Shiny Shelf

The Curse of Steptoe

By Jim Smith on 22 March 2008

I’ve only seen Harry “H” Corbett play three parts. That’s one more than most people have, and half of them can’t remember that he was the emergency lead in ‘Carry On Screaming’, called in when Sid James suffered one of his periodic bouts of ill-health.

I mention this because I’m a TV, film and theatre geek, with stacks of videos, DVDs and programmes on my ‘seen it’ list and an absurdly encyclopaedic memory to boot. In that context it’s understandable how Corbett, once the darling of the Bristol Old Vic and regarded as an actor with astonishing potential, came to resent being forever associated with Harold Steptoe despite it being one of the great roles in television history.

In ‘The Curse of Steptoe’ Jason Isaacs and Phil Davis (all hail!) successfully inhabit both the familiar personae of Harold and Albert and the less well-known private men who played them, in this neatly scripted and never self-indulgent drama. The fabulous Burn Gorman (as Ray Galton) and the perennially brilliant Roger Allam provide perfectly judged support.

If one wants to be picky, it could be pointed out that liberties are taken with both the specifics and chronology of the story of making ‘Steptoe and Son’. A discussion that took place between series three and four is moved up to fit between series five and six for no particularly apparent reason. The four-year gap between the fourth and fifth series is all but ignored. To be fair, this may be a case of scenes being moved out of their scripted order in the final edited programme – it certainly seems like it.

Regardless of this nitpicking there is – as Corbett rightly thought when he read ‘The Offer’, the first episode of ‘Steptoe’ – a tremendously powerful emotional truth to the story presented here. It’s one of class-conflict and generational conflict, of actors constrained by success and of the limitations and conservatism of early nineteen sixties British society. It’s also a compelling portrait of how one of the most successful and impressive British television series ever was made.

BBC Four has carved an interesting niche for itself making fact-based dramas like this, ‘The Chatterley Affair’, ‘Fantabulosa!’ and ‘The Lavender List’. Let’s hope they can keep it up.

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