Following the Comedy Playhouse pilot broadcast in January 1962, The Bird (original tx 14th July 1962) was the first episode of Steptoe & Son proper. As in the pilot, Harold wishes to break free of the stifling life he leads with his father (here it’s because he’s got a “bird”) whilst Albert (borne out of a fear of being left alone) subtly manipulates his son so that their status quo isn’t disturbed.
The Bird has a very stage-like feel (the opening scene between Harold and Albert lasts for eighteen minutes). Thanks to the excellent scripting by Galton & Simpson (there’s plenty of funny lines, but many dark ones as well) and the performances of Wilfred Brambell and Harry H. Corbett this isn’t really noticeable. The eponymous bird (played by Valerie Bell) makes a very brief appearance at the end, but The Bird is pretty much a two-hander between Steptoe & Son.
The needle that exists between father and son is re-established right from the start. After an argument about whether Harold’s done everything for the night (put the horse to bed, closed the gate, etc) their conversation turns to WW1 and WW2. Harold fought in WW2 whilst Albert tells an incredulous Harold that he was mortally wounded in WW1. “How could you have been mortally wounded? If you’re mortally wounded, you snuffs it!”
Harold attempts to take Albert’s trousers down to have a look at his war wound, but Albert resists. The old man threatens that he’ll hit his son if he doesn’t stop larking about, which gives Harold pause for thought. “Used to wallop me about a lot, didn’t ya? A big fella weren’t ya? When I was seven!”
Harold then recounts his bleak life. On the cart when he was twelve, in the army for four years and then back on the cart. He’s now thirty seven and that’s all he’s ever done. When Albert attempts to stem this bitter tide by appealing to their father/son bond, Harold remains downbeat. “When was I ever a son to you? Cheap labour that’s all I was”.
After Harold tells his father that’s he’s going out again, Albert is curious and worried. Any change to their settled domestic life concerns him, and although he threatens to put himself into an old people’s home the next day (since he feels that Harold is neglecting him) it’s plain this is an empty threat. If he was expecting Harold to react, then he’s sorely disappointed.
Albert’s astounded that his son is having two shaves in one week, although when he learns that Harold’s meeting a bird it all becomes clear. One of the bleakest exchanges (albeit one that still generates a good laugh from the audience) occurs when Harold, sensing how his father disapproves of his plans, offers him his razor for a quick way out. “Oh, you poor old man. You ‘aint got nothing to live for, have you? Here, cut your throat. Put yourself out of your misery! No, go on take it, have a go. It don’t take long. It don’t hurt!” Who said edgy comedy was a relatively new concept?
That Albert is dependent on Harold is once again made clear when his son gleefully mentions some of his father’s less than stellar purchases (an Elizabethan Cocktail Cabinet and a Georgian Record Player for example). His lack of judgement, together with his failing health (although we’re never sure whether this is genuine or not) are both strong hints that he regards Harold’s bird as a threat. What would happen to him if Harold and his bird decided to set up home somewhere else?
So this means that Albert’s next suggestion (“bring her ‘ome to dinner”) is a surprising one. Albert’s clearly been thinking about this for a while – get the good chairs in from the yard, fish and chips from the chip shop, knives and forks and a jar of gherkins. How could any bird not fail to be impressed?
Shortly after, Harold gives his bird a name for the first time – Roxanne. The audience reaction to this is quite telling, clearly nice girls weren’t called Roxanne in 1962. Albert’s re-appearance – all smartened up – delights the audience, although Harold, after making a closer inspection, is disgusted. “Ugh! You dirty old man! You ‘aint washed yourself, have you. You done yourself up and you ‘aint washed yourself”. He deals with Albert’s filthy neck by rubbing a bar of soap on it and dunking him into the sink. Brutal, but effective!
Roxanne’s an hour late, and Albert skilfully plays on Harold’s increasing anger and disappointment. When she finally turns up, Harold’s in such a state that he turns her away and tells her to never come back. Albert approves. “We don’t want no women here, we’re better off by ourselves”. This just leaves the punchline – Albert moves the hands of the clock back an hour (so Roxanne wasn’t really late at all).
For me, the 1960’s black and white Steptoe & Son is king. When it returned in the 1970’s in colour there were some great episodes (Divided We Stand, Porn Yesterday, The Desperate Hours) but it never felt quite the same series. The bleakness and bite had somewhat gone and it was rather less subtle. There are plenty of gags in The Bird, but it’s also brutal in many respects. Bearing in mind that this was made in the early 1960’s, it’s plain that Steptoe & Son is absolutely key to understanding the development of British situation comedy. Steptoe & Son demonstrated that you could mix light and dark (a lesson that many other sit-coms down the decades would take to heart).
But The Bird, and the other episodes from the early series of Steptoe & Son, aren’t just curios from another age – they still amuse, entertain and sometimes shock. It’d be lovely if BBC4 repeated them – but due to their black and white nature that’s sadly not terribly likely. If you haven’t got the boxset then you should add it to your collection. True, the quality dips a little later on, but it’s still an essential series.