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.