Monday, July 30, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "The Curse of Steptoe" from 26.3.2008

Thi review is taken fron my reviewblog

After reviewing two excellent American dramas, it makes a change to write about a very English bio-pic, The Curse of Steptoe on BBC 4. It was written by Brian Fillis whose Fear of Fanny, based on the life of Fanny Craddock, absorbed and entertained.

The programme told the story of the creation of Steptoe and Son, a landmark series considered by many to have given birth to the modern TV sitcom. Created by the brilliant Ray Galton (Burn Gorman) and Alan Simpson (Rory Kinnear) at the instigation of Tom Sloane (Roger Allam), Steptoe and Son offered an innovative combination of laughter and deepest pathos. Success stemmed from subtle development of character and plausible situations set against the downbeat backdrop of the home and scrap-yard in Oil Drum Lane in Shepherd’s Bush. Steptoe and Son was strikingly different from the lightweight fare previously on offer under the banner of situation comedy.

As one has come to expect with recent gems such as Fantabulosa which depicted the rather sad life of Kenneth Williams, the production featured a coherent and many-layered script, convincing individual and ensemble performances and an accurate sense of period from the monochrome early 1960's on.

The Curse of Steptoe focused mainly upon Harold Steptoe played by Harry H Corbett (Jason Isaacs) and father Albert played by Wilfrid Brambell (Phil Davies). The measured and insightful performances of Isaacs and Davies were superb.

At the most obvious level, the extreme differences between both actors were bluntly presented. Corbett was a rather pretentious and egocentric left-wing, method actor, spoken of as the English Brando, whilst Brambell was a complete opposite and of the old school, inclined to say, “I just put on the costume and act.

Corbett was compulsive in his preparation and came to the first read-through having thoroughly learned the script, whilst Brambell was invariably late, unable to learn lines and sometimes lacking in focus.

Corbett was an uninhibited and rampant heterosexual, whilst Brambell was a repressed homosexual, bitterly ill-at-ease in his own skin and full of self-loathing.

Paradoxically, both principals had even more in common. Each loathed the other and only spoke when necessary. Noticeably, neither went for a drink with colleagues after the recording before a live audience if the other was to be there. Both drank and smoked to excess, although Brambell’s dependency amounted to alcoholism. Both were socially ill at ease.

It emerged that both suffered major perceived rejections with Corbett never knowing his father and losing his mother at birth. Brambell was humiliated and embittered by a divorce from his wife, who bore a child by a 24 year old lodger. Reminding a smug Corbett that he was a Lothario bedding everything in sight, his perceptive partner Sheila remarked: No wonder he doesn’t like you too much.

At the beginning, we see that Corbett had a considerable stage career ahead of him. Joan Littlewood enthused that Corbett had performed a Richard for the masses and knocked Geilgud and his cronies into a cocked hat. She sketched out his next career moves: the Histories, Macbeth and then the Danish ditherer. As the story progressed, we saw Corbett’s mounting angst at hearing Albert Finney had been cast as Macbeth or scored a personal triumph as Hamlet. He was not even auditioned for Uncle Vanya in Liverpool. Later, he was losing out to Bernard Breslaw for parts in Carry On films.

When he later bumped into Joan Littlewood after receiving a Variety club Award for Steptoe, she was dismissive and ignored Corbett’s unconvincing remarks on its political significance. He was crushed by her indifference.

Corbett’s anxiety over his loss of a brilliant career in legitimate theatre was compounded by his tepid film work. He wanted to act in films on his merits, but found directors only required a re-hashed version of Harold with the same accent and vocal inflections. He knew that this was not worthy of his talents and made tame excuses, such as that the film had been released at the wrong time.

We also see that Corbett’s professional self-absorption and selfishness was paralleled in his treatment of his partner. He was dismissive of Sheila's acting career and a bully, as demonstrated in ordering her to dress less revealingly if they were to go out. He seemed to accept further series of Steptoe and Son in part to assert himself and punish her. She stoically accepted this until eventually leaving him.

