50 years of Steptoe and Son: its influence on modern sitcom

Alex traces the debt modern TV comedy has to pay to the original working class sitcom, Steptoe and Son

 

Steptoe and Son  had an immense influence on British television comedy, and specifically on the writers who created some of the finest British sitcoms of the last fifty years. By the 1980s, working class sitcoms were a staple of the TV landscape. In the autumn of 1980, John Sullivan began work on a sitcom which would become one of the most popular ever screened. A year later on Tuesday 8th September 1981 at 8.30pm BBC1 transmitted “Big Brother”, the first ever episode of Only Fools and Horses

JOHN SULLIVAN: Only Fools and Horses… , Dear John

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Originally entitled Readies, John Sullivan’s second major sitcom was, like Steptoe and Son before it, a generational comedy about men living without women. The show’s casting director initially considered Wilfrid Brambell for the role of Grandad (the role eventually won by Leonard Pearce) before ruling him out as too identified as old man Steptoe. Brambell had appeared as a lift operator in the final series of Sullivan’s Citizen Smith in an episode called somewhat appropriately Only Fools and Horses…! 

John Sullivan paid homage to Steptoe and Son on several occasions, perhaps most strikingly in the episode A Losing Streak (1982) which sees Boycie (John Challis) try to stitch-up Del Boy (David Jason, incredibly the third choice after Jim Broadbent and Enn Reitel) at cards only for Grandad’s two-headed coin to rescue the Trotters pride. In the Steptoe and Son episode Full House (1963) a gullible Harold is tucked-up at cards by a bunch of neer-do-wells, losing a small fortune. Later, Albert, wearing a special pair of glasses and using a marked deck, wins the money back and sends the men away with their tails between their legs. The elder men in both become moralistic and both quote the old adage “Don’t gamble!” 

Only Fools and Horses… also shared some of the original Steptoe and Son props. The 1985 episode It’s Only Rock and Roll saw the Steptoe’s stuffed bear appear in Del’s lock-up garage in a scene where Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) invites the police around to report the theft of his musical instruments – much to Del’s chagrin. The shows share a wonderful  pathos as the protagonists struggle with their lot. Both Harold and Del Boy want a better life, yet both appear to lack the courage of their convictions. Both characters miss a mother figure and share a sense of family responsibility sacrificing their ambitions to look after an elderly relative and in Del’s case his rather naïve younger brother as well.

When Only Fools and Horses took a break after the fifth series in 1986, Sullivan changed tack and in Dear John, he created possibly his most underrated comedy. Running to only 14 episodes between 1986 and 1987, the show told the story of John Lacey (Ralph Bates) thrown out by his wife and seeking solace in a divorced and separated 1-2-1 club. Sullivan’s rich cast of characters included: Louise (Rachel Bell), who runs the group, but is clearly there because she enjoys others’ “sexual problems”; Ralph (Peter Deneyr), a greasy-haired introvert in national health specs and proud owner of a motorcycle combination; Kate (Belinda Lang), a likeable young woman unlucky in love because she has a fear of intimacy; Mrs Arnott (Jean Challis), a quiet older woman in a hat who sits at the back of the group and says little. Last but not least is the marvellous Kirk St Moritz (Peter Blake), a deluded undercover spy in tight leather trousers and possessed of a very casual attitude to relationships. He bickers with Kate, he’s tactless and has no empathy for her problems. John is almost the “normal” one yet he too has some eccentric habits notably head-butting the wall when things don’t go his way. His confused Landlady is Mrs Lemenski. Throughout the series she calls him “crazy person” yet in the sublime final episode, a Christmas special, we discover more about Mrs Lemenski and her background. When John and Mrs Lemenski dance to remind her of how she loved dancing with her late husband, the sudden poignancy is palpable and touching. Ralph Bates was a great actor who died far too young, this series would no doubt have continued had he survived.  

DAVID RENWICK: One Foot in The Grave

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Like John Sullivan, David Renwick plied his trade on The Two Ronnies, writing perhaps the finest sketch they ever performed: “Mastermind – Answering the question before last”. David Renwick enjoyed a successful partnership with fellow writer Andrew Marshall, with whom, he scripted Whoops Apocalypse in 1982 and the very underrated Robert Hardy/ John Gordon Sinclair/ Richard Wilson vehicle, Hot Metal (1986-8) both for the late night Sunday slot on ITV. 

In January 1990 his new sitcom One Foot in the Grave debuted on BBC1. At first critics didn’t know what to make of what was essentially an old-school sitcom in the tradition of Terry and June. When embittered, forcefully-retired, Victor Meldrew – the show’s permanently-perplexed  protagonist – suddenly produced a frozen cat from his freezer, however, the show changed gear. Outside in the snow he befriended a robin who was rather vulnerable and ultimately killed by a cat. A layer of poignancy is suddenly laced into the mix, something Renwick does particularly well.

In a memorable episode, set largely in the Meldrews’ bedroom, as they have a sleepless night being distracted by a loud party playing ”the laughing policeman” at top volume,  they eventually decide sleep is impossible and so talk instead, suddenly a throwaway remark, leads them to stop and reflect on their son, Stuart, who seemingly died young, perhaps explaining Meldrew’s anxiety with modern life somewhat. In another episode, Magaret’s mother struggles to use her answerphone. When the mother dies a few days later, the answerphone message is played by accident, the words taking on a poignant new meaning.

