The standard line is that sitcoms adapted into feature films are never as funny as the original series. Evidence for… Dad’s Army, The Likely Lads, On the Buses (OK never that funny…) etc – evidence against… Steptoe and Son?
This was the first Steptoe and Son film and was a commercial hit earning back five times its cost. The original TV series ran from 1962 to 1974 (including a break from 65-70) and always felt like it came out of the same existential theatre as Samuel Beckett and Alan Pinter. For a start the situation was bleak with a love-hate/hate-love relationship between a father and son trapped in their rag and bone business: fighting over trivialities in the confined space of their grimy Victorian house, smothered by the endless piles of purposeless junk. It was more than a little depressing and yet… watch it and you would always end up laughing at the persistence of pride and hopeless optimism amongst all the despair and ultimately the love between father and son.
The sitcom was also unusual in casting two actors rather than comedians with Wilfrid Brambell as Albert Steptoe and Harry H. Corbett as Harold Steptoe. Both had extensive stage experience and dramatic ability which led to the humour being more holistic than other series: the situation, the dialogue and the characters: not just the punchlines.
Written by long-time Tony Hancock collaborators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Steptoe and Son was a cut above and helped pave the way to the character-driven classics such as The Likely Lads, Dad’s Army, Rising Damp and Porridge.
So: this film? Made during the second group of series, the story followed familiar themes but allowed for the situation to broaden a bit (normally where the formulas come a cropper…) as the lads not only went outside, they found new relationships and even went abroad. This is what normally does for close-focus TV adaptations: they get diluted in the “real world”.
But, for me, there’s still enough focus on the two central characters for the essence to hold up: this film isn’t so much of a bigger budget detour as a grander journey along the same lines to the same place. Albert and Harold are two rag and bone men, they’re divided by family ties with one given up and the other not stopped trying but they’re still surviving with a puncher’s chance. Albert has buckled false teeth and gladly handles horse dung before eating his sandwiches with Harold dreams of escape through love and parental responsibility but, when the chips are down he’ll still look after his impossible, grotesque, stubborn old man.
The story begins with the two leaving the divorce courts – an immediate signal of another failed attempt for Harold to move his life forward. Rolling back we see how he met his wife to be at a “variety” show in their local rugby club which features music, comic turns (Mike Reid as pretty much himself) and strippers.
|Harry H. Corbett and Carolyn Seymour|
Harold meets one of the performers, named Zita (played by the possibly too classy Carolyn Seymour) in the bar before the show and she is impressed enough to pass a note to him during her show to arrange a date afterwards. There are the inevitable reaction shots from the drunken mail audience not least Albert… but for Harold this is something different and he has already placed Zita on a pedestal.
Zita and Harold leave Albert – his glasses crushed – short-sightedly chatting up the drag act Arthur (Patrick Fyffe or Perri St. Claire as was: later to be the latter part of Hinge and Bracket, fact fans!) and one long night later Harold floats home in love and engaged.
Albert is naturally less than impressed, especially as he’s been locked out but really he doesn’t want any disturbance in their lives and uses all means at his disposal to put Harold off. The day of the wedding arrives and his long, frustrating delays become a little wearing especially when the ring ends up in a mountain of horse manure.
Eventually the unfortunately-aroma’d couple get to the church just I time and then it’s off to sunny Spain on a three-handed honeymoon… yes, Albert comes as well and you can see where this is heading.
Arriving at the hotel Albert quickly gets under Harold’s feet whilst an old flame of Zita’s, Terry (Barrie Ingham) is on hand as the hotel tourist guide. Albert eats far too much Spanish lobster and contracts food poisoning interrupting not just the wedding night but the whole holiday… Harold can only get a flight for two to take him home to recuperate and leaves Zita in Spain under the helpful guidance of Terry…
As always in Steptoe you can see the fine line between Albert’s neediness and his genuine terror at being alone. Harold is never cruel enough to leave him (even for Carolyn Seymour… not a tough choice at all in my book…).
Well, you can pretty much work out the rest but there’s a twist (or two) as Harold re-establishes connection with his estranged wife only to find she’s pregnant: is the child his. An attempt at reconciliation founders when Albert and Zita face off and she’s off again. A few months later and the boys find a new born nestled in the hay in their stables, closely followed by three not so wise men. They quickly rally themselves around this new addition and pretty soon Harold has grand plans…
Is history about to repeat itself or will there be a further turn?
Dusty verdict: Undoubtedly one of the better sitcom-to-film adaptations, what Steptoe and Son lacks in story-strength it makes up for with the performances of the leads.
Carolyn Seymour is excellent as always and it makes a change to see her with long blonde hair rather than the close-cropped look of Survivors. She’s a very intelligent performer and plays well against her highly-experienced leads – it would be very easy to be over-faced against such a well-established double-act but she pitches Zita just right: she isn’t the “scrubber” Albert anticipates (it was 1972… but there are some linguistically awkward moments …) and genuinely loves Harold just as she enjoys her job (the post-feminist “empowerment” defence…). That doesn’t excuse her running off with Terry but... as she said, Harold wasn’t there…
The Brambell and Corbett chemistry works very well on screen and you see more of their abilities as the narrative is allowed more time and depth. Brambell’s Albert is a frightened old man, still a boy at heart whilst his equally-immature offspring isn’t quite practical enough to survive on his own just yet. Harold ends up bloodied but genuinely unbowed whilst the two share an exchange of V signs with Prince Philip as he cruises past their horse and cart on the Mall.
Steptoe and Son is available from Amazon and is worth watching for the quality of the performances alone… not to mention Ms Seymour in a curly blonde wig, a boa and little else. There’s also a nice soundtrack from Roy (Get Carter) Budd as well!
|Brambell and Bracket|
Great review of a - generally - underrated film. The sequel was a much more broad affair, but this rates as vintage Steptoe in my book.ReplyDelete
Thank you very much for reading and for your kind words! I agree it's not given the credit it deserves especially with the three fantastic leads.Delete
Paul who would ever have thought that Albert would emerge as the Leader of the Labour Party, disguised as Jeremy Corbin. Talk about life imitating art!ReplyDelete
(And this is the view from Australia.)
This is one of my favourites.ReplyDelete
Watched it as a child with my mum.
I just about know the scenes word for word.
It strikes a chord with me as my own relationship with my mother was similar only Im female.
I always feel so deeply sorry for Harold when he pleads to Zita, it will work I love you....
Great review I'm a bit late reading it!