The Greatest Sitcom Ever Written

The Arts

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.

14 comments on “The Greatest Sitcom Ever Written”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I loved S&S but yes, It’s painful to watch but still brilliant.

  2. Janet Wilson says:

    I have a friend who hates- should I say dreads- S&S for all the reasons that you love it- he finds it ‘unbearably painful to watch’, presumably from a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God…’ On a lighter note (!), I love modern radio sitcoms- Ed Reardon, Cabin Pressure, Fags, Mags and Bags, ElvenQuest, Mordrin McDonald all spring to mind- but not all transfer well to tv. Miranda was a huge success, Count Arthur Strong seems a bit Sandford&Son, the surreal verbal humour lost in a sweeter tale of a sad but resiliant old buffer. Back on the radio, Charles Paris, with the ever wonderful Bill Nighy, comes close in tone to B&M. Can we ever expect them on radio 4?

  3. pheeny says:

    As a kiddy I thought S&S hilarious but it is only as I have got older that I appreciated it for the superb tragicomedy that it is – nowadays I would not find much to laugh at I suspect.

    I am glad to hear that the actors were not at daggers drawn – it made me quite sad when I heard that

  4. pheeny says:

    As a kiddy I thought S&S hilarious but it is only as I have got older that I appreciated it for the superb tragicomedy that it is – nowadays I would not find much to laugh at I suspect.

    I am glad to hear that the actors were not at daggers drawn – it made me quite sad when I heard that

  5. pheeny says:

    I really enjoy Fags Mags and Bags too Janet but suspect I would not be listening to Cabin Pressure much if it didn’t feature Benedict Cumberbatch. Have NEVER “got” Count Arthur Strong (although feel I ought to watch the TV version as it has been so well received) – and as for “The Castle” …

  6. pheeny says:

    Sorry about all these double posts – my computer is a bit erratic

  7. Ken Murray says:

    Spot on Mr Fowler! Steptoe has yet to be surpassed. One Foot In The Grave also mixed humour and pathos to great effect. However one of my all time faves is Still Game (two best friends and their cronies who live in a Glasgow towerblock). Which takes an altogether more upbeat stance towards growing old. Maybe its a Scottish thing but it reflects that laughing in the face of adversity trait really well? There was also a play based on Still Game touring recently.

  8. Alan Morgan says:

    Ray Galton rounded it all off with a play set some decades later, Harold having killed Albert in a fit of rage and having returned to Oil Drum Lane after years on the run, only for the ghostly Albert to be waiting for him there.

  9. pheeny says:

    I wouldn’t normally say this but …OMG!

  10. Ken Murray says:

    I decided to brave the aftershocks of yesterday’s major quake in Wellington (6.6!) and vist the city’s annual book fair. There I discovered an ancient paperback copy of a Steptoe tv script by Gallon & Simpson. The strange thing was that it seemed to be a Schools’ edition as it contained a ‘Teachers Notes’, so I assume it must have on some curriculum somewhere?

    I also managed to pick up a good copy of Dennis Wheatly’s: Murder Off Miami, for the princely sum of $3 (about £1.50).

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Glad to hear from you, Ken. When I heard about the quake yesterday I wondered how you’d made out. This is one effect of these world wide discussions, we begin to really care about events in far flung places. “Details, give me details! I have voices in that area so I want to know!”

  12. Ken Murray says:

    Hi Helen. Everyone was just starting to relax a bit after July’s 6.2 quake, even though we were prepared for aftershocks, so this even bigger shake on Friday was a bit of a surprise. The book fair was for charity and a bit of an annual Wellington institution so we thought we would go.

    Even though there didn’t appear to be as much damage this time (although some buildings and multi-story carparks are still closed from last time) it was interesting to see where some pavements had sunk and cracks appeared. The problem is that a large section of the CBD is on what used to be the old shoreline, so it’s built on reclaimed land (sand).

    Moreover, the issue with earthquake prone CBD buildings continues, as just last week the government decreed that building owners would be given up to 20yrs to bring buildings up to code. The rational for this lengthy time period was “We don’t want building owners to go out out of business” and as an afterthought “and of course we don’t want people to be killed either”. Good to know where their priorities are…

  13. Ken Murray says:

    Oh, just remembered there is a nice little app a lot of us have at the moment from the geological survey people. It updates you on all the earthquakes in realtime, giving you magnitude, depth and location etc. You can set it to alert you to any level of magnitude and it will ping when a tremor occurs. Most are unnoticeable but mine has been trilling along regularly for the last couple of days. It would surprise many how active the earth is under your feet…

  14. Helen Martin says:

    An app to increase your level of concern, just what everyone needs, except that you could sort of tell when one is building, maybe. I’ll hope for a nice period of quiet for you – like 120 years.

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