Harry H Corbett

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Harry H Corbett Pencil Portrait
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Last update : 14/6/2017

Here’s Harry H Corbett at a BAFTA Awards ceremony in the mid-60’s, all tuxudoed and every inch the class act his alto-ego Harold Steptoe always wanted to be.

From 1962 to 1974, Steptoe & Son drew weekly audiences of 20 million plus. Wilfred Brambell, who was the wily, dirty-minded, jealous old rag-and-bone man, and Corbett, who played the unmarried, hapless son trapped by his own forlorn dreams, were among the best-known stars on TV.

For such a renowned Shakespearean actor, the long running series ultimately represented an artistic cul-de-sac, but in the final analysis a ‘once in a lifetime dead end’. The combination of humour and pathos in equal measure, was as thought provoking as it was rib tickling, and Corbett was the lynchpin, the glue that held it all together.

Reading his daughter’s biography, it’s evident that the young Harry’s celluloid dreams were fostered in the Coronation cinema in Wythenshawe, just outside Manchester. In those halcyon days before the advent of television and its eventual conversion into a bingo hall, it was, in Corbett’s own words – “a dream palace of a different kind in those palmy days of childhood. I was reared on those marvellous films of the 30’s. I idolised all and everything and that’s where the spark first flew off the forge I suppose”. Following in Corbett’s childhood footsteps some thirty years later, there was always something magical for me about the cinema – the shared collective experience, the wide screen and best of all – colour – a sensory visual experience so removed from the flickering monochrome 405 lines at home. It’s difficult, nay impossible, to convey this sheer wonderment to children of the 21st century. There they all are, waiting dutifully for their parents to finish shopping, watching the latest movies on their iPhone. I would expect the novelty to wear off, but it’s not going to. There have been many worthy technological advances over the last four decades, and yet a number of them have robbed children of their interactive skills. I wouldn’t watch a film in such a manner – in any event, my eyes are too old to take it all in!!!


Under construction

At the core of Harold Steptoe’s world was his elderly father, and the problem of making him secure whilst also forging a life of his own. Fifty years on, very little has changed; in fact the problem is more magnified than ever. A 2014 report by the Pew Research Centre suggested that the number of people across the world over 65 years old would triple by 2050, drastically altering some countries’ demographic make-up. Perceptions of this shift, however, varied widely across the globe, the report said. While 87% of Japanese believed the ageing population posed a problem to the country, only 26% of Americans agreed.

More tellingly, the survey of 21 countries found that most people believed Gvernments should be responsible for the care of their older populations, as these demographic shifts might adversely affect economies, with more elderly people dependent on working-age men and women.


Under construction

The rag and bone trade has undergone a revival in recent years as a result of soaring scrap metal prices. Once a familiar sight, these junk collectors with their horses and carts had all but disappeared. Now, however, they are on the increase, doing their rounds in vans and using loudhailers instead of the traditional cry of ‘Rag and bone’. Dealers say a van-load of scrap steel brings in £200, up from just £50 five years ago. Unfortunately, the lucrative trade means rival merchants now trawl the streets of some communities four times a day. Modern ‘Steptoes’ are being warned that announcing their presence with loudhailers is illegal – I know I certainly get sick of hearing them.

Nevertheless, metal prices have been steadily rising over recent times. A kilogram of copper is now twice the price it was for many years. The price per kilogram of lead is also making it a tempting steal.

The number of collectors has grown according to the perceived rise in scrap values. If they can manage to get their hands on material for free or for very little money then it’s naturally good business.

Rag and bone men became a British institution in the 1950s, performing an important waste collection and trading service. Historically, they would trawl the streets with a horse and cart carriage collecting old rags, bones for making glue and scrap iron as well as trading cheap items. For Harold Steptoe, the daily drudgery of life on the road with Hercules would be enlivened by the purchase of a cut price Regency Commode; his excited exhortation of ‘Dad! Dad!’ matched only by the old boy’s appreciation of his son’s business acumen.

Recommended viewing

Cover Girl Killer (1959)

Steptoe & Son - 'Homes fit for heroes' (7/1/64)

“I see – so I’m going to be bunged into an old peoples’ home while you float round the world with five bits of crumpet”.

Harold has been planning to join the crew of a sailing ship travelling the world for two years, so he puts a reluctant and unhappy Albert into an old peoples’ home in the country.

This is it then – January 7, 1964 – the precise moment when Galton & Simpson elevated ‘Steptoe’ from the realms of ‘popular sitcom’ to ‘comedic immortality’.

As Harold endures the predictable response from his father, he attempts to placate the old man.

‘There’s no need to go up yet – I’m going to get some supper’.

‘Don’t do anything for me – I couldn’t eat it – It’d stick in me throat’. Pausing only momentarily, before plunging in the emotional knife, the old man adds his emotional coda:

“I don’t want anything more from you.”

Harold may feel his conscience is clear, but as millions watched the pair’s antics, that same uneasy sense of ‘dereliction of duty’ would pervade living rooms throughout the country. Yet his mind remains set on his ‘last chance for freedom’, and Albert is duly delivered to the country home, suitably wrapped in a blanket around his winter coat to maintain circulation.

On his first day, the pair encounter the enthusiastic Miss Lotterby, an elderly spinster, who organises ‘games and extra-mural activities’. Taking an immediate shine to the old man she offers the prospect of ‘more to come’:

“Once you’re settled in, I’ll pop along to your room, to see what you’re interested in!**”

Albert’s reaction shot, as he spins round to his son in sheer horror, is priceless; Harold contemplating the romantic prospects for the ‘randy old git’.

