Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 58 (list of episodes)
Final episode date 26 December 1974
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of series 8
First episode date 4 January 1962
Network BBC One
|Created by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson|
Starring Harry H. CorbettWilfrid Brambell
Cast Wilfrid Brambell, Harry H Corbett, Joanna Lumley
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Steptoe and Son is a British sitcom written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson about a father-and-son rag-and-bone business. They live on 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. The series was voted 15th in a 2004 poll by the BBC to find Britain's Best Sitcom. 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 film adaptation of the series, Steptoe and Son, was released in cinemas, followed by a sequel Steptoe and Son Ride Again in 1973.
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- Recurring characters
- Other recurring characters mentioned but not seen
- Sketch appearances
- Other countries
- Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane
- When Steptoe Met Son
- The Curse of Steptoe
- Steptoe and Son
- Steptoe and Son by Kneehigh
- DVD releases
The series focused on the inter-generational conflict of father and son. Albert Steptoe, a "dirty old man", is an elderly 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.
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The show had its roots in a 1962 episode of Galton & Simpson's Comedy Playhouse. Galton and Simpson's association with 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. 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 28,000,000 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.
Outside filming of the Steptoe's yard took place at a car breakers' yard in Norland Gardens, London W11, then changing to Stable Way, Latimer Road, for the later series. Both sites have subsequently been redeveloped with no evidence now remaining of the iconic entrance gates through which the horse and cart was frequently driven.
The father, Albert Edward Ladysmith Steptoe (Wilfrid Brambell), was born on 26 September 1899, though he always claimed to have been born in 1901. He is illegitimate, his father being 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. However, information delivered in some episodes suggests Albert's father was also a rag and bone man. For example, it is revealed that the "...and Son" in the business name referred to Albert, when his father had "Steptoe and Son" painted on the yard gate. Albert appears to have joined the army underage at the start of the First World War, and is seen wearing the Mons Star medals to prove it. On one occasion he tells a reporter that he joined the Grenadier Guards, somewhat unlikely given his small stature. Among his claims, he says he was hit by a grenade in 1917 which did not explode. He threw it back to the German trenches with devastating effect, especially on the canteen, sending sausages and sauerkraut flying into the air. He apparently served with the British Expeditionary Force to Archangel, White Russia, in 1919. He is lazy, stubborn, narrow-minded, 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, from 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 – alternately named Gladys and then Emily – died in 1936. He mentions in one episode that he was one of fourteen children. It is revealed in "Steptoe a la Cart" that he has a daughter in France, and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mourning!" suggests his "niece" could also be his daughter; in "Steptoe and Son – and Son!" that he has a son in Australia.
Harold Albert Kitchener Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett) was born in 1925 (Corbett's birth date) in the 1960s series, or around 1930 in the 1970s series. In the episode "Loathe Story" he says he was aged ten just before the outbreak of the Second World War, which would indicate a birth year in 1928 or 1929, and in the episode "A Star is Born" he claims to be the same age as Sean Connery, born August 1930. Harold was educated at Scrubs Lane Elementary School. He too is obstinate, though prone to moments of enthusiasm about an idea. Harold unlike Albert, 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". 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, however, he had served in the final years of the Second World War, though he had tried to avoid being called up into the Royal Artillery on false medical grounds. He is a dreamer and idealist. Politically, Harold is a Labour 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 due 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".
The Vicar played by Anthony Sharp appears in two episodes first in series seven, episode one and again in the following series episode three. He is a man in the last years of his middle ages who regularly calls into the Steptoe household in order to get contributions for church funds or fetes. Sharp's first appearance in the sitcom however was as a doctor in the fifth series (1970) episode five, entitled The Colour Problem.
Frank Thornton made five appearances in the sitcom from series one up until the 1973 Christmas special. He played various roles including a barman, a butler and a holiday salesman. He also appeared in the 1973 film Steptoe and Son Ride Again. Apart from Brambell and Corbett he is the most featured actor in the Steptoe and Son series with a total of five appearances throughout 1962 until 1973 and one appearance in the 1973 film.
Dudley Foster appeared in four episodes between 1963 and 1970. His first appearance was as Martin, a man who tries to cheat both Harold and Albert out of money though Poker. The episode was entitled Full House. He also appeared as a police detective, a labour party agent and a car salesman, although he was not credited for the car salesman appearance.
Other recurring characters (mentioned but not seen)
- Dolly Clackett, a local girl who Harold sees as a last resort for his romantic dates.
- Mrs Steptoe, Albert's wife and Harold's mother. She died in 1936, two days before Christmas.
- Aunt Rose. Albert's sister-in-law. An aunt Harold looked up to in his youth but it turned out that she starred in an adult film with Albert two weeks before her death.
