropes and the tragic irony all have extra resonance and significance now that I am a man with more than a few shattered and abandoned dreams behind me.

Not that my life is anything like Steptoe’s yard I hasten to add. I still have my goals and a few dreams that I’m climbing towards and I’m lucky that, unlike Harry Corbett / Harold Steptoe, life has thrown more than a few wonderful opportunities my way to enable me to move on and get a leg up every now and then.

And I never ever bathe in the sink.

Honest.

16 comments:

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Oh no, I missed the Steptoe & Son thingy last night - I do hope they repeat it.

Enjoy is probably the wrong word, but Steptoe & Son did make a huge impression on me as a child.

Steve said...

Laura, I know exactly what you mean yet it's oddly compulsive for a sitcom. Fantastic peformances. Rarely bettered.

TimeWarden said...

I hope you don't get in the shower with the washing up either! I remember seeing Jason Isaacs in an episode of "Taggart", years ago. And, Phil Davis is one of my Mum's favourite actors, too!!

Not sure how I felt about "The Curse of Steptoe". I enjoyed it but part of me feels these things should be left alone. I love "Steptoe and Son" and, in a way, raking over the actors' private lives sullies the memory of a much-cherished show!

Steve said...

I didn't think it was too invasive, TimeWarden, but I do take your point. It did feel rather intimate and "nosey"... but it was good to have the men behind the characters fleshed out a bit... although the final irony of course is that to a point "Curse Of Steptoe" was no less a work of fiction that the original "Steptoe And Son"...

The Hitch said...

Harry H Corbett was considered to be one of the finest actors of his gernation prior to his taking on Steptoe, he was a great sucess but it killed his theatrical career, he also served in the Royal marines commandos during ww2 and saw action.
Ronnie Barker was a great actor, just think of his Arkwright and Fletcher characters he WAS them, you only saw those people, not Ronnie Barker the actor in anew role, now that is a rare skill.
David Jason can also pull that off,infact so can Nicholas lyndhurst

Reluctant Blogger said...

I have always struggled to watch TV programmes with few female characters in them. Not because I only have one thing on my mind. I'm not really sure why it is. Although I did like "Porridge" so there are exceptions. But I could never get into Steptoe and Son - I think it was always just too grey for me at the time.

I bet you were bathed in the sink once or twice as a baby! There is probably photographic evidence lurking around in a drawer somewhere!

Have a lovely Easter.

Gina

Inchy said...

I used to get a bath in the kitchen sink when I was a kid. It was the done thing in the slums of Olde Falkirk Towne.

As for Steptoe & Son, it was one of the golden greats. My fav was the one where they built a dividing wall through the whole building. Genius.

Daisy said...

i have seen a few of the steptoe and son's and was very surprised at how we stole those shows to make "sanford and son" here in the states...only it is a black man and his son...everything else is exactly the same...i was quite shocked...

Steve said...

Hi Hitch, the death of Corbett's theatrical career was made plain in the show and was central to his tragedy. It was beautifully done - very deft without belabouring the point. I'd like to think that people are less snobby about TV work these days... as you say David Jason manages to transcend both comedy and straight acting... but would he be accepted playing Shakespeare?

Gina, Steptoe and Son is very male - quite claustrophobically so. Coupled with its inherent darkness it's also uncomfortable viewing sometimes... but sometimes, that's genius for you! I must admit I do have memories of being bathed in the sink when my parents couldn't be bothered to run a bath or wanted to keep the water bills down. Not nice and the plug is very uncomfortable! Hope you have a lovely Easter too!

Inchy, see my comment above for my own sink wash confession. I have vague memories of them building the wall and also the episode when their horse died. I'm feeling a temptation to look on Amazon for a DVD boxed set if there is one.

Daisy, I'm always nonplussed as to why shows have to be "remade" when they're exported from the UK to the US - it rarely happens the other way round: we get most of your sitcoms pure and unadultered and are able to appreciate them without any loss of humour or meaning. It's almost like our sitcoms are too British for a US audience but it would be interesting to know for sure whether that is actually the case and not just some US TV producer's assumption...!

Daisy said...

steve...i think what the deal with sanford and son was to take your show and make it black...it came out in the 70's and they were trying to get varying shows on and didn't have an idea of what to do and just pilfered the idea and assimilated it to the culture they were aiming at...it was odd to see steptoe and son years later and how exact it is to the show i grew up watching...

Steve said...

Hi again Daisy, I guess maybe the black social issue at the time was comparable to the class situation that was still extant in the UK during the original broadcasts of Steptoe? Who knows - it is weird when things get "translated" and then you compare them to the original...!

The Sagittarian said...

Its actually an intersting experience to go back into your childhood! Sometimes in the past when I have done that , like you, I have had a whole new way of looking at something and while it hasn't taken away the childhood experience it has certainly added to it from afar. (If that makes sense, if not - more bubbly and extra lashings of ginger beer!!)

Annie said...

I have never been a fan of Steptoe and Son. However, the 'Curse of Steptoe' was a fantastic insight into the lives of the 2 actors. You are right, Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis are fine actors and perfect in their roles of Messrs Corbett and Brambell.
I noticed that Owen from Torchwood was in it - he gets everywhere - impressive for a dead man!

Steve said...

I know what you mean, Amanda. Sometimes revisiting is great but other times it's a profound disappointment. I used to love The Man From Uncle as a kid but now I can't help but see it for the nonsensical hogwash that it is. I don't think I'll ever get over it...!

Hi Annie, yes Burn Gorman's moustache and beard were very impressive. Scary even. Very David Bellamy-esque... I was waiting for him to start wooting wound in the undergwofe...

Rol said...

Though I didn't watch it, I understand what you say about unfulfilled dreams, and how we respond more to such themes as we get older. Doesn't mean we should give up trying though!

Steve said...

Thank you Rol - thought for the day. If not the year!