50 years of Steptoe and Son: now in colour

Alex delves into the later years of the classic sitcom, Steptoe And Son...

Steptoe and Son’s success inevitably led to an American remake of the show. The best known is Sandford and Son (1972-1977) with Red Foxx as Fred Sandford and Desmond Wilson as his son Lamont. It was a huge success and unlike its British counterpart spawned several spin-offs including Grady (1975-76), The Sandford Arms (1977) and Sanford (1977).  Sandford and Son was actually the second attempt by America to produce the series. The first occurred in 1965. Joseph Levine, a film producer, acquired the rights in his role as president of Embassy Pictures. A pilot was made for NBC, starring Aldo Rey and Lee Tracy, entitled Steptoe and Son but it didn’t go to series. 

Back in Britain, after much negotiation (Harry H. Corbett was especially reluctant), BBC1 controller Paul Fox brought Steptoe and Son back for a fifth series in March 1970. It was broadcast in colour for the first time and promoted on the cover of Radio Times. The series began with an episode entitled A Death in the Family. A brave start, this especially emotional episode dealt with the passing the Steptoe’s horse, Hercules; The Colour Problem chronicled Albert’s increasingly desperate attempts to secure a new colour television (something of a luxury in 1970) and TB or not TB? saw the health of the totters called into question, when they visit a mobile TB clinic. This episode is especially close to the hearts of Galton and Simpson as they actually met while in a sanatorium. The latter two episodes were missing presumed wiped until they turned up in black and white in 1994 on a tape owned by Ray Galton.

A sixth series broadcast in late 1970 saw the debut of the oft-repeated Come Dancing wherein Albert accidently taught Harold the woman’s moves for a dancing competition and Cuckoo In the Nest in which Kenneth J. Warren appeared as Albert’s lost Aussie “son”. The stranger is welcomed with open arms by Albert but with derision by Harold, who finds himself suddenly neglected, leading to the duo’s family values being severely tested. 

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Arguably, the pinnacle of the entire series is the 1972 run. This featured back to back episodes of very high quality and two all-time classics: Divided We Stan”, which saw Albert and Harold divide up their home after an argument  and The Desperate Hours which featured another dazzling guest cameo from Leonard Rossiter. The Desperate Hours is a tour-de-force as Corbett and Brambell raise their game to match Rossiter and J.G.Devlin. Two convicts on the run break into the Steptoe’s home, however, their intention of robbing Albert and Harold backfires when they discover the skint and struggling Steptoes have it worse than they did inside!

A Star is Born featured a pre-Are You Being Served? Trevor Bannister  as the director of Harold’s amateur dramatics group. Despite everything Harold puts into his performance, he is upstaged by Albert.  Men of Letters is notable for a scrabble session which results in possibly the filthiest board ever.  Albert creates an equally rude crossword for the parish magazine which in turn gets pulped, so  destroying Harold’s journalistic dreams in the process.  Loathe Story saw Harold consult a psychiatrist after he nearly murders Albert after a particularly fraught day. Joanna Lumley made an early TV appearance in this episode, famously being offered a huge  “doorstep” of a cucumber sandwich by Albert, out to impress Lumley’s  upper crust character Bunty, who is clearly out of Harold’s league.

In a Christmas special, transmitted on Christmas Eve 1973, Albert clings to a traditional Christmas at home whereas Harold is determined, for once,  to go abroad for the festivities. A bout of chicken pox puts pay to both their plans.

The final series was transmitted in 1974. It opened with Séance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard with Patricia Routledge as a medium trying to contact Harold’s mother; Back in Fashion saw Albert’s old gangster outfit go down a storm at a fashion shoot which Harold has organised in the yard; And So To Bed centred on Harold’s attempt to lure the opposite sex with a waterbed which Albert accidently punctures; The Seven Steptoeri is about Albert’s interest in Kung Fu movies and an unlikely pensioner gang  besting the local villain, Frankie Barrow, (a comically menacing Henry Woolf) after his heavies break Harold’s newly-found Chinese vase and demand protection money . 

A final Christmas special was shown on Boxing Day 1974. Having persuaded his Dad into an expensive trip abroad Harold ‘discovers’ his own passport is out-of-date. It’s a poignant departure for Albert but Harold’s attendant depression soon lifts and he runs around the corner, jumps into a nearby sports car and drives off with a blonde Albert would no doubt describe as “a nice bit of crumpet”. Appearing to have finally escaped his Dad, the pair head to Bognor!

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The four colour series gave the show a renewed vigour and made it even more popular commercially. Two spin-off films were made for the big screen: Steptoe and Son in 1972 and Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1974. Like its sixties predecessor, a  radio series based on the last four seasons was recorded for Radio 2 between 1975 and 1976. Harry H. Corbett suggested a tour of Australia with a stage production of the show in 1977.

Despite his constant fear of typecasting Harry H. Corbett appeared in an episode of Shoestring in 1979 as a very unorthodox security guard and in 1981 he starred alongside Dick Emery. He also had some success with Grundy, an ITV sitcom about a newsagent. Wilfrid Brambell appeared as the station master in the 1976 stage version of The Ghost Train, a play written in the thirties by Arnold Ridley who later found fame as Godfrey in Dad’s Army.  Brambell appeared as a security guard in an episode of Citizen Smith entitled Only Fools and Horses…(more about that in part three). 

Although Brambell’s character often pretended to die, shockingly, it was Harry H. Corbett who died first, succumbing to a heart attack aged just 57 in 1982. His funeral was conducted in the style of a totter’s wake with a horse drawn cortege. Wilfrid Brambell was interviewed on BBC current affairs show Nationwide on the evening of Corbett’s death. Despite stories to the contrary about their off-camera relationship, the two remained good friends and it was obvious his co-star’s sudden death was a deep shock to the older man. When Brambell  died from cancer in 1985, it was the end of a legendary TV partnership. Three years later the BBC revived Steptoe and Son and repeated all the available colour episodes to a very appreciative audience of 18 million viewers.

In the mid-1990s a couple of missing episodes were rediscovered which  led to a repeat season on BBC2 of the monochrome series. Again the show delivered large audiences. Steptoe and Son appeared on VHS and then on DVD.  A box set containing all the episodes  was released in late 2008. In 2009 BBC Four transmitted The Curse Of Steptoe. Jason Isaacs and Phil Davies appeared as Harold and Albert in a drama based on the allegedly volatile relationship between the two men. Its overnight rating of 1.4 million is the largest for BBC Four to date. Harry H. Corbett’s family questioned the accuracy of the drama and won an apology from the BBC. The film hasn’t been repeated.

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They don’t make sitcom like this anymore and like an old friend, Steptoe and Son will always be a welcome addition to any TV schedule. 

Next Time: Steptoe and Son‘s influence on the British sitcom.

Read the first part: 50 years of Steptoe and Son: the original working class sitcom, here.

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