Steptoe and Son (1965 American Pilot) – Kaleidoscope From The Archive Collection

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Most people will probably be aware of Sanford and Son, the successful US version of Steptoe and Son which ran for a total of 136 episodes during the 1970’s. But an earlier attempt (by Joseph E. Levine in 1965) to adapt the series for the American market has remained, until now, little more than a footnote in the Steptoe and Son story.

This was due to the fact that no recording was known to exist – until, that is, researchers from Kaleidoscope stumbled on a film print in Ray Galton’s basement. This is touched upon in the brief special feature, which we’ll come to later, but what of the main course?

Whilst Ray Galton and Alan Simpson have a prominent “created by” credit on the opening titles, their voices are largely absent. Although the half hour does feature a squabbling father and son duo called Albert and Harold who run a rag and bone business, it has a very different feel from the BBC Comedy Playhouse pilot, The Offer.

That was a claustrophobic two-hander, whereas this is more expansive (there are a number of other speaking parts, most prominently Jonathan Harris). Albert (Lee Tracy) is still the manipulative one, but Tracy doesn’t have Wilfred Brambell’s air of pathetic defeat. Instead, Tracy’s Albert is a spry sort of chap, happy to hang out at the local café (singing along with the local beatniks, no less).

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Aldo Ray’s Harold has the same sort of put-upon air that Harry H. Corbett excelled at, although Ray doesn’t really have long enough to make his mark. There are a few brief moments when his anger comes bubbling to the surface though – had the show gone to a series then this might have been an interesting area to develop.

One part of the pilot which isn’t very effective is the soundtrack. The incidental music is very much in the “waa, waa, waaaaa” tradition – hammering the comedy points home with a lack of subtlety. The laugh track (I’m not sure whether it was canned or actually a genuine audience) also seems a little off.

Although Harold does call Albert a “dirty old man” several times, the context is quite different from the British original. It’s nothing to do with his lack of hygiene (this Albert is always very dapper) instead Harold’s cursing is aimed at the way his father always manages to outsmart him (with a “waa, waa, waaaaa” on the soundtrack, no doubt).

Although you might have expected Phil Shuken’s teleplay to be an adaptation of The Offer (and some of the pre-publicity suggested this was so) the pilot is a totally different story. Although Harold is keen to leave, he’s pre-empted by Albert who signs the business over to him. Of course this is only a ruse and the status quo is restored at the end after Albert tricks Harold into burning the agreement. Harold expresses mild exasperation at this – but there’s no room for the emotional distress displayed by Harry H. Corbett (“I can’t get away, I can’t break free”).

In one way it seems invidious to keep on referring back to the BBC original, but if it wasn’t for the Galton and Simpson connection then this pilot’s appeal would be very limited indeed. As a curio for those interested in Steptoe or G&S then it’s certainly of interest – provided you’re not expecting something as bleak and impressive as The Offer then it’s a diverting enough half hour.

Shot on 35mm film, either it’s undergone some restoration work or Ray Galton’s basement was the ideal place to store film materials, as it looks very nice with only a few intermittent seconds of damage here and there. The sole special feature is a four minute excerpt from the Kaleidoscope documentary The Native Hue of Resolution.

This sees Ray Galton and Tessa Le Bars (G&S’s agent) venturing down to Ray’s basement, where they just happen to stumble over a film can. No doubt this was a moment staged for the documentary, but it’s still nice to see them rummaging around this room of treasures for a few minutes.

Steptoe and Son is worth a look, but with a running time of only thirty five minutes it’s an expensive buy. If these archive releases continue, then there might be some merit in collecting various orphaned titles together – that would be one way of offering decent value for money.

Steptoe and Son – The “Lost” Unaired 1965 American Pilot Episode is released by Kaleidoscope on the 13th of August 2018, RRP £12.99. It can be ordered from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Steptoe & Son – The Bird

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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.

BBC Landmark Sitcom Season

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Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point).  Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..

For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4.  BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.

Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others).  Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.

Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot.  Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows.  Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.

Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases.  Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….

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Porridge looks to be doing something a little different.  It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) .  One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves.  Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.

Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach.  Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of.  All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.

These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts.  The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel.  The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.

Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode.  Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.

When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes.  So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..

Comedy Playhouse – Steptoe and Son – The Offer

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After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson found their successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) the pair were at something of a loose end.

The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished.  Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son.  When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.

The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often dubbed as the “kitchen sink” movement.  It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television.  Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.

The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot.  Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck.  One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour (it generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James).

Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was.  Brothers maybe?  Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.

Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962  – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom.  However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.

Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business.  Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home.  He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.

In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind and forge a new future for himself.  Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms.  Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself.  As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself!  That’s no way to run a business.”

The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it.  And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better.  Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off.  But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.

His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it.  His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home.  And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle.  “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits!  Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it!  They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”

Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave.  Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail.  He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself.  Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move.  Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?

This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell.  As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could have heard a pin drop in the audience.  It doesn’t seem to be that Corbett was attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, rather he was just acting to the script.  That’s the notable thing about Steptoe and Son – before this, sitcoms had tended to star comedians and therefore were vehicles written for their talents (such as Hancock’s Half Hour).  But Steptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, an important distinction.

When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.

The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.

Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour.  There’s no winners or losers here.  Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other.  We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character).  But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.

The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one.  Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.