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Series / Steptoe and Son

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"Well, that's that, then."
"Bognor, here we come!"
—The first and last lines from the series

A classic Brit Com of the 1960s and '70s, written by famed British comedy writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, focusing on the perennial conflicts between a pair of rag-and-bone men, Harold Steptoe (Harry H. Corbett) and his elderly father Albert (Wilfrid Brambell). Airy, pretentious snob Harold has finer aspirations than riding the horse-and-cart for the rest of his life and is determined to improve himself, whilst wily, sneaky Albert is equally determined to sabotage his every effort and keep him in the family home for a good while yet.

The show was noted for being a lot more gritty and down-to-earth than most other sitcoms of the age, focusing on two obviously poor, working class and downtrodden men, with most of the humour coming from the interactions between the characters rather than farce and slapstick, and their situation providing a great deal of pathos for the two characters. Picked up from a pilot episode in the Anthology Series Comedy Playhouse, it had two runs on The BBC (1962–65 and 1970–74note ), and was adapted to radio as well as two feature films. More recently, there was a stage play called Steptoe and Son in Murder at Oil Drum Lane, in which Harold returns to the junkyard in 2005, and is confronted by the ghost of Albert.

Right after it ended, the show received an equally-beloved Foreign Remake by Norman Lear as Sanford and Son, riding off of the success of Lear's previous remake of Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family.

Came fifteenth in Britains Best Sitcom.

Provides examples of:

