My taste in all-time favourite sitcoms is pretty wide-ranging, including ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Malcolm In The Middle’, ‘My Name Is Earl’, ‘Community’, ‘Green Wing’, ‘Father Ted’, ‘Black Books’, ‘The Worker’, ‘Soap’ and ‘The Brittas Empire’.
‘The Simpsons’ had been written for the video generation and changed comedy writing forever by speeding it up out of all recognition to include flashbacks, flash-forwards, alternative timelines, zingers, throwaways, pop-culture references, musical numbers and a thousand hidden parodies and references that repaid repeat viewing.
A short while ago I decided to re-evaluate my terrifyingly extensive comedy DVD collection to see if there was anything I could get rid of. When I realised I owned every single episode of ‘Steptoe and Son’ I wondered if it was time to let them to go.
So I started watching them. The show should never have worked. Written as a deliberately slow half-hour play on a single set with just two leads, how could it sustain beyond its ‘Comedy Playhouse’ origins to run as a series?
What happened next was nothing short of a phenomenon as a third of the nation tuned in. Episodes were moved for fear that no-one would go to their polling stations to vote. Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson had been given ‘Comedy Playhouse’, creating a completely different sitcom each week, because Tony Hancock had stupidly turned down the dark film script they had written for him. The plays spun off into a record number of hit sitcoms, but none as big as ‘Steptoe and Son’.
But why? A cross between ‘Grey Gardens’, ‘Waiting For Godot’ and a Harold Pinter play, hardly anything happened in each half-hour episode. It was the first zen comedy, and it wasn’t even funny. One small subject would be explored each week, yet it managed to take in big themes including loneliness, co-dependency, the ageing process, lost dreams, failure, cruelty, politics, shame, poverty and death – always death. It was – and remains – the most English of series. In one episode, ‘The Wooden Overcoats’, Harold actually bought coffins and stacked them in the house, and we just listened in to the subsequent row about death and superstitions.
The show starred two actors who were not comedians, Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Brambell, and whole episodes passed with virtually no laughter. Was it even a comedy series?
Well, it ran from 1962 to 1974, through seven series, Christmas specials, two movies and a play, and became the most successful sitcom of all time. The American series, ‘Sanford and Son’ was completely different in tone, warmer, lighter and more sentimental.
From the outset the story of Harold and Albert broke the mould of British comedy. Where previous sitcoms relied on slapstick, gags and farce, it introduced gritty realism: its characters were resolutely working-class, down-at-heel rag-and-bone men scraping a desperate living by spotting gems among other people’s junk. Father and son were bonded to each other, unable to escape and unable to move on, trapped in crumbling rooms by poverty and a palpably agoraphobic sense of fear. And yet, in amongst all that physical discomfort and mental cruelty, the tragedy somehow became funny.
The language is still shocking; ‘Get those skinny little legs to drag that filthy old carcass of yours upstairs,’ Harold tells his father. ‘So you couldn’t get hold of an English bird,’ says Albert. ‘Where did you meet this wog, in a shop doorway?’
Yet even the pejoratives have an egalitarianism; ‘wog’ was applied to anyone who wasn’t from England, and the prejudices didn’t run as deep as their own perception of prejudices against themselves as ‘the lowest of the low.’ In the case above, Albert was talking about a cultured French woman.
Harold is a Socialist, desperate to prove he is an intellectual. Albert is a hard-line Tory, common and proud of his wartime record. They compete to such an extent that at one point a billiard game lasts a day and a night and takes place in pouring rain, with neither side willing to give in. The writing frequently reveals its left wing roots and goes out of its way to avoid actual jokes or punchlines, with the humour arising entirely from character. Much of it is now unbearably painful to watch.
In 2009 a nastily inaccurate BBC dramatisation of the actors’ lives suggested that Brambell and Corbett hated one another, but this was refuted by Galton & Simpson, who disapproved of the play, and the BBC took the unprecedented step of pulling it from public broadcast. Recently a play version toured with different actors, showing that the writing was what raised the s how’s status to a classic.