British Situation Comedy

Steptoe and Son was the most popular situation comedy in British television history, and one of the most successful. At the height of its fame in the early 1960s it regularly topped the ratings and commanded audiences in excess of 20 million. In 1966, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson asked the BBC to delay the transmission of a repeat episode on election day until after the polls closed, because he was worried that many of his party's supporters would stay in to watch it rather than going out to vote.

Its creators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, were already well known and highly successful as the script writers for Tony Hancock. Indeed it was Hancock's decision, the most disastrous of his career, to sever his links with Galton and Simpson which brought about the birth of Steptoe and Son. The BBC offered them a series of ten separate half-hour comedies, to be cast and produced according to their wishes, which they grabbed with alacrity, keen to produce more diverse material after such a long time working with the same star.

The most successful of these, transmitted in January 1962 under the banner title of Comedy Playhouse was "The Offer", featuring a father and son firm of "totters", or rag-and-bone men. As soon as he saw it, Head of Light Entertainment Tom Sloane knew it was a natural for a whole series. Galton and Simpson resisted at first, reluctant to commit themselves to another long-term venture, but were worn down by Sloane's persistence and the fact that he was clearly right.

The first series of Steptoe and Son was transmitted in June and July 1962 and consisted of five episodes. A further three series of seven episodes each followed in the next three years. The producer of all four series was Duncan Wood.

The basic plot line of Steptoe and Son is very simple and most episodes are in some way a variation on it. Albert Steptoe is an old-time, rag-and-bone man, a veteran of the Great War, who inherited the family business of the title from his father. He is a widower and lives with his son, Harold, and together they continue the business, with Harold doing most of the work. Albert is settled in his life and his lowly position in society, but Harold has dreams of betterment. He wants to be sophisticated and to enjoy the "swinging sixties". Above all he wants to escape from his father and make a life of his own, something which Albert is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent. The comedy thus comes from the conflict of the generation gap and the interdependency of the characters. However hard he tries, we know that Harold will never get away. So, in his heart, does he and that is his tragedy. Apart from anything else, his father is by far the smarter of the two.

The success of this formula was partly the result of the universality of the theme and partly of the casting of the two leads. Galton and Simpson believed that they should cast straight actors rather than comedians and so signed up Wilfrid Brambell to play Albert and Harry H. Corbett as Harold. Between them the writers and actors created two immortal characters and some extremely poignant drama, as well as the hilarious comedy. The television correspondent of The Times wrote in 1962: "Steptoe and Son virtually obliterates the division between drama and comedy".

A typical episode would see Albert ruining Harold's plans, whether it be in love, business or cultural pursuits. In "The Bird", Harold brings home a girl, only to find his father taking a bath in the main room. In "Sunday for Seven Days" Albert ruins Harold's choice of Fellini's 8 1/2 for an evening at the cinema. His father's generally uncouth behaviour frequently provokes Harold to utter the only catchphrase of the series: an exasperated "You dirty old man!".

In 1965, Galton and Simpson decided to stop writing the show while it was still an enormous success, although radio versions were produced in the following two years and the format was introduced to American television as Sanford and Son. However, with the arrival of colour television in Britain in 1967 and increased competition in comedy from the commercial network, the BBC decided in the early 1970s to bring back some of its top comedy successes of the middle 1960s. Steptoe and Son returned in 1970 for a further four series, a total of thirty episodes, between then and 1974.


Steptoe and Son
Photo courtesy of BBC

The effectiveness of the show was in no way diminished. Indeed the familiarity of the characters allowed the show to carry on where it had left off and achieve the same quality as before. Two feature films were also made of Steptoe and Son, though without the success of the television shows.

No more shows were made after 1974 but there is a footnote to the Steptoe story. Many programmes made on videotape were wiped by the BBC for purposes of economy in the early 1970s, including virtually all of the fifth and sixth series of Steptoe and Son. However, Ray Galton had made copies from the masters on the very first domestic video format, which became the only surviving copies. In 1990 he handed them to the National Film and Television Archive which restored them to a viewable form and publicised the find with a theatrical showing. Although the technical quality was poor and they only played in black and white, the BBC transmitted a few of them to enormous success. The rest of the restored episodes were then transmitted, followed by all the black and white episodes from the 1960s, breaking the BBC's usual resistance to repeating black and white programmes.

Alas, the two leads were not around to witness the revival. Brambell died in 1985, following his screen son Corbett, who had died in 1983.

-Steve Bryant


Albert Steptoe .......................................Wilfrid Brambell
Harold Steptoe .....................................Harry H. Corbett

PRODUCERS Duncan Wood, John Howard Davies, David Craft, Graeme Muir, Douglas Argent

PROGRAMMING HISTORY 55 30-minute episodes 2 45-minute specials

7 June 1962-12 July 1962                              6 Episodes
3 January 1963-14 February 1963                   7 Episodes
7 January 1964-14 February 1964                   7 Episodes
4 October 1965-15 November 1965                 7 Episodes
6 March 1970-17 April 1970                           7 Episodes
2 November 1970-20 December 1970              8 Episodes
21 February 1972-3 April 1972                        7 Episodes
24 December 1973                              Christmas Special
4 September 1974-10 October 1974                6 Episodes
26 December 1974                              Christmas Special


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 Brambell, Wilfrid; Corbett, Harry H.; Sanford and Son