  • Ambulance Cut: At the climax of "Divided We Stand", as Albert and Harold are going to bed on their individual sides of the partition wall Harold has built, Harold empties the pot in which he is boiling his evening cocoa into a mug - forgetting the control for the burner he is using is on his father's side of the partition. Soon, the tea towel hanging over the burner catches fire, and the scene cuts to fire engines zooming down the road, sirens wailing.
  • Annoying Patient: In "Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs", Albert is laid up with a bad back and Harold has to do everything for him (including, to his horror, carrying him to the outside toilet). He complains endlessly about the food Harold cooks for him, insists on the television and telephone being put in his bedroom, and throws aside the books Harold brings back from the library as he has already read them (except for one which he claims not to like the look of).
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other:
    • The father/son equivalent; for all the bitterness and bickering, it was sometimes hinted that Harold and Albert really did care about each other. It's worth noting that Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell did not get along at all in real life, particularly later in their lives; much like their characters, the actors found themselves stuck with each other and having to make the best of things.note 
    • Averted rather thoroughly in the stage play. The clue is in the title.
  • Batman Gambit: In "A Perfect Christmas", Harold persuades Albert to accompany him abroad for Christmas. When they are about to catch the train to the ferry, Harold realises his own passport has expired. Albert mockingly goes on without him, only for Harold to jump into his girlfriend's car outside the station for an Albert-free Christmas.
  • Bottle Episode: Many episodes were set entirely in the Steptoe house and just featured Harold and Albert. Examples include "The Diploma" (in which Harold is studying to become a TV engineer) and "Those Magnificent Men and Their Heating Machines" (in which Harold attempts to install a full system of radiators in the house).
  • Casino Episode: "Men Of Property"
  • Catchphrase: "You dirty old man!" Parodied with Brambell's appearance as Paul McCartney's grandfather in A Hard Day's Night, where people keep saying he's a clean old man.
  • Christmas Episode:
    • Season seven's "The Party", where Harold books a Christmas holiday in Majorca, but when it's cancelled, he decides to have a Christmas party instead. The guests all refuse to come in because Harold and Albert both have chickenpox.
    • The final episode "A Perfect Christmas" focuses on Harold's last attempt to get away abroad for his Christmas Holiday, but he has a cunning plan in mind.
    • The characters also appeared in short sketches in the 1962 and 1967 editions of the BBC's annual Christmas anthology special, Christmas Night with the Stars.
  • Classically-Trained Extra: Or in this case leading characters. The loss of Harry H. Corbett (referred to as "the English Marlon Brando" at the time he was cast as Harold) to this typecasting has been described as one of the greatest losses to British theatre. The episode in which Harold tries his hand at stage acting (unsuccessfully, of course) could be seen as lampshading this.
  • *Crack!* "Oh, My Back!": Inverted in "Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs" when Albert, who has been bedridden with a bad back for the first twenty minutes of the episode, tries to get out of bed to turn the sound up on the television after Harold leaves it turned down and tells him not to ask for anything for fifteen minutes... and ends up accidentally twisting his back in a way that fixes it and returns him to full mobility. He resorts to Playing Sick so that he can force Harold to keep waiting on him.
  • Crossword Puzzle: In "Men of Letters", Albert and Harold are invited to contribute to the local church's centenary edition of the parish magazine. Harold writes an article about the rag and bone trade, while Albert provides a crossword... almost every answer for which is obscene, leading the vicar to be arrested and the magazine to be impounded and burned by the police (the copies that escaped confiscation are changing hands at high prices).
  • Dead Guy Junior: "A Death in the Family" features an animal example. After the Steptoes' horse, Hercules, dies of a heart attack at the ripe old age of 39, Harold purchases a replacement whom he names Samson... unaware that the horse is a mare, and a pregnant mare at that. Albert delivers the newly renamed Delilah's foal, and, at Harold's invitation, names him Hercules II.
  • Diagonal Billing: When Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H. Corbett argued over which of them should receive top billing ahead of the first series, the BBC compromised by alternating which of them was billed first every episode. Furthermore, whichever was billed second in the opening credits of an episode would be billed first in the closing credits.
  • Do-It-Yourself Plumbing Project: "Those Magnificent Men and Their Heating Machines" sees Harold bring a consignment of radiators, pipes, and a furnace and heat pump back to the house so that he and his father will have central heating. However, Harold insists on installing the system himself, rebuffing Albert's insistence that he should at least get someone to inspect his work before switching it on. The bizarre network of pipes snaking around and through the walls (and Albert's brass bedstead) heralds the inevitable disaster when Harold finally switches on the pump; the entire house is nearly torn apart as the radiators and pipes shake violently and spray hot water everywhere.
  • Down in the Dumps: A lot of the castoffs Albert and Harold collect on their rounds end up "decorating" their house and forecourt on a permanent basis, creating a suitably down-and-out atmosphere for the series.
