Monday, 12 October 2015

No. 74. British sitcom films: STEPTOE AND SON (1972)


As the second batch of series of the hugely popular sitcom STEPTOE AND SON ran through the early Seventies, like so many TV comedy shows of that era it was given the big screen treatment. Wisely, the talented writing team of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were kept to support the unforgettable character double-act of Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble as the father and son rag-and-bone men.

Although in films, sitcom plots are usually opened out, often watered down to their detriment, both this translation and its sequel managed to stay true to the bleak trap of the ‘situation’ of the comedy.  Harold is still endlessly trying to extricate himself from his seedy, conniving old man’s self-centred clutches, his lofty pretensions continually punctured by his father’s cynicism and shabby personal habits. (Who can forget Albert bathing in the sink with Vim?) Both the writing and the playing of the show’s principals somehow had the rare skill of making you alternately appalled and frustrated by Albert’s vice-like hold and Harold’s inability to break free, and yet both men earn your sympathy all the while. Harold’s dreams are understandable yet shamefully snobbish toward his father. Albert’s ruthless, selfish disregard for his son’s healthy independence is aggravating yet is borne of fear and loneliness. Ultimately, they are doomed to never leave each other and this is the show’s heart, a strong reason for its success.

Whilst I've always found the show funny and can admire the terrific scripts and acting, the depressing nature of the Steptoes’ trapped lives of oppressive gloom made it hard for me to repeatedly watch it. However, the films are admirable examples of how to stay true to a formula whilst extending the format into long-form.

In this first movie, STEPTOE AND SON, Harold comes home from a night out, besotted with a stripper, Zita, (Carolyn Seymour). He already plans his future with her like a junkyard older Romeo. Albert dismisses her as a ‘scrubber’ with his usual sour grimaces, jealously plotting how best to sabotage her from taking Harold away from him. As the couple wed and set off on their Spanish honeymoon, inevitably they have the old man in tow. Has there ever been a more nightmarish set-up for wedded bliss?

After scoffing down an expensive lobster in the hotel, there is a peculiarly pervy sequence where Albert tries firstly to spy through the connecting door on the happy couple and then listen via a glass against it. It seems somehow wrongly prurient and yet in keeping with his inexhaustibly disgusting propensity for making a nuisance of himself. Just as Harold and Zita get amorous, groans from next door gradually increase till they are forced to check on Albert. He is in agony from contracted food poisoning and once more pushes his son’s buttons to force a premature end to the holiday. With only two last-minute seats on the plane, Zita is left behind. We can see that this will end in tears – but only for Harold. (Albert makes a suspiciously miraculous recovery once back home). There is a beautifully poignant scene where he reads a batch of postcards sent back from her over future days. They begin gushing with love and yearning and end with a crushing ‘Dear John’. Obviously Albert rubs this in as confirmation that she was no good: “She’s blown you out”, conveniently overlooking his role in the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Months later, Harold finds where Zita lives and that she is pregnant by what she claims is his baby. Albert soon sends her packing from a second attempt at usurping him.

More comedy is found after the surprise discovery of a baby in the Steptoe’s stable. This coupled with a trio of tramps and a shooting star create an amusing confluence of Nativity imagery, but to Harold the accompanying note convinces him it must be his baby left by Zita. His characteristic flights of fancy about working every hour God sends to give his son the opportunities he never had cleverly allow the character to indulge both his social pretensions about public school and also his need for an aspirational name, whilst Albert tries to keep him in harness once more, by pleading for the plebeian ‘Albert’ instead of Jeremy. The christening Vicar is asked by Harold for his first own name by way of a solution, only to find it too is Harold. For Harold, there is no escape from his past even in the next generation.

After earning our pity and sympathy by holding down multiple jobs to finance a future for Jeremy/Albert, Harold’s hopes are once more crushed when the baby is secretly taken away again by the mother and when Harold confronts Zita, he sees that actually her real baby is by the multiple-heritage band leader. Just like the circular world of the sitcom, the lives of father and son at the end once more shrink to the humdrum drudgery of the beginning.

STEPTOE AND SON was a well-deserved smash hit, making back six times its £100,000 cost and leading to a sequel the next year…

1 comment:

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