From rag-andbone to riches
As ed Coleman brings Harold Steptoe back to life, he tells us the character would now be a wealthy man
As part of the BBC Landmark Sitcom season, we’ve already revisited the likes of Grace Brothers’ department store and 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, home of Tony Hancock.
This week, another iconic location reopens its doors when BBC4 re-creates an episode from the fifth series of Steptoe and
Son – A Winter’s Tale – that was wiped from the archives after it was first broadcast in March 1970.
The classic comedy ended on Boxing Day 1974, so it’s been almost 42 years since we last saw frustrated rag-and-bone man Harold Steptoe (Harry H Corbett) and his cantankerous father Albert (Wilfrid Brambell) at home in Oil Drum Lane, Shepherd’s Bush. Now the pair live again in the form of Ed Coleman, who plays Harold, and Jeff Rawle, who plays Albert.
By his own admission, Ed, 36, had never watched a whole episode of the show before being cast. ‘Despite that, I felt I knew it quite naturally. Steptoe and Son is part of our fabric,’ he says, ‘but I made a conscious decision not to look at it before we started filming. Jeff and I aren’t impressionists; we tried to bring something of ourselves to the roles.’
A Winter’s Tale sees Harold wanting to go on a skiing holiday – desperate to stop Albert from coming with him. ‘Obviously, Harold can’t go about things in the normal way,’ says Ed. ‘He basically finds everything he needs on his round – from mismatched skis to a woolly jumper.’
To research the part, Ed – who’s previously enjoyed roles in Spy and Holby City – read as much as he could about Harry H Corbett and unearthed some fascinating facts. ‘Did you know that Wilfrid Brambell was just 13 years older than
Harry? And Harry put the H in his name to avoid confusion with Sooty and Sweep creator Harry Corbett?’ he asks.
As with many comedies from the 1960s and 1970s, the show – written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, now both in their eighties – was very much a product of its time. But Ed says the producers of the revamp never considered cutting out or changing any lines to make it politically correct.
‘Yes, there are a couple of lines in the episode that people would probably choose not to write these days, including a reference to “crumpet”. But it’s a period piece; a historic document, effectively. You wouldn’t change a centuries-old play, and you wouldn’t change this.’ Ed’s one regret is that he didn’t get chance to utter Harold’s catchphrase. ‘I don’t get to say, “You dirty old man”,’ he laughs. ‘I do refer to Albert as a dirty old man, but I don’t call him it to his face, unfortunately.’
After recording Steptoe and Son in front of a studio audience, the actor says he understands why the sitcom was so loved.
‘It’s almost a tragi-comedy really. Harold and Albert are stuck in this inescapable situation. They appear to hate each other, but they can’t survive without one another. Harold wants to get out of the house, but every time his ambition fails and it’s back to square one. It’s a vicious cycle.’
Despite the hardship, squalor and constant money worries that the Steptoes experience, Ed likes to think Harold would have had a happy ending.‘think about it,’ he reasons. ‘For all their poverty, they’re sitting on about 3,000 square metres of prime London real estate. There’s a point when, hopefully, their place would be redeveloped and they would become very wealthy. If Harold made it into his seventies, he’d be loaded.’
Father time: Jeff and Ed as the Steptoes
Dishing up laughs: Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell
For all their poverty, they’re sitting on about 3,000 square
metres of prime London