Other notable celebrity appearances
All the following celebrities appeared in one episode unless stated otherwise, the year given is the year that the episode was broadcast.
The episodes often revolve around (sometimes violent) disagreements between the two men, Harold's attempts to bed women and momentary interest over things found on his round. As in many of the best examples of British comedy, much of the humour derives from the pathos of the protagonists' situation, especially Harold's continually thwarted (usually by the elder Steptoe) attempts to "better himself" and the unresolvable love/hate relationship that exists between the pair.
Albert almost always comes out on top, and routinely and effortlessly proves himself easily superior to his son whenever they compete, e.g. in their frequent game-playing, such as snooker played into the night and pouring rain in 1970 and the Scrabble and badminton games in the 1972 series. Harold takes them desperately seriously and sees them as symbols of his desire to improve himself, but his efforts come to nothing every time. His father's success is partly down to superior talent but is aided by cynical gamesmanship and undermining of his son's confidence. In addition, Albert habitually has better judgement than his son, who blunders into all sorts of con tricks and blind alleys as a result of his unrealistic, straw-clutching ideas. Occasionally the tables are turned, but overall the old man is the winner, albeit in a graceless fashion.
Harold is infuriated by these persistent frustrations and defeats, even going to the extent in "Divided We Stand" (1972) of partitioning the house in two so that he does not have to share with his selfish, uncultured and negative father. Predictably, his plan ends in failure and ultimately he can see no way out. However, for all the bitterness there is an essential bond between the pair. Deep down, Albert seems to love his son and his behaviour is perhaps a selfish but misguided way of holding on to him so he does not have to face life alone. When the crunch comes, Harold sticks by his father. This protective bond is much in evidence in "The Seven Steptoerai" (1974) when they are menaced by a local gangster running a protection racket. Typically though, it is Albert who gets them ingeniously out of a very hazardous predicament.
The 1974 Christmas special ended the run and seems Harold once again is on the bad end of poor planning, when he books a Christmas holiday abroad, but then finds his passport is out of date. His father must go alone, and Harold, tearfully it seems, waves him off to enjoy a potential good time without him. Harold trudges away, only to jump in a car with a lovely girl to drive off on his own holiday – revealing that he had engineered the whole situation from the beginning. A victory, but only a temporary one – the viewers know that once their holidays end they will return to the familiar status quo once more.
Both of the main actors used voices considerably different from their own. Wilfrid Brambell, despite being Irish, spoke with a Received Pronunciation English accent, as did Harry H. Corbett. Brambell was aged 49 when he accepted the role of Albert, only 13 years older than Corbett. For his portrayal, he acquired a second set of "rotten" dentures to accentuate his character's poor attitude to hygiene.
During its production in the 1960s and 1970s, Steptoe and Son marked itself out as radical compared to most UK sitcoms. This was an age when the predominant sources of laughter in British comedy were farce, coincidence, slapstick and innuendo. However Steptoe and Son brought greater social realism. Its characters were not only working class but demonstrably poor. The earthy language and slang used were in marked contrast to the refined voices heard on most television of the time: e.g., in "Back in Fashion", Harold warns Albert that when the models arrive, "if you feels like a D'Oyly Carte (rhyming slang for 'fart'), you goes outside." Social issues and debates were routinely portrayed, woven into the humour. The programme did not abandon the more traditional sources of comedy but used them in small doses. The characters, and their intense and difficult relationship, displayed deeper qualities of writing and performance than comedy fans were used to.
The pilot episode and the first four series which aired from 1962–1965 was recorded in the BBC Lime Grove Studios in London. When the show returned in 1970 after a four-year hiatus, the programme was made in the BBC Television Centre studios in West London, as from 1970 the show would be recorded in colour.
Steptoe and Son is rare among 1960s BBC television programmes in that every episode has survived, despite the mass wiping of BBC archive holdings between 1972 and 1978. However, all the instalments from the first 1970 series and all but two from the second that were originally made in colour only survive in the form of black and white domestic videotape recordings. Myth has it that the episodes were recorded off-air by Galton and Simpson themselves, but in fact they were copies made from the master tapes for them by an engineer at the BBC using a Shibaden SV-700 half-inch reel-to-reel b/w video recorder—a forerunner of the video cassette recorder. In 2008 the first reel of a b/w telerecording of the series 5 episode "A Winter's Tale" (lasting approx 15 minutes) was returned to the BBC; this is the only telerecording of a colour Steptoe and Son episode known to still exist.
The original 2" Quad videotapes of all the episodes of the original 1962–65 series were wiped in the late 1960s. However, these episodes mostly survive on film transfers of the original videotapes as 16 mm black and white telerecordings. The exception being 'My Old Man's a Tory' which only exists as an optical transfer made from a domestic 405 line reel to reel videotape obtained from Galton and Simpson.
