Steptoe & Son at 50 – five influences on modern comedy

Posted on 5 January 2012
By Pierce King
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Rag and Bone men are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Steptoe & Son, one of the most influential British sitcoms ever aired. On January, 4, 1962, a short comic play called The Offer was broadcast by the BBC.

Intended as a one-off, about a bitter father and son who work as rag-and-bone men it was dashed off quickly by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson to meet a deadline, but this comic carbuncle would become the radically nasty and amusing Steptoe & Son (1962-1974).

The show’s influence on British comedy is tangible – shaping the standard format for the sitcoms we all know and love today.

Sitting in his tin bath in the corner of living rooms nationwide, his repugnant old false teeth drowning out the gasps of dusgust, Albert Steptoe’s sheer horrible physicality (Wilfrid Brambell) ushered in an age of squalor.

In the decade prior to Steptoe & Son, filth on British televisions was largely restricted to the cheeky innuendo employed by variety entertainers. Steptoe & Son, with its best-known catchphrase of ‘you dirty old man’ showed us the literal dirt of the rag-and-bone yard.

If you’ve laughed at the macabre personal hygiene of characters like Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted (candles made from ear wax being a vivid highlight) or Blackadder’s Baldrick, you’ve enjoyed a descendent of Steptoe’s grotesque comedy.

Comic characters who loathe each other to the extent of Steptoe & Son’s mutually destructive duo were a fresh idea in 1962.

When Harold tells his father, ‘you are morally, spiritually and physically a festering fly-blown heap of accumulated filth,’ he displays a frustrated nastiness that more recent writers seem to regard as a gauntlet of abuse to be lain down.

A legacy of pernicious insults can be seen spewing from the lips of characters such as Basil in Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), Edmund in Blackadder (1983-1989), Rimmer in Red Dwarf (1988-present) and Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It (2005-present) competing to find that sweet dark spot where acerbic bile rules supreme.

Sitcoms in the 1950s tended to focus on successful comedians playing versions of their established personae, as in Steptoe & Son writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s own 1950s hit Hancock’s Half Hour, created as a vehicle for Tony Hancock. With Steptoe & Son, the duo wanted to try something different.

Casting two straight actors, who wouldn’t ‘count the laughs’ the way comedians did, Galton and Simpson helped usher in the age of the serious actor in sitcoms.

When talents such as James Bolam (The Likely Lads), Richard Briers (The Good Life) and Nigel Hawthorne (Yes, Minister), all of whom trained at either Rada or Central, move from Shakespeare to sitcom, they follow in the footsteps of Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell.

Steptoe & Son put the sit in sitcom. The two characters are stuck there in the junk yard, most episodes ending with the status quo maintained, often via the victory of Albert over Harold.

Sitcoms have used this dynamic ever since, whether through characters literally unable to escape each other’s presence, as in the prison-set Porridge (1974-1977), or because of a love-hate relationship that prevents either of the two men (and it usually is two men) from progressing, as we find in Peep Show (2003-present).

Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) and Jeremy Usbourne (Robert Webb) are given the opportunity now and then to escape from the trap of their dysfunctional flatshare – but something keeps them coming back. It can only be love. Or fear. It’s hard to tell.

Misery. Despair. Poverty. No, not a headline from a 2011 newspaper, but a list of things that simply didn’t have a place in more genial small-screen comedies of the Sixties and Seventies.

Steptoe & Son brought social realism to sitcoms, anticipating a rich heritage of television such as The Royle Family and The Office where the apparently dreary lives of ordinary people emerge with dramatic effect.