I do believe she fancies you” he says, barely able to contain his laughter.

In the end, however, it is Harold who is made to feel old at 37, as the other twenty-something crew members feel he would not fit in. The ‘Dear John’ letter and the return of his cheque, confirm the end of Harold’s dreams of a worldwide jaunt, and he dutifully collects his delighted father to return him home.

Some personal observations, viewed from the perspective of fifty years on, are somewhat sobering, to say the least:

1) Wilfred Bramwell was still three months shy of his 52nd birthday during the location shoot in December 1963. When I consciously study his face, it becomes apparent that he was indeed a man in his ‘middle years’, and yet I am now three years older than he was then. Despite being a grandfather myself, God forbid that either I, or my peers, should look that old.

2) The actor, who died in 1985, was homosexual, and had a criminal record for importuning, or soliciting, after he was arrested in a public lavatory in Shepherd’s Bush, west London, in Nov 1962. He was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay 25 guineas costs. Brambell had been briefly married in the 1950s, but had few close friends or relatives, and his cremation was attended by a mere handful of people.

A spokesman for Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the writers of Steptoe and Son, said at the time: “There were only about two people at his funeral. He didn’t have much of an entourage and he didn’t really have people who mixed with him socially.”

The Sexual Offences Act de-criminalised homosexuality in England and Wales, and was a major step forward in our understanding of wide ranging proclivities. At the time, Lord Arran, in an attempt to minimise criticisms that the legislation would lead to further public debate and visibility of issues relating to homosexual civil rights, made the following qualification to this \“historic\” milestone:

“I ask those [homosexuals] to show their thanks by comporting themselves quietly and with dignity… any form of ostentatious behaviour now or in the future or any form of public flaunting would be utterly distasteful…”

Changing tastes and public trends over the last forty seven years have clearly failed to match Lord Arran’s wishes and in 2014, Queen Elizabeth II would praise a gay charity, in what was believed to be her first ever comment about the LGBTI community. Throughout her sixty two year reign, of the UK and the Commonwealth, she had never once visited, or become a patron of a charity for gay rights. And even in reforming laws for the community, such as when homosexuality was decriminalized or same-sex marriage in England and Wales passed into law, the words ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, ‘bisexual’, and ‘transgender’ had never been previously reported as crossing the lips of the reigning monarch.

Yet in a first, the Queen would praise the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard on its 40th birthday, saying;

‘Best wishes and congratulations to all concerned on this most special anniversary.’

The switchboard, which had been supporting LGBTs by providing a non-judgmental ear on the phone, was celebrated at a gala evening attended by a plethora of celebrities, politicians and supporters.

As much as I might wish to have drawn the pair together, Brambell has reportedly been posthumously accused of abusing two boys in a Jersey theatre at the height of his fame in the 1970s. One of the alleged victims was a resident at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children’s home, which was at the centre of a high-profile police investigation into historical child abuse on the island in 2008. Until further information is available to exonerate his memory, I am reluctant to draw his portrait.


Rattle of a simple man (1964)

Working on his lancastrian accent, Harry boy stars as Percy Winthram, a late 30’s individual untutored in the art of lovemaking, who still lives at home with his mother. In London for an important soccer match with his friends – director Murial Box utilses footage from the ’63 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and leicester City – Percy finds himself in a Soho strip club, where he meets blonde hostess Cyrenne (Diane Cilento.) Accepting a bet from friend Ginger, he accompanies Cyrenne back to her flat where a boast-worthy night of lust appears almost inevitable, yet drained of beer and bravado, Percy’s innocence and vulnerability soon become all too evident.

Reprising his role from the stage production on which this film is based, he and Diane Cilento are the play’s main point of focus as two seemingly mismatched people who find that they have more in common than they would have dreamed possible.

There’s a strong supporting cast including Michael Medwin who’s mugged during an aborted assignation with a blonde, and ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ and ‘Porridge’ star Brian Wilde. If suburban permissiveness really only began in the 70’s, then “Rattle of a Simple Man” perfectly captures the differing morals and speed of life between the provincial North and the capital’s bright lights of mid-60’s London.

He, the slightly naive football supporter and she, the bored, lonely hostess, look back on their lives – the various opportunities and mistakes they’re made – and find comfort in each other’s presence.

Temporarily misplacing his rattle and unable to clear his mind of Cyrenne’s face, Percey terminates his journey home, ensuring a wonderfully uplifting end to the film.

Recommended reading

Harry H Corbett - The Front legs of the Cow (Susannah Corbett) 2012

Rising from the slums of Manchester to become one of the best-known television stars of the 20th century, Harry H Corbett was already a renowned classical stage actor by his mid 30’s. Described as the ‘English Marlon Brando’, and a leading light in Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop until his life was changed forever by the television comedy ‘Steptoe and Son’, he would become an overnight household name in a series that would regularly draw unparalleled viewing figures of over 28 million.

Written by his daughter, an acclaimed actress in her own right, this biography of the actor affectionately sets the record straight on the Corbett -Bramwell relationship, a much maligned partnership that has been portrayed in a most unflattering manner in documentaries and dramas.

Steptoe &Son (Ray Galton & Alan Simpson with Robert Ross) BBC Books 2002


The Steptoe & Son Appreciation Society


Swiped or wiped?

Some interesting background material surrounding the survival of the 1970 BBC Tv series of “Steptoe & Son” can be located at:

PAL Colour Recovery from black-and-white 'telerecordings'