Brambell’s private life was at least as dysfunctional as Corbett’s. Despite previously being married, he was homosexual. He was drawn to public lavatories and suffered immense self-loathing in consequence. He felt humiliated in gay pubs and guiltily paid for muscular young men to visit him. He was ultimately arrested for soliciting for immoral purposes with harrowing press coverage. We see Corbett laughing insensitively at newspaper reports of the case.

After the hearing, Brambell sought work (any part, however small) abroad to escape Steptoe and Son and this publicity. Even this failed, when the Broadway Show Kelly the Musical folded after one performance.

In truth, Corbett had been delighted when Brambell declined to do a further series of Steptoe to go to Broadway. He was pleased at the prospect of a new series with Albert killed-off and Harold’s new-found son appearing to join him. The sitcom could move on a generation and could still properly be called Steptoe and Son.

It is unclear whether Corbett’s joy at the prospect of this change was for the new direction of the plot or the departure of the loathed Brambell. He was shattered on Brambell's return and the continued status quo.

Towards the end of the play, we saw more of the almost Macchiavellian role of the producer and writers. When the writers considered they had exhausted all possibilities for comedy, Tom Sloane he made sure that they continued with what was, after all, an established ratings-winner. After many series, Galton and Simpson knowingly began to mine an increasingly sensitive seam of material which became classic comedy, but was very personal to the performers.

This was particularly demonstrated when Harold wished to become an actor and in scenes such as his Marlon Brando “I could have been a contender” speech in the taxi from On the Waterfront. This was capped by Brambell’s insensitive: “Is it me?” and Corbett’s anguished response: “It’s always going to be you.”

The exchange of glances between Galton and Simpson during this scene showed that all concerned were well aware how much it touched upon open wounds. In this instance the adjective “visceral” could accurately be applied to the outwardly comic exchanges they had written.

We also saw Harold leaving the local theatre being asked by a young boy brandishing an autograph book if he was an actor. Harold replied desolately that he will only ever be a rag and bone man. That one line encapsulated Harry H Corbett’s fate as a performer and perhaps the true meaning of the Curse of Steptoe. Corbett had entered into a Faustian pact; he had achieved huge international fame overnight at the cost of, what he considered, his artistic soul. Tragically, he never really seemed fully to enjoy the upside.

A couple of small moments in the piece demonstrate subtle writing. Brambell was asked if he enjoyed his holiday in Hong Kong. He confirmed he did bring back some pretty little things for the flat. Again looks were exchanged between the knowing Galton and Simpson. In the brief wordless penultimate scene we saw Brambell returning to his flat where the door was opened and he was kissed and handed a gin and tonic by a Chinese male.

Similarly, when Corbett was walking down a BBC corridor, on his way to bring the purgatory of Steptoe and Son to an end for good, he glanced at a large framed photograph on the wall of Geilgud as Hamlet, the embodiment of what his career might have been.

His subsequent terse but gentle conversation with Brambell was perfect in the way it conveyed sincere and tired resignation: “Let’s not do this anymore” to which Wilfrid simply replied “Alright”. Brambell responded to Corbett’s final “Good-bye, father” spoken in Harold’s voice with “Fuck ‘orf”, which he managed to say with a good-natured warmth entirely absent from every single one of their earlier dealings.

Although the tone of the piece was consistently bleak, one wonders if Corbett’s late fatherhood and Brambell’s companion, possibly from Hong Kong, brought happiness and contentment that was only hinted at.

Our parting impression of Harry H Corbett was a 'phone call to his agent. Neither actor had worked much since the last series. After panto’, all that was on offer was a stage version of Steptoe and Son touring Australia and they already had Wilfrid on board.

Corbett’s eyes conveyed the abject realisation that, like Harold and Albert, he and Brambell would be trapped, shackled together for all eternity. As he commented when waiting for the tardy Wilfrid to arrive at the very first read-through for the Comedy Playhouse pilot all those years ago, it was just like "Waiting for Godot".

In the end it seemed that Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell were destined to continue to play their own desperate version of Vladimir and Estragon until the final curtain came down. 

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