A mostly fantastic drama that expertly explored the trapped lives of two actors spiralling towards inevitable mediocrity and unhappiness that was also able to expand on the wider theme of such a state of being. But oddly, the programme became so fixated on the bane of being trapped that for the last quarter-of-an-hour it too became entrapped in wallowing in the confined lives of the two lead characters.
What was good about it?
• The magnetic Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis as Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell.
• Isaacs’ portrayal of Corbett bled out his insecurities and domineering nature. After he’d bagged the part of Harold Steptoe, he was ebulliently chatting with his wife Sheila (Zoe Tapper) and cleaning his shoe. But when his wife piped up that Brambell “is really good; he’ll be funny”, Corbett slowed the rhythm of his shoe polishing, envious that the spotlight could fall on someone other than him.
• It was not only Brambell that turned him green, Corbett was already simmering about Sheila getting a part in The Frost Report when he forced himself on her, so he claimed, to impregnate her. But Isaacs had you believing that Corbett was doing so as much to stymie his wife’s flourishing career as to become a father such was his blunt derision for The Frost Report – “David f**king Frost, what’s that? Middle-class wank!”
• And whenever Corbett has to show affection to Sheila or speak to her truthfully, he adopts a faux posh accent to deflect and suppress his embarrassment at not being in the dominant position in the relationship.
• Corbett is far more central to the narrative than Brambell, and this is apparent at the crumbling façade of Corbett as he hears the Steptoe theme tune and prepares to enter the TV stage. Towards the end his face is a drab puddle of turbulent misery.
• Phil Davis is such a brilliant actor who becomes so absorbed into his roles to the point that there is often very little of Phil Davis left, which perhaps explained why he isn’t as lauded as he deserves to be. Here he conveyed all of Brambell’s foibles – the jitteriness when he went cottaging, the entrenched bitterness at the unwanted fame Steptoe & Son brought, and his contrasting acting style with the more methodical, abrasive Corbett.
• The tension between the pair is also marvellously observed from the very first read through where Corbett tries out his working class accent to a rather bemused Brambell who responds with a middle-class monotone until his pride forces him to adopt the familiar sneering tones of Albert Steptoe.
• This mutual antipathy blossoms so that Brambell refuses to go for a drink with the rest of the cast unless Corbett is absent, while Corbett finds mirth when Brambell is tried for cottaging.
• The theme of being trapped was apparent everywhere, haunting almost every character. Corbett and Brambell were trapped in their roles, with Corbett the most frustrated that moving to light entertainment from the theatre has harpooned his theatre career where he was moving ever upward on the Shakespeare scale. And the scorn for TV in the 60s is economically encapsulated by Sheila’s remark to her proud, thespian spouse, “You’re dong a sitcom!?”
• But the root of Corbett’s ensnarement was always his arrogance and insatiable ego. When he considered giving up Steptoe to return to the theatre, he was coaxed into relenting with, “You reach more people in one night than you would in ten years in the theatre.”
• Brambell, meanwhile, was unable to stop his cottaging that eventually brought him to court and, in his mind, national shame.
• The writers of Steptoe & Son, Ray Galton (Burn Gorman) and Alan Simpson (Rory Kinnear), were also trapped by the authoritarian producer Tom Sloane (Roger Allam) who demanded that they repeat the sitcom success they enjoyed with Tony Hancock after the one-off episode of Steptoe is a ratings winner.
• They are actually relieved when Brambell’s cottaging conviction impels him to leave the country to work in the US, liberating them of the hackneyed format and enabling them to bring in Harold’s long-lost son as a replacement to freshen the show up. But their joy is short-lived as the show Brambell is in flops and he returns to Britain, and his role as Albert Steptoe.
• Sheila, too, is trapped by her husband’s selfish ambition and infidelity, although she does eventually leave him.
• The way in which the jokes in the script were rendered humourless by the knowledge of the unhappiness of the people performing the lines.
What was bad about it?
• While Corbett’s motivation for being unable to escape the lure of Steptoe & Son was explored profoundly, the psychology of Brambell wasn’t afforded the same perspicacity. As the show took off he was seen cowering in his home out of sight of photographers and his discomfort at people quoting catchphrases from the show at him, yet always seemed content to keep doing another series with little complaint and little explanation in the narrative.
• The last 15 minutes or so following Brambell’s cottaging conviction seems like a thematic rehash of the previous 50 minutes, as if filling you in on the details in case you missed them the first time. There’s a clumsy reference to Corbett’s lost promise as “Britain’s Marlon Brando” when Harold is called to do an impersonation of him, hammering the point home even more cumbersomely with the “I coudda been a contender!” line.
• While shortly afterwards, Corbett is gazing at a playback of an episode in which Harold laments in an episode in which he fails as a theatre actor, “You’re a rag and bone man, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”
Aired Wednesday 19 March 2008