In the late Eighties and early Nineties, before the Satellite/Cable/Digital/Online/Solar/Monkey powered revolution there were very few channels here in England, and a lot or repeats (or reruns as Americans might say).
This might be an annoyance- and indeed now when I do have several channels I roll my eyes at the same episodes of shows being repeated within weeks- but it allowed me to watch a lot of programmes that had finished by that time, such as the pre CGI Doctor Who, The Littlest Hobo and Land of the Giants among other favourites. Time hasn’t depleted my enthusiasm and my eventual acquisition of a VCR among other 90s appliances allowed me to find other shows, mostly those that my parents remembered.
One of these quickly became an enduring favourite of mine- as it had for millions of Britons in the 70s.
Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Starring Harry H Corbett as Harold (son) and Wilfrid Brambell as Albert (Father) :
Steptoe and Son
The story of a father and son’s rocky and claustrophobic relationship spiralled out of a Comedy Playhouse episode and lasted for 57 episodes; four series from 1962-1965 and another four from 1970-1974 as well as 2 films and numerous foreign variations.
Harold’s undying ambition often echoes our own desire to better ourselves, indeed you might find it in many very different characters, such as Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy. Ironically a career as varied as David Jason’s would probably have been very satisfactory to Corbett, an excellent actor who was famously typecast in this role. Corbett and Brambell’s relationship seems to have eventually become even worse than that of their characters. They were as trapped in the roles as Harold and Albert were in the rag and bone yard at Oil Drum Lane! This has been well documented in numerous books, and the television drama The Curse of Steptoe (2008), so let’s move onto the other versions of the characters
Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford (Father) and Demond Wilson (Son) in:
Sanford and Son
The American version of Steptoe and Son was just as popular stateside. Starting in 1972 during British Steptoe’s second run, it lasted
Until 1977, more than double that of its predecessor, though in only six seasons, as American ‘seasons’ often run to over twenty episodes compared to British ‘series’ standard six. Sanford was more like a regular sitcom, it had some dramatic moments but it was vastly different, from the less extreme and sometimes even healthy relationship of the characters, to the frequent drop-ins of in-laws and friends- the British series had it’s share of visitors but characters rarely if ever recurred. The setting was still run down but in a rough area of Los Angeles with a lot of 70s ebonic lingo, and Hercules the Horse is now a rundown truck. I was apprehensive at first but I recently got a complete Sanford and Son boxset and find it to be a great comedy in it’s own right, very different even in the 16 episodes whose concepts were lifted directly from Steptoe episodes. Some may not like one show, or some may not like the other, but for me Steptoe and Sanford can coexist peacefully and hilariously, always.
Which brings me to the reason I started this piece;
This year I saw a very different side to the two. Four episodes of the classic series- including the first two and another from series one.
The Offer, The Bird, The Holiday and Two’s company.
Dean Nolan as Harold, Mike Shepherd as Albert, Kirsty Woodward as ‘woman’ (actually a number of women as well as a turn as an elderly male doctor) adapted and directed by Emma Rice.
First things first, I think this is the only play I’ve ever gone to see twice. Within the course of a week. That could be the sign of a masochist but not this time. I really enjoyed it that much.
The imaginative set design- incorporating the gate, the house, the yard and the cart into a portable mass of junk kept with the feel of poverty, while providing an impressive sense of scale, the empire that old man Albert and his father built up over decades (the & son actually refers to Albert- a point raised in the original series but not in Sanford and Son as Fred moved from St Louis many years before). The music is very different, featuring a theme incorporating parts of an obscure song called Daydream by the Wallace Collection (no, not The Who, although that reaction is understandable) and a number of famous songs of the 60s and 70s which mirror the story’s eventual progression in time.
At first glance this version is very surreal, with occasional dancing interludes, a fairground carousel style horse in the sidelines as Hercules and a disembodied car seat as an armchair among many other rustic props.
It has been noted that the actors are very different from Corbett and Brambell, with a different setting implied by the black country accents. Though both have some of their predecessor’s looks and mannerisms Dean Nolan is notably larger than Corbett with a very different build but he is a brilliant all rounder; showcasing a good deal of strength, fast and nimble dancing and a powerful singing voice that gets an amazing original song beautifully expressing the character’s plight.
Mike Shepherd was a little more like what I might have expected from Albert, with one of the classic lines of Two’s company being delivered to great effect with a loooong delay as Albert struggled to comprehend the situation. I can imagine that part must have been eagerly anticipated during every step of the creative process.
Kirsty Woodward was often in the periphery as many of the situations revolved around the arguably titular duo, but showed some versatility in her performances as the women who would complete the picture, from visions of Emily- the wife, mother and potential peacemaker whose absence was sorely felt by the pair- through dancing girls that linked the episodes with amusingly presented title cards, to the potential fiancées of both- quite different characters- to the abovementioned Doctor of ‘the Holiday’, which was rather funny, if a bit of a cold shower for me after the other costumes!
All three stars have great comic timing, co-ordination and acting skills, attaining both sympathy and blame for their characters. Not to be sycophantic but both performances I saw were faultless. There are so many wonderful touches it is clear that there is a great fondness for the range of the original scripts. One moment which really spoke to me was the piece in ‘two’s company’ where the pair help each other dress for dinner. In a huge contrast to the similar scene in ‘the bird’, which features Harold losing his temper at his dad’s refusal to get a wash and more-or- less dunking him head first into the wash basin (that really works, which is a nice touch), the later scene is carried out with great delicacy to Elvis Presley’s ‘You were always on my mind’ and may just jerk a tear loose. Just little things but it showed that despite all of the bickering, all of the sabotage, and the resentment, father and son still have a lot of care for each other.
You may know the episodes, but their presentation is so different here it’s the freshest take on the story since the original series was first broadcast. As I said above about Sanford and Son, the two iterations of Steptoe deserve to coexist, and I feel they make great companion pieces to each other. Now if only there was a chance of a DVD of the stage show…
If you’re a fan of 70s sitcom, comic theatre, offbeat musicals, horse impressions, humorous dancing (the Woodstock part would be a great sketch on its own), minimalist theatre, dramatic theatre, retro music, old music or you just want to sit in a different seat for a couple of hours, I recommend Kneehigh’s Steptoe and Son with all of my heart AND my wallet. The Leeds run will be winding up now but it’ll be going on tour and it’s worth travelling for.