Sunday, December 4, 2011



"The Curse Of Steptoe"

Jason Isaacs

From Wikipedia:
Harry H. Corbett (28 February 1925 – 21 March 1982) was an English actor.

Corbett was best known for his starring role in the popular and long-running BBC Television sitcom 'Steptoe and Son' in the 1960s and 70s. Early in his career he was dubbed "the English Marlon Brando" by some sections of the British press.

A chance meeting with writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who had been successful with 'Hancock's Half Hour', changed Corbett's life.

And so in 1962, Corbett appeared in "The Offer", an episode of the BBC's anthology series of one-off comedy plays, 'Comedy Playhouse', written by Galton and Simpson. He played Harold Steptoe, a rag-and-bone man living with his irascible father Albert, played by Wilfrid Brambell, in a junkyard with only their horse for company.

The play was a success and a full series ran, with breaks, until 1974, when the Christmas special became the final episode. Although the popularity of 'Steptoe and Son' made Corbett a star, it ended his serious acting as he became irreversibly associated with Steptoe (even during his appearance as a lead character in "Carry On Screaming!") in the public eye. Before the series began Corbett had played Shakespeare's Richard II to great acclaim; however, when he played Hamlet in 1970 he felt both critics and audiences alike were not taking him seriously, because they could only see him as Harold Steptoe.

Production was made stressful as Brambell was an alcoholic often ill-prepared for rehearsals, forgetting his lines or movements. A tour of a 'Steptoe and Son' stage show in Australia in the late 1970s proved a disaster. Brambell drank heavily, which sometimes affected his acting. However, the two re-united in 1981 for one final performance as 'Steptoe and Son' in a commercial for Kenco coffee.

There were two 'Steptoe and Son' films: "Steptoe and Son" (1972) and "Steptoe and Son Ride Again" (1973). He also had the leading role in two other television series, 'Mr. Aitch' in 1967 (written especially for him) and 'Grundy' in 1980.

After the 'Steptoe and Son' series officially finished, he played the character again on radio (in a newly written sketch in 1979) as well as two television commercials for Ajax Soap power and one for Kenco Coffee.

Corbett also released a string of 45rpm record releases, most of which were novelty songs based upon the rag and bone character, including "Harry You Love Her" and "Junk Shop". In 1973 he also recorded an album titled "Only Authorised Employees To Break Bottles" which was a 'showcase of accents', with songs from Corbett in a range of accents including Liverpool, Birmingham, and Mancunian. Including the album, he released over 30 songs.

Corbett was a Labour Party campaigner, had appeared in a party political broadcast, and was a guest of Harold Wilson. Harold Steptoe had been Labour Party secretary for Shepherd's Bush West in the sixth series episode, "Tea for Two". In 1969 Harry appeared as Harold Steptoe in a Labour Party Political Broadcast, where Bob Mellish had to defend Harold Steptoe's accusation that all parties are the same. This was not in any way affiliated with Galton and Simpson who wrote Steptoe.

As Prime Minister, Wilson wished to have Corbett awarded an OBE, but the middle initial "H" was lost in the process and the award went to the Sooty puppeteer, Harry Corbett, instead. Both were eventually included the same New Year's Honours list on 1 January 1976.

A heavy smoker, Corbett had his first heart attack in 1979. He appeared in pantomime at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, within two days of leaving hospital. He was then badly hurt in a car accident. He appeared shortly afterwards in the BBC detective series 'Shoestring', his facial injuries obvious.

Harry H Corbett died of a heart attack in March 1982 in Hastings, East Sussex. He was 57. He is buried in the churchyard at Penhurst, East Sussex.

Corbett married twice, first to the actress Sheila Steafel, and then to Maureen Blott, who bore him two children, one of whom, Susannah Corbett, is an actress, known for the role of Ellie Pascoe in the BBC's television adaptations of Reginald Hill's 'Dalziel and Pascoe' detective novels.

He is commemorated in the name of the Corbett Theatre at the East 15 Acting School at Loughton, which was founded by Margaret Bury and Jean Newlove, two members of Theatre Workshop, where Corbett worked.


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