CAROLINE AHERNE & CRAIG CASH: The Royle Family CRAIG CASH & PHIL MEALEY: Early Doors

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When Caroline Aherne asked for tapes of The Family, the seminal 1974 fly-on the wall documentary by Paul Watkins, she was keenly aware of how the working class had appeared on TV over the years. Aherne settled on a naturalistic homespun Manchester setting. Victoria Wood, writing the second series of Dinnerladies around the same time, observed Aherne’s masterstroke was to avoid canned laughter which allowed the sitcom to be naturalistic and the audience deciding for themselves what they found funny. Wood now regrets that dinnerladies was filmed in front of a studio audience because it was also capable of some powerful scenes which were difficult for the live audience to respond to.

The Royle Family’s great conceit was to subvert the idea of a sitcom where the sofa is a focal point and instead make it virtually a character in itself, constantly in use as defined in the titles as the various family members watch television. The Royle Family first appeared on BBC2 in 1999 and reflected society’s obsession with TV to the detriment of family conversation. Aherne reunited Brookside stars Sue Johnston and Ricky Tomlinson as Barbara and Jim Royle. Aherne herself and co-writer Craig Cash played the daughter and son-in- law Denise and Dave, Ralf Little was Denise’s 18 year-old brother Anthony. Adhering to her quest for realism, Aherne approached veteran actress Liz Smith, the star of Hard Labour, the earliest Mike Leigh Play for Today for Nana. Jim’s best mate, the decidedly dodgy Twiggy (Geoffrey Hughes), would make the occasional appearance. Denise’s best friend was the self-consciously overweight next door neighbour Cheryl, played with sympathy and padding by Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson).

It’s often said of The Royle Family that nothing much happens. Actually, it’s the keen observations of how a family interacts that really lifts the show.  Birth, death and marriage have all been covered. Perhaps the most poignant scene is when a heavily pregnant and suddenly quite scared Denise goes into labour on the bathroom floor and is comforted by an (unusually) overwhelmed Jim. A wonderfully warm dialogue between Jim and Denise develops, largely improvised by Aherne and Tomlinson.

Aherne and Cash have honed their skills over the years. The slightly unsettling Mrs Merton and Malcolm is now a distant memory. Cash developed Early Doors which was set in a northern pub where little happened save for the regulars’ banter and drinking. The publican, played by John Henshaw, and girl he brought up as his daughter were the show’s main focus often leading to much pathos. Cash played Joe and co-writer Phil Mealey was Duffy. The evocative theme Small World was by Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera. Cash had a knack of selecting the right theme having been a DJ in Stockport where he was the first UK DJ to play Oasis. Perhaps as a return favour, Oasis allowed their 1994 song Half the World Away to be used as the title theme for The Royle Family.

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RICKY GERVAIS & STEPHEN MERCHANT: The Office

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office developed the grammar of televison docu-soaps into a sitcom based on the workplace. It was the freshest thing in the schedule for many years, yet at its heart was the spirit of Steptoe and Son, in that it was able to mix the dramatic and poignant with the embarrassingly cringe-worthy behaviour of David Brent. Like so many sitcom greats before him, ultimately he was a loser. He would often cover himself in glory and try to live up to his own hype. His impression of his colleagues and what they actually thought of him were two very different things.

The most poignant moments in The Office came in the Christmas specials: the scenes of Brent visiting the office (he so clearly loves) despite being redundant and made to feel unwelcome. Brent’s character does eventually develop when he meets a woman he actually cares about. Impressively, when his friend Chris “ Finchy” Finch insults the new lady in his life, Brent wrongfoots the audience without a dramatic rebuke as he tells Finch where to go. Topping everything, however, were the scenes between Tim and Dawn and the particularly sweet moment of vindication for the audience as Dawn, after a spat with her boyfriend, realises her love for Tim. His caring nature manifests in his wonderfully uplifting message next to her portrait of him:”… never give up!”

SAM BAIN & JESSE ARMSTRONG, DAVID MITCHELL & ROBERT WEBB: Peep Show

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One of the best Channel Four sitcoms of the early 21st century was developed for the (then) up-and-coming comedians Mitchell and Webb by writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. Peep Show was filmed using head-cams to give the characters’ literal “point of view”  accompanied by an internal monologue. The ups and downs of flat-sharing in London was explored from every angle, as Mark (Mitchell) and Jeremy (Webb) stumbled through their chaotic relationships with co-workers and would-be lovers. Super Hans – an addled hanger-on friend of Jeremy – provided much of the comic relief. Yet, at the core of the sitcom was a familiar Steptoe and Son conceit: one character goes out to work and berates the other’s indolence and inertia.  

So, after fifty years it’s fair to say a myriad of sitcoms owe a debt to the masterpiece created by Galton and Simpson back in 1962. The fact working-class sitcom is now so readily accepted and so often presented with a strong hint of realism in both dialogue and performance owes much to the pioneering work of Galton and Simpson.  When they transferred Tony Hancock’s radio series to BBC TV in 1956 they began a whole new genre of entertainment on British television. Galton and Simpson invested so much in Hancock’s career they were devastated when the comic dropped them along with his PA, Beryl Vertue (later Stephen Moffat’s mother in law – no less) in 1961.  Arguably, had Hancock not dropped Galton and Simpson they possibly wouldn’t have created the two totters from Oil Drum Lane and we would have been deprived of one of the best sitcoms every produced.

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