  • Dumpster Dive: The rag and bone trade involved going around residential areas with a horse and cart collecting old clothes and furniture for which the owners no longer had any use, the idea being that the rag and bone men could either clean, restore, and resell them or sell them to a scrap dealer. The "mechanics" of the trade seldom feature heavily in the episodes' plots, but Harold in particular is occasionally seen riding the family horse and cart through residential areas to collect junk.
  • Economy Cast: Many of the episodes, both radio and television, solely have Harold and Albert, without any supporting characters.
  • Ensemble Dark Horse: An in-universe example occurs in "A Star is Born" when Albert is recruited at the last minute to act in a play which Harold has already been cast as the leading man. The initial rehearsal is a disaster, with Albert repeatedly misreading words in the script (not helped by "polo ponies" being mistyped as "poloponies"note ) and Harold getting Distracted by the Sexy. But the episode then cuts to the bows after opening night; the applause gets louder as Albert takes his bow, but dies out almost completely as Harold takes his (the leading lady, Nemone, is also visibly angry at Harold as she takes her bow). As if to rub salt in Harold's wound, the other cast members surprise Albert by inviting him to take a second bow.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Harold's attempts at upward mobility are invariably doomed from the start, either because he isn't as clever or as savvy as he believes himself to be or because Albert sabotages his plans (usually deliberately).
  • Family Business: Albert was originally the "Son" in "Steptoe and Son", the business having been founded by his father. Now Harold is the "Son" in the business' name.
  • Hidden Depths: A constant source of frustration for Harold is Albert's tendency to reveal himself as being skilled at something Harold himself aspires to do.
    • In "The Diploma", Harold is studying to be a TV engineer but struggles to make sense of the engineering schematics he is using to practice assembling a set; Albert looks over Harold's work and calmly explains that he has several pieces in the wrong place, and gets the set working within seconds.
    • In "A Star is Born", Harold hopes that his landing the lead role in a local amateur dramatics production will be his ticket to stardom, but after Albert is drafted to replace an unavailable cast member, he shocks Harold by affecting a flawless RP accentnote  and revealing that he made stage appearances during his service in World War I. Judging from the audience and cast reactions on the night, Albert's performance was dazzling while Harold's was disastrous.
    • In "Loathe Story", Harold has spent considerable money on badminton equipment and joined a local tennis and badminton club as a means of socialising with the upwardly mobile. He plays a game against Albert in front of their house... and discovers the difficult way that Albert was champion of his regiment when he was in the Army, and can still play a mean game. To compound Harold's embarrassment at getting thrashed, Albert goes down to the tennis and badminton club and becomes a member - and even schedules a game against an attractive female member whom Harold was hoping to woo.
  • Hollywood Dateless: Despite his weird mannerisms and his social persona making very little sense, Harold doesn't seem to have much difficulty finding dates, and some of these relationships get fairly serious. Of course they all fall apart somehow or other once the woman in question meets Albert, but still.
  • Hobo Gloves: Albert is frequently seen wearing a ratty pair of woolen fingerless gloves to emphasise the poverty and squalour in which he has lived all his life.
  • Home-Early Surprise: Used as the punchline to a rather values-dissonant episode. Harold strikes up a friendship with a man he doesn't realise is gay, which was criminalised in the UK at the time. When Harold is visiting, the friend tries to seduce him. Harold makes his excuses and, as he leaves, finds a policeman at the door. He gives a hasty excuse and runs away. The episode ends with the friend telling the policeman: "Hello Edgar. You're home early."
  • I Was Young and Needed the Money: In the episode "Porn Yesterday", Harold is excited about finding an old What the Butler Saw machine, until he recognises Albert as one of the nude actors in the film. Albert explains that he made the film because times were hard.
  • Kissing Cousins: In "Oh What A Beautiful Mourning", Harold is propositioned by his cousin Caroline at the funeral of their uncle George.
  • Kitchen Sink Drama: Well, kitchen sink comedy, anyway, but the general point stands. The characters are members of the urban working class, and both the situations and the comedy in "situation comedy" come from their struggles to make ends meet and their interactions with each other, with Harold aspiring to better things and Albert determined to sabotage his efforts so that he doesn't have to face life alone.
  • Missing Mom: Albert is a widower, and it's established that his wife died when Harold was young.
  • The Movie: Steptoe and Son (1972), Steptoe and Son Ride Again (1973).
  • Newscaster Cameo: "The Desperate Hours" features a newscast delivered by (then retired) BBC newsreader Corbett Woodall.note 
  • Oh, Crap!: Albert gets this look in "Porn Yesterday" when Harold notes that the scene in the What the Butler Saw machine he picked up on his rounds has changed to a woman in a bath, with the milkman at the door with a crate of milk and no clothes... as he knows it's only a matter of time before Harold realises that the milkman in the film is Albert himself.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Albert takes Hercules the horse's death in "A Death in the Family" especially hard, losing all interest in even getting out of bed each morning. Harold tries to rouse him by suggesting they go to the cinema to see I Am Curious (Yellow), but when even the promise of seeing uncensored Swedish sexual intercourse does not snap Albert out of his funk, Harold realises just how serious his depression is. (Fortunately, when Albert delivers the new horse's foal and names him Hercules II, he is soon back to normal - and very keen to see I Am Curious (Yellow).)