The BBC has released ten DVDs of the series—each of the eight series, and two compilations entitled "The Very Best of Steptoe and Son" volumes 1 and 2. Two Christmas specials are also available on DVD, as are two feature films: Steptoe and Son and Steptoe and Son Ride Again. A boxed set of Series 1–8 and the two Christmas specials was released on Region 2 DVD by 2entertain on 29 October 2007.
A special one-off remake of the "A Winter's Tale" episode aired on BBC Four on 14 September 2016, as part of the BBC's Lost Sitcom season recreating lost episodes of classic sitcoms.
In 1977 the two actors appeared in character for two television ads for Ajax cleaning products, recorded during their tour of Australia. In 1981 their last ever appearance together was in a UK ad for Kenco Coffee. This led to what proved to be unfounded rumours of a new series for 1981.
A number of LPs and EPs featuring TV soundtracks have been released.
To tie-in with the original series, two novelisations were written by Gale Pedrick:
In 2002 BBC Books published Steptoe and Son by Galton, Simpson and Ross which comprehensively covered the television series, the radio series, films, Royal Variety Shows, commercials and the Sanford & Son spin-off.
Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane
In October 2005, Ray Galton and John Antrobus premiered their play, Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, at the Theatre Royal, York. It then went on tour across the country. It was set in the present day and related the events leading to Harold killing his father and their eventual meeting thirty years later, Albert then appearing as a ghost. By the end, it is clearly established that this is very much a conclusion to the Steptoe saga.
It was not the first time this idea had been considered. When Wilfrid Brambell left the UK after the third series to pursue an eventually unsuccessful Broadway musical career, Galton and Simpson toyed with the concept of 'killing off' Albert in order to continue the show without having to await Brambell's return. The character would have been replaced with Harold's illegitimate son, Arthur (a part thought to be intended for actor David Hemmings). This idea was detested by Corbett, who thought it ridiculous, although the 2008 drama The Curse of Steptoe depicts Corbett as being delighted with the concept, since assuming the role of father would allow Harold's character some development and growth, which he felt was long overdue.
In 1972 a film version was released of the show proving highly popular. This first film, also called Steptoe and Son – featuring a young Mike Reid and focusing on Harold getting married but still not being able to get away from his father. Due to popular demand another film, Steptoe and Son Ride Again, was released in 1973 which was also highly popular with fans.
When Steptoe Met Son
The programme reveals how Brambell and Corbett were highly dissimilar to their on-screen characters. Corbett felt he had a promising career as a serious actor, but was trapped by his role as Harold and forced to keep returning to the series after typecasting limited his choice of work. Brambell, meanwhile, was a homosexual, something that in the 1960s was still frowned upon and, until the Sexual Offences Act 1967, illegal and was thus driven underground. The documentary went on to describe an ill-fated final tour of Australia, during which the already strained relationship between Corbett and Brambell finally broke down for good.
The Curse of Steptoe
The Curse of Steptoe is a television play which was first broadcast on 19 March 2008 on BBC Four as part of a season of dramas about television personalities. It stars Jason Isaacs as Harry H. Corbett and Phil Davis as Wilfrid Brambell. The drama is based upon the actors' on-and-off-screen relationship during the making of the BBC sitcom Steptoe and Son, and is based on interviews with colleagues, friends and family of the actors, and the Steptoe writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
The screenplay was written by Brian Fillis, also responsible for the similarly themed 2006 drama Fear of Fanny, which is about television personality Fanny Cradock off-screen. The 66-minute film is directed by Michael Samuels and produced by Ben Bickerton.
Both programmes were considered inaccurate by writers Galton and Simpson and Corbett's family.
Steptoe and Son
In March 2011 the Engine Shed Theatre Company performed three episodes of the iconic series live on stage at the Capitol Theatre, Horsham. Jack Lane played Albert Steptoe and Michael Simmonds played Harold. The three episodes performed by the company were: Men Of Letters, Robbery With Violence and Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard. Engine Shed went on to adapt and perform the two Christmas Specials later that year.
Many of the original TV episodes of Steptoe and Son have now been officially adapted to the stage by the original writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, with David Pibworth and are available for production on www.classiccomedyscripts.co.uk
Steptoe and Son by Kneehigh
Performed in 2012 and 2013 by Kneehigh, Steptoe and Son was adapted from four of the show's original scripts. The production was designed to highlight the Beckettian nature of Albert and Harold's situation, focusing on themes of over-reliance and being trapped within social class. The production toured the UK and received positive reviews from the Financial Times and three stars from The Guardian's Lynn Gardner.
In Australia, Season 1 was released in 2004, Season 2 and Season 3 in 2006, Season 4 and Season 5 in 2007, Season 6 and Season 7 in 2008 and Season 8 in 2009.