WILFRID BRAMBELL

British Actor

British character actor Wilfrid Brambell became nationally famous late in his career as Albert Steptoe in the BBC's most popular and successful sitcom, Steptoe and Son, although the character he played, as often throughout his career, was considerably older than he was. He was never one for starring roles, but supplied reliable support in a variety of stage, screen and television roles before Albert Steptoe thrust him into the limelight. Television appearances included a variety of parts in adaptations of classic texts, including The Government Inspector (1958), Bleak House (1959) and Our Mutual Friend (1959), all for the BBC.

Writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson wanted to use straight actors, rather than comedians, when casting the leads for their new BBC comedy Steptoe and Son in 1962. Harry H. Corbett was cast as Harold Steptoe and Wilfrid Brambell given the role of his father Albert. Over the years to follow, the actors and writers were together to develop characters which found their way into the national consciousness.

Albert Steptoe is an old-time rag-and-bone man who inherited the family business of the title from his father and now runs it with his son, Harold. Harold goes out on the cart to collect the junk, while Albert remains at home, ostensibly to run the administrative side of the business, but, in reality, to take it easy or go out to the cinema. Albert is a widower. He still has an eye for the ladies, and for the main chance, though generally espousing an old-fashioned morality. He is a veteran of the Great War and bemoans declining standards, but his own behaviour is often gross and earthy in the extreme. He rarely washes and, when he does, is liable to eat his evening meal in the bath. His language and behaviour are, in Harold's eyes in particular, uncouth, prompting the description, "You dirty old man!", the series' only catchphrase.

Wilfrid Brambell played Harold Steptoe as a grumpy old curmudgeon, capable of resorting to the most pathetic pleading to get his own way. The role of the scruffy old man could not have been further from the rather suave and cultured person Brambell was in real life.

Steptoe and Son ran for four series between 1962 and 1965. It regularly attracted audiences of over 20 million, from all sectors of society, and in 1963 a Steptoe and Son sketch was performed by Brambell and Corbett as part of that year's Royal Variety Performance. Between series and after Galton and Simpson brought it to an end, both Brambell and Corbett were in demand for movie parts because of their great popularity. Amongst Brambell's roles was that of Paul McCartney's grandfather in the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night and the White Rabbit in Jonathan Miller's 1966 television version of Alice in Wonderland.

Steptoe and Son was revived, in colour, by the BBC in 1970 and ran for another four series between then and 1974. There were also two spin-off feature films. The characters and situations had not changed--nor had the quality of writing and performance or the popularity of the show.

-Steve Bryant

 


Wilfrid Brambell
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

WILFRID BRAMBELL. Born in Dublin, Ireland, 22 March 1912. Attended schools in Dublin. Married Molly (divorced 1955). Stage debut as a child, entertaining troops during World War I, 1914; began professional acting career as an adult at the Gate Theatre, Dublin; toured with ENSA during World War II; first appearance on London stage, 1950; single appearance on Broadway, 1965; played character parts in theater and films before achieving fame as Albert Steptoe in long-running Steptoe and Son comedy series, 1964-73. Died in London, 18 January 1985.

TELEVISION SERIES

1962-65,
1964-73 Steptoe and Son

FILMS

The 39 Steps, 1935; Odd Man Out, 1946; Another Shore, 1948; Dry Rot, 1956; The Story of Esther Costello, 1957; The Salvage Gang, 1958; The Long Hot Summer, 1958; Serious Charge, 1959; Urge to Kill, 1960; The Sinister Man, 1961; Jack's Horrible Luck, 1961; Flame in the Streets, 1961; What a Whopper!, 1961; The Grand Junction Case, 1961; In Search of the Castaways, 1962; The Boys, 1962; The Fast Lady, 1962; The Small World of Sammy Lee, 1963; Crooks in Cloisters, 1963; The Three Lives of Thomasina, 1963; Go Kart Go!, 1963; A Hard Day's Night, 1964; San Ferry Ann, 1965; Alice in Wonderland, 1966; Where the Bullets Fly, 1966; Mano di Velluto, 1966; Witchfinder-General, 1968; Lionheart, 1968; Cry Wolf, 1968; The Undertakers, 1969; Carry On Again, Doctor, 1969; Some Will, Some Won't, 1970; Steptoe and Son, 1972; Steptoe and Son Ride Again, 1973; Holiday on the Buses, 1973; The Adventures of Picasso, 1978; High Rise Donkey, 1980; Island of Adventure, 1981; Death and Transfiguration, 1983; Sword of the Valiant, 1983; The Terence Davies Trilogy, 1984.

RADIO

Steptoe and Son.

STAGE (selection)

Blind Man's Buff; Stop It, Whoever You Are; The Canterbury Tales; The Ghost Train; Kelly; A Christmas Carol.

PUBLICATION

All Above Board (autobiography), London: Allen, 1976.

FURTHER READING

Burke, Michael. "You Dirty Old Man!" The People (London), 9 January 1994.

"How We Met: Ray Galton and Alan Simpson." The Independent (London), 11 June 1995.

 

See also Steptoe and Son