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Harold affects a very dodgy Received Pronunciation accent when he is putting on airs, whether to Albert or to someone whom he is trying to impress. When Albert inevitably gets on Harold's nerves during such scenes, Harold's anger causes him to revert to his normal accent.
  • Perpetual Poverty: One of the first British sitcoms to show characters living in this state. Quite famously, British Prime Minster Harold Wilson got a re-run scheduled for the day of the 1966 General Election moved until after the polls had closed, either to ensure that Labour voters voted rather than stayed in to watch the show, or because it might put people off voting Labour. Either way, it worked — Labour won a landslide victory.
  • Pilot: "The Offer", which originally aired as an episode of the anthology show Comedy Playhouse.
  • Playing Sick: In "Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs, Downstairs", Albert is laid up with a bad back, and Harold is forced to wait on him hand and foot. When Harold switches on the racing on television but forgets to turn on the sound (and orders Albert not to make any further requests for at least 15 minutes), Albert's attempts to get out of bed lead to him inadvertently fixing his back. Naturally, he conceals this fact from Harold so that he can keep being waited on... but Harold notices cans of lager and pink Liquorice All-Sorts mysteriously disappearing while he is out...
  • Repeated Rehearsal Failure: One episode has Harold practicing for a play and there is a line about his character owning "a string of polo ponies", however in the script the typist has rendered this as 'poloponies', and in rehearsals his father keeps pronouncing the phrase "pol-lop-pawnies" and he and Harold get into a fight about the correct way to say it. Come the night of the play, Harold manages to make that mistake on stage.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation:
    • In March 2011 the Engine Shed Theatre Company performed three episodes live on stage at the Capitol Theatre, Horsham. Jack Lane played Albert Steptoe and Michael Simmonds played Harold. The three episodes performed by the company were: "Men Of Letters", "Robbery With Violence" and "Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard". Engine Shed went on to adapt and perform the two Christmas Specials later that year.
    • Steptoe and Son by Kneehigh. Performed in 2012 and 2013 by Kneehigh Theatre, it was adapted from four of the show's original scripts. The production was designed to highlight the Beckettian nature of Albert and Harold's situation, focusing on themes of over-reliance and being trapped within social class
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Albert fully believes that his advanced age gives him the right to be rude and abrasive to almost everyone he meets. Harold gets the worst of it, but Albert is unafraid to speak his mind, however coarse it may be, in front of anyone.
  • Sir Swears-a-Lot: At the rate of 10p per swear, the contents of the swear—box, amounting to the sum of ₤80·30p, the vast majority of which were contributed by Albert. More than eight times what they have in they have in their bank & building society accounts combined!
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Where Sanford and Son was more modern and had a mix of difficult reality and heartfelt optimism, this series was gritty, cynical, and even depressing.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs:
    • One of the main conflicts of the series pits Harold's snobbish aspirations of upward mobility against Albert's slobbish acceptance of the life of dirt and poverty they already lead. Albert usually emerges victorious when the two philosophies clash.
    • "Without Prejudice" sees Harold and Albert looking to buy a suburban semi-detached house. However, the local residents are horrified at the effect rag and bone men setting up shop in their neighbourhood might have on their property prices, and try bribing them not to buy the house.
  • Sound-to-Screen Adaptation: In reverse; a radio series was adapted from the TV show.
  • Spooky Séance: Or at least one with a spooky ending in, "Seance in a Wet Rag and Bone Yard".
  • This Is My Side: "Divided We Stand" revolves around this trope. Disgusted by his father's slovenliness and refusal to re-decorate their house, Harold builds a partition wall that completely divides the house in half, with an old turnstile at the foot of the stairs so that they can reach their halves of the lounge, the kitchen, and the bedrooms. The partition is even built to divide the cooker (they get two burners each, requiring co-ordinating turning on and lighting the gas), the kitchen sink (each has a piece of string to pull the spout to his side), the dining table, the television, and the outside toilet!
  • Tragedy: Both the TV and radio series fall into the tragicomedy category - comedic moments in what would otherwise be much more sombre situations.
  • Tragic Dream: Harold's repeated, failed attempts to better himself, combined with the acting ability of both Harry H. Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell, provide some of the most tear-jerking moments in comedy.
  • Transatlantic Equivalent: Sanford and Son is based on this show. It's also a rare crossover show that was both as successful and highly regarded in its new version as the original show it was inspired from. However the character of Fred Sanford, though hardly a saint, is considerably less cruel to his son, Lamont, than Albert is towards Harold. Also, Lamont is both smarter and less pretentious than the character he's based on. Additionally, many more characters appear and the overall tone is much brighter and cheerier than this show's grimness.
  • Your Tomcat Is Pregnant: After the Steptoes' horse, Hercules, dies of a heart attack at the age of 39 in "A Death in the Family", Harold buys a new horse whom he names Samson. Samson has to be re-named Delilah after her foal is delivered by Albert (who berates Harold for not noticing that the horse was female and heavily pregnant).

Alternative Title(s): Steptoe And Son, Steptoe And